The UN must not adopt the IHRA definition

Hasan Ben Imran & Nicola Perugini

Al-Jazeera  /  May 2, 2023

This would be detrimental not only to United Nations agencies, but also to the global human rights regime.

In May 2016, 31 member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) gathered in the Romanian capital Bucharest to adopt a “working definition of anti-Semitism”, reportedly upon Israel’s request. The group endorsed a definition – since then known as the IHRA definition – accompanied by 11 “contemporary examples of anti-Semitism”, seven of which relate to Israel and a few to legitimate criticism of discriminatory Israeli policies in Palestine.

In the past seven years, there has been an active campaign encouraging governments and public institutions to adopt and use the definition. Instead of helping combat anti-Semitism, however, the definition has been weaponized against critics of Israel and its settler-colonial apartheid.

Worse still, it has crept onto university campuses, threatening freedom of speech and thought in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Even the lead author of the definition has warned against its use in academia.

Flanked by politically motivated groups, Israel is now lobbying the United Nations to adopt this definition. If the UN were to do so, this would have grave consequences for the international body itself, for the international human rights regime more broadly and for the fight against anti-Semitism.

The impact of the IHRA definition

In recent years, governments and institutions in the West have been eagerly adopting the IHRA definition, which is already having negative repercussions on freedom of speech, freedom of thought, human rights work and academia.

The European Union has thrown its full weight behind legitimizing and promoting the definition, with the European Commission making it a priority.

Apart from adoptions at a national level, the EU has issued a series of declarations entrenching its support for the definition. To promote its implementation across multiple policy spheres, the Commission has published a “handbook for the practical use” of the IHRA definition.

The EU conceives the IHRA definition as a useful “tool in education and training, including for law enforcement authorities in their efforts to identify and investigate antisemitic attacks more efficiently and effectively”.

This very deep level of institutional investment in the IHRA definition has contributed to the already existing trends of delegitimizing criticism of Israeli policies and practices, self-censorship, and anti-Palestinian racism.

The IHRA definition has been increasingly instrumentalized against human rights defenders, civil society and student groups, scholars and journalists criticizing Israel.

It has affected even organizations dealing with anti-Semitism. For example, in 2020, European Jews for a Just Peace – a coalition of progressive Jewish-Palestinian groups – alleged that the European Commission refused to admit them to a working group on anti-Semitism that it had organized. The coalition is openly critical of the Israeli occupation and rejects the IHRA definition.

In January, a written response by the European Commission to an inquiry made by members of the European Parliament implied that a report by Amnesty International defining Israeli rule over the Palestinians as apartheid was anti-Semitic.

Journalists have also suffered from the ubiquitous application of the IHRA definition in the EU. In Germany, for example, Palestinian and Arab journalists have been censored without any valid reason. Last year, German state-owned broadcaster Deutsche Welle fired seven Arab journalists, accusing them of anti-Semitism following an investigation of their social media posts that applied the IHRA definition.

The US government has also embraced the IHRA definition. Following a quiet adoption by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2018, former President Donald Trump’s 2019 executive order instructed government agencies to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Acts on college campuses and use the IHRA definition as guidance on anti-Semitism.

This facilitated on-campus attacks against students and faculty, including a recent complaint against Lara Sheehi, a psychology professor at George Washington University, which was ultimately dismissed by the university after its internal investigation.

The US Department of State has also adopted the definition. In 2020, it reportedly went as far as considering an “anti-Semitic” label for groups like Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

Canada’s adoption of the IHRA definition has also had far-reaching consequences. Last year, the Department of Canadian Heritage announced it was planning to require those who apply for its funding to sign an attestation that they will not undermine Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy which makes a clear reference to the IHRA definition.

This sets a very dangerous precedent in Canada that may spread to other agencies. It would not only shield Israel from criticism, but also alienate and marginalize the Palestinian and Arab minorities who support the Palestinian cause. Recognizing the dangerous impact this move may have, more than 30 Canadian groups including Amnesty International Canada and Independent Jewish Voices petitioned the department to drop the IHRA definition from funding requirements.

In the UK, government funding for universities has been tied to institutional support for the IHRA definition, which has been used in several universities to suppress free speech and fuel smear campaigns against pro-Palestinian staff members.

In 2021, Professor Somdeep Sen, who was invited to give a book talk at the University of Glasgow, was asked to provide in advance his slides and information on the talk’s content. Given that his book is about Palestine, scholars raised concern that the incident reflected the encroachment of the IHRA definition – which the university had adopted – on the freedom of speech.

In 2022, Dr Shahd Abusalama, a Palestinian lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, was investigated for her Twitter posts after she was accused of anti-Semitism. Many saw in her ordeal the far reach of the IHRA definition, too.

The UN and the global struggle against IHRA

The “success” of the IHRA definition in enabling harassment of pro-Palestinian voices has encouraged the Israeli government to step up its promotion.

It has now launched a campaign spearheaded by Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan to pressure the body into adopting it.

Besides scolding the UN for “ignoring its purpose” in the fight against anti-Semitism, Ambassador Erdan has invoked the IHRA definition in his relentless attacks against the main UN actors promoting the fundamental rights of the Palestinians: the Human Rights Council, the Commission of Inquiry, the Special Rapporteur on Palestine and UNRWA, the UN organization for Palestinian refugees.

Let us be clear: a UN adoption of the IHRA definition would do tremendous harm first and foremost to the UN itself. The definition could then conveniently be weaponized as a UN standard against UN officials and bodies that criticize Israel.

Moreover, if the definition is validated as a global standard for fighting anti-Semitism, this would lead to many more violations of free speech and democratic rights than what we have witnessed so far.

Ultimately, this would simultaneously weaken the fight for justice in Palestine and the fight against anti-Semitism. Combatting anti-Jewish hatred would be heavily undermined by the political efforts to link it almost exclusively to Israel and legitimate criticism of its policies against the Palestinians.

Fortunately, the IHRA definition has been encountering growing opposition at the UN itself. In October 2022, the Special Rapporteur on Racism published a report sharply criticizing the IHRA definition due to the “harm done to human rights resulting from its instrumentalization”, calling on states to “suspend [its] adoption and promotion”.

A few weeks later, 128 leading scholars in anti-Semitism and related fields urged the UN not to adopt the IHRA definition. Most recently, more than 100 civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups, conveyed the same message to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: don’t adopt the IHRA definition.

Such counter-pressure is also relevant in anticipation of an “action plan” on combatting anti-Semitism, which the UN is currently preparing.

More than anything else, the IHRA definition shields Israel from international criticism and accountability for the regime of racial discrimination and repression it has established between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The definition has become a crucial battlefield in the global struggle against settler colonial apartheid – and must be rejected and retracted.

Hassan Ben Imran is a board member of Law for Palestine and an author focusing on international law, Palestine-Israel, and on Middle Eastern Affairs

Nicola Perugini is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh; he is the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate (OUP 2015) and Human Shields – A History of People in the Line of Fire (2020)