The Electronic Intifada / April 20, 2021
Should criticism of the State of Israel and the political ideology of Zionism be labeled anti-Semitic?
This question has been debated in company board rooms, university administrations, government legislatures and, now, the headquarters of Facebook.
The IHRA working definition has been used to shape laws and policies in 30 US states, numerous universities, governments and other organizations around the world. The US State Department adopted the definition and a department official recently affirmed the Biden administration’s support.
Early in February this year, Jewish Voice for Peace and 50 partner organizations launched a global campaign urging Facebook not to add the word “Zionist” as a protected category in its company’s hate speech policy.
The IHRA definition has had a chilling effect on criticism of the State of Israel’s laws and practices affecting the lives of the millions of Palestinians living under its rule.
Facebook posts critical of Israel’s occupation have already been labelled as unacceptable speech and taken down.
Jewish Voice for Peace’s petition with some 57,000 signatories was personally delivered to Facebook offices in 17 cities around the world.
The petition asserts that “we cannot dismantle anti-Semitism if we are blocked from voicing our opinions and sharing our experiences with each other.”
“We ask Facebook to not erect barriers impeding users from connecting with each other as we engage in this work,” the petition adds.
The only public statement that Facebook has made was in response to a reporter’s inquiry for The Verge. A spokesperson for the social media platform denied that there are plans to include the word in its hate speech policy.
Facebook added: “Just as we do with all of our policies regularly, we are independently engaging with experts and stakeholders to ensure that this policy is in the right place, but this does not mean we will change our policy.”
Consensus broken down
Until recently, there was broad agreement about what constitutes hate speech and acts of hate directed at Jews and the Jewish people. It’s captured in what the IHRA defines as its “non-legally binding working definition”:
“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
But that consensus, writes Antony Lerman, former director of Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research, “had clearly broken down by the first years of the 21st century, almost entirely over the issue of Israel-Palestine and how far anti-Israel rhetoric can be defined as anti-Semitism.”
Hence, the IHRA added to its definition a list of “manifestations” and “contemporary examples.” These descriptors are at the heart of the current debate.
Critics of the definition’s codification in law and policies make two related arguments: one, that the wording of the examples is confusing; another, that they can be misused to censor advocacy for Palestinian rights.
In their academic reviews of the IHRA definition, Peter Ullrich and Rebecca Ruth Gould decry the increase in anti-Semitic incidents. But each cautioned against its use and both offer a negative assessment.
In his report, Ullrich – a fellow at the Centre for Research of Antisemitism at Technische Universität Berlin – concludes that the definition is “inconsistent, contradictory and formulated very vaguely. It therefore does not satisfy the requirements of a good definition.”
Ullrich adds that the “weaknesses of the ‘Working Definition’ are the gateway to its political instrumentalization, for instance for morally discrediting opposing positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict with the accusation of anti-Semitism.”
In her 2020 article printed in The Political Quarterly, Gould, professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Birmingham, points to two phrases in the document that are most contentious: “self‐determination” and “racist endeavour.”
The first term, Gould argues, ignores many legitimate reasons for denying self‐determination to Jews and others, “such as an aversion to nationalism.”
The description of the State of Israel as “a racist endeavour,” she states, could be an expression of anti-Semitism, but “it is not per se anti-Semitic to call Israel a racist endeavour.”
Moderating hate speech
The civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation states that “hateful speech presents one of the most difficult problems of content moderation. At a global scale, it’s practically impossible.”
The group describes the challenges with which Facebook has to contend: defining hateful speech with necessary specificity on a global platform with billions of users; outsourcing the work of discerning nuance and context “to low-paid workers at third-party companies or worse: to automated technology.”
Ultimately, the fact that the company is in the position to make such a decision with such far-reaching free speech implications is a problem.
Hopefully, Facebook will not limit yet another nuanced term that it lacks the capacity to moderate fairly. In any case, Facebook must ensure that its rules are transparent and that users have the ability to appeal – to a human moderator – any decisions that are made.
Jeff Wright is a global service worker appointed to Kairos Palestine by the Board of Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ