Antisemitism and Criticism of Israel

Words by David Feldman. 

The war in Gaza reverberates globally.  One consequence is renewed controversy over when criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights becomes antisemitic. This debate has been crystallized by two definitions of antisemitism: the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. Both definitions agree that it is antisemitic to attribute sweeping negative generalizations to Jews as a group. They also agree that discrimination and violence that targets Jews as Jews, or Jewish institutions as Jewish, is antisemitic. However, differences arise when the documents address the relationship between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. 

In the UK the government has underlined its opposition to antisemitism and points to universities as a significant source of the problem.  In his autumn statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a grant of £7m to promote education on antisemitism with the largest portion directed to universities. Separately, the government has committed to revoke the visas of international students found inciting racial hatred, to strengthen support for Jewish students, and to establish an ‘antisemitism charter’ under which HEIs would secure recognition by demonstrating their active commitment to tackle antisemitism by taking steps such as adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA] working definition of antisemitism

Without doubt, these initiatives address a real problem. Since Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7th 2023 and Israel’s attack on Gaza there has been a sharp increase in antisemitic incidents and hate crimes, some of them at British universities. This reality makes it all the more regrettable that the government’s approach to the problem is flawed. By conflating antisemitism with legitimate support for the rights of Palestinians and with criticism of Israel, ministers not only isolate the campaign against antisemitism from potential allies but also undermine academic freedom and freedom of speech.  

A central facet of this problem is the government’s reliance on the IHRA working definition of antisemitism as its ‘go-to’ resource. After this ‘non-legally binding’ document  was embraced by the UK government in November 2016 a succession of ministers urged universities to adopt it. The vast majority of Vice-Chancellors resisted until Gavin Williamson, when Secretary of State for Education, threatened punitive sanctions. With their arms twisted most have now fallen into line. 

The IHRA working definition is the subject of fierce controversy. It has sown division among people who should be allies on account of their opposition to antisemitism. The word antisemitism entered common language roughly 140 years ago, first of all in Germany.  Jews had recently won equal rights not only in that country but across Europe. The word antisemitism referred specifically to the attack that was being made on the Jews’ new-won equality. From the beginning, therefore, the campaign against antisemitism was a campaign for equal rights, and it remained so for more than a century. The IHRA working definition, by contrast, is one expression of a more recent tendency which aims to shift the meaning of antisemitism by merging the struggle of Jewish people for equality with the interests of the state of Israel. 

In order to understand how this works we have to examine the text itself. This features 11 examples which, we are told, could be antisemitic “taking into account the overall context”. Some of these examples are helpful. One highlights the prejudice that Jews control the media, the economy and other social institutions. Another points out that criticism of Israel is antisemitic when it holds “Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel’. In other words, the working definition asserts that it is antisemitic to target Jews living outside of Israel as proxies for Israel simply because they are Jews. 

But elsewhere the IHRA working definition goes further and aims to defend Israel itself.  It asserts antisemitism encompasses, ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’. What this seems to be saying, in a muddled and imprecise way, is that if you say that Zionism is racism and should be dismantled you are therefore antisemitic. 

This is dangerous because it encompasses positions that are factually correct and politically egalitarian. Since its birth Israel has systematically discriminated against its Palestinian population. Today Israel denies equality to Palestinians both within and beyond the country’s legal borders.  It is not difficult to see why Israel might be labelled ‘a racist endeavour’. In face of this reality, some activists and academics argue that a one-state or federal solution is the best means to achieve equality for Jews and Palestinians. We don’t have to take a view on the merits and demerits of their proposals to see that they should not be tarred as antisemitic. Yet this is what the IHRA working definition does. This is just one point (and there are others) where the IHRA working definition contorts the customary meaning of antisemitism. Far from supporting equal rights, it promotes the cause of inequality. 

This problem is magnified by two other factors. First, the UK government has adopted the working definition as ‘a non-legally binding definition’. This enables it to impose the definition on universities without democratic deliberation or legislative clarification. Second, a wide range of actors – Israel, advocacy groups and individuals – abuse the working definition by frequently casting aside the important caveat that we must assess cases ‘taking into account the overall context’. Once this happens the dangers inherent in the IHRA working definition are heightened: its examples are no longer invoked as guidelines which require careful assessment but as so many boxes ready to be ticked. 

This has had palpable consequences for British universities, as the recent report co-authored by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies demonstrates. The IHRA working definition has been used to target university staff and students with false accusations of antisemitism. We know the accusations are false because none have been upheld. Nevertheless, as the report documents, false accusations have led to the cancellation of meetings and to spurious conditions being placed on the format of events. These outcomes have a double impact. First, they illustrate the working definition’s adverse effect on academic freedom and freedom of speech. Second, the cases reverberate, creating uncertainty, fear, and a climate of inhibition which further undermine the sort of vigorous debate which form part of a university’s raison d’être.   

There is an alternative. Published in March 2021 the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism  was drawn up by a group of academics (of which I was a member) and has since been signed by 350 scholars in Jewish Studies, Antisemitism Studies and related fields,  many of them leading experts. Our aim was to build a definition of antisemitism on the basis of universal human rights and anti-racist principles. 

The JDA defines antisemitism as ‘prejudice, discrimination, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews’. Its focus is on protecting the rights of all Jews to full equality, not the interests of a state.  At the same time, the Jerusalem Declaration holds open a critical space for discussion and debate: it helps us to distinguish between cases where criticism of Israel qualifies as antisemitism and where it does not. For example, as the JDA makes clear, we may oppose or support the movement to boycott Israel but, as the JDA makes clear, it is not in itself antisemitic. Similarly, it is not antisemitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants “between the river and the sea,” whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.  

The document is not a hate-speech code but is intended to educate and raise awareness about when speech or conduct is antisemitic (and when it is not). In this way the JDA is particularly appropriate for universities. Those universities which have already adopted the IHRA working definition can use the JDA alongside it, so it can help them sustain academic freedom at the same time as they guard against antisemitism. 

By upholding universal principles, the Jerusalem Declaration contributes to an inclusive strategy which aims to combine struggles against antisemitism with those against Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination and intolerance. Ultimately, our attempts to combat antisemitism will be more effective within this universalist context. The JDA points the way to a response to antisemitism which is good for Jews as well as better for universities.

 

David Feldman is Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and a Professor of History, at Birkbeck, University of London.