Israel lobby uses discredited anti-Semitism definition to muzzle debate

28 September 2012

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Israel advocates are attempting to stifle Palestine solidarity activism on US campuses. (ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Top administrators at the University of California are considering what action to take against speech and activities alleged to be anti-Semitic. As part of their discussions, the university may endorse a seven-year-old document, which — despite not having an official status — is often called the European Union’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism.

Although the administrators have indicated that their motive is to protect Jewish students, a careful examination of the definition indicates that the real agenda may be to stifle Palestine solidarity activism and criticism of Israel in the classroom.

In early July, a report commissioned by the University of California’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion was published (“U. of Calif. Weighs Banning ‘Hate’ Speech,” Forward, 2 August 2012).

The council has been co-directed by Richard Barton, national education chairman of the Anti-Defamation League — one of the most powerful groups in America’s pro-Israel lobby. Its report claims that Palestine solidarity activities were “undermining Jewish students’ sense of belonging” and creating a hostile environment.

The report’s recommendations include the adoption by the administration of a definition of anti-Semitism that could be used to “identify contemporary incidents” which would then “be sanctioned by University non-discrimination or anti-harassment policies.”

Specifically, the report mentions “a working definition of anti-Semitism” developed by “the European Union,” a reference to the 2005 draft working definition of anti-Semitism published by the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. Based in Vienna, the center has subsequently been renamed the Fundamental Rights Agency.

One of the Zionist groups to enthusiastically welcome the findings was StandWithUs, whose chief executive Roz Rothstein called the idea of a definition of anti-Semitism “one of [the report’s] most important recommendations” (“StandWithUs Welcomes UC Report On Campus Climate For Jewish Students,” 23 July 2012).

Rothstein noted the reference to “the EU’s working definition,” which she claimed “recognizes that anti-Israel extremism is a form of what is called the ‘new anti-Semitism.’”

The month after the publication of the report, at the end of August, California’s assembly passed a non-binding resolution “urging California colleges and universities to squelch nascent anti-Semitism … [and] to crack down on demonstrations against Israel” (“Calif lawmakers denounce anti-Semitism in colleges,” Associated Press, 29 August 2012).

Like the University of California report, this resolution calls on the university administration to “utilize” the EU agency’s “working definition of anti-Semitism.”

The origins of a “definition”

The story of the EU Monitoring Centre’s 2005 draft working definition of anti-Semitism, a text so enthusiastically pushed by Israel advocates in California and beyond, is not well known — but it is illuminating.

Central to the emergence of the draft working definition was Ken Stern, anti-Semitism specialist at the American Jewish Committee. According to Stern, he developed the text “along with other experts during the second half of 2004”; his version is largely identical to the one published by the EU Monitoring Centre the following year (“Proposal for a redefinition of antisemitism,” the Stephen Roth Institute, July 2005).

There are two other key figures in the backstory to the initiative. Ken Stern has credited Dina Porat, then head of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, for having “first articulated” the idea “for a common definition” (“The Working Definition - A Reappraisal,” Tel Aviv University, July 2011 [PDF]).

The other key figure is the American Jewish Committee’s Andrew Baker who, according to Stern, had “smartly developed a working relationship” with the EU Monitoring Centre’s then director Beate Winkler. Winkler was invited to address the AJC annual meeting in Washington in May 2004, where she told delegates that “the demonization of Israel and the denial of its right to exist are clearly anti-Semitic in our view” (“Confronting Anti-Semitism, Mobilizing Governments,” AJC, 9 May 2004).

According to former Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and author Antony Lerman, Baker had been in contact with Winkler following controversy about a 2003 report abandoned by the EU Monitoring Centre because of problems that included the definition of anti-Semitism used (“EU Accused of Burying Report on Antisemitism Pointing to Muslim Role,” Forward, 28 November 2003).

Baker proposed to Winkler “that she move quickly to convene a meeting of [Jewish leaders, activists and researchers]” to draft a satisfactory definition of anti-Semitism (“The Farcical Attack on the UCU For Voting Against Use of the EUMC ‘Working Definition’ of Antisemitism,’” antonylerman.com, 2 June 2011).

In Lerman’s account, “[Baker] knew that those invited to the meeting would need to be broadly sympathetic to the concept of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ and … he was able to determine who attended.”

During a conference in Israel in October 2004, informal discussions about the definition took place involving, according to Ken Stern, a number of individuals that included the UK lobby group Community Security Trust’s Michael Whine, Jeremy Jones of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and other figures from American Jewish Committee or the Stephen Roth Institute (Stern relates what took place at the 2004 meeting in this transcript of papers from a conference at Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry).

As the text of the draft working definition moved towards a final version, Stern refers to “a very exhausting meeting” between Winkler, the Community Security Trust’s Michael Whine, and three American Jewish Committee staff — Stern himself, Baker and Deidre Berger. Whine has also given accounts of this process, referring to “final draft negotiations” involving “representatives of the American Jewish Committee and European Jewish Congress” (“Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Diplomatic Progress in Combating Anti-Semitism,” Community Security Trust [PDF]).

Subtlety of a mallet

Since its publication, the definition has been repeatedly cited by pro-Israel advocacy groups to attack Palestine solidarity activism, and used — in the words of Ken Stern himself, in the aforementioned Kantor Center’s conference program — “with the subtlety of a mallet.”

Israel lobbyists have often misrepresented the nature of the text and its contents. The Anti-Defamation League’s Richard Barton, an author of the University of California “campus climate” report, has tried to convey the impression that the draft text has an official status by calling it the EU’s definition of anti-Semitism (“Protests must not stray into anti-Semitism,” San Francisco Chronicle, 23 August 2012).

A working group on “combating Anti-Semitism” at the Israeli government’s 2009 Global Forum gathering, chaired by the Community Security Trust’s Michael Whine, described the draft definition as “the European Union’s own definition of anti-Semitism.”

The definition has been invoked in a number of cases in bids to muzzle Palestine solidarity activism and speech, particularly on campus. Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual series of awareness-raising activities in universities throughout the world, has been singled out for special attention.

In February this year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Zionist organization based in Los Angeles, asked the French interior ministry “to cancel the ‘Israel Apartheid’ conference at the University of Paris VIII and anywhere else in France,” claiming the week was “a clear violation of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency’s working definition of anti-Semitism” (“Cancel ‘Israel Apartheid’ conference at Paris university as threat to public order and a danger to the Jewish community,” Simon Wiesenthal Center, 15 February 2012).

A conference promoting a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine situation at Harvard University in March was described in an article published by the Zionist group Committee for Accuracy and Fairness in Middle East Reporting in America as “an exercise in anti-Semitism” according to “the working definition of anti-Semitism” (“Harvard to Host Conference Promoting Israel’s Destruction,” 17 February 2012).

NGO Monitor — a Zionist group which regularly smears human rights organizations — has put it equally bluntly: “campaigns that single out Israel explicitly violate the European Union working definition of anti-Semitism” (“Protestors Rebuffed in Call For TIA-CREF Anti-Settlements Boycott,” The Jewish Week, 20 July 2011).

Richard Cravatts, current president of the pro-Israel national academic watchdog group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, believes that it has become “more difficult” for “Jew-haters” on campus to defend themselves from the charge of anti-Semitism, citing approvingly the “significant” working definition (“ Antisemitism and the Campus Left,” Journal for the Study of Antisemitism , Vol. 3:2801 [PDF]).

No longer “working”

The reality, however, is quite different. Not only has the Israel lobby exaggerated and misrepresented the working definition, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency itself has quietly left it on a shelf.

In 2005, the year the document was published, the then-European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia indicated that there would be a review process after data-collecting organizations in EU countries had given “feedback regarding their views on its functionality.” Three years later, the Fundamental Rights Agency informed the UK government that “initial feedback and comments drew attention to several issues that impacted on the effectiveness of the definition as a data collection support tool” (“All-Party Inquiry into Anti-Semitism: Government Response, One Year On Progress Report,” United Kingdom government, 12 May 2008 [PDF]).

This writer asked Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos, head of the Fundamental Rights Agency’s Equality and Citizens’ Rights Department, for clarification.

He said that during discussions of racism and xenophobia monitors throughout the EU “it became evident that there was no interest by primary data collectors to adopt or use” the working definition. He also confirmed that the Fundamental Rights Agency “will not follow-up [the draft working definition] any further,” adding that the body “has no legal competence to develop itself any such ‘definitions.’”

This statement by the Fundamental Rights Agency confirms what those who have studied the issue carefully had already surmised. David Feldman, director of the London-based Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, told me that “the EUMC [European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia] working definition was never, so far as I understand it, an official EUMC line.” The Fundamental Rights Agency, he pointed out, “appears to be taking a different approach and has commissioned a survey that focuses on Jews’ perceptions and experiences of anti-Semitism.”

Brian Klug, a senior research fellow at Oxford University who has followed the surrounding debate closely, concurs.

“First, the document was never endorsed by the EUMC [European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia] nor by its successor, the FRA [Fundamental Rights Agency],” he said. “Second, it is more a discussion paper than a definition. Third, as far as I know it is not ‘working’ — either in the sense of there being plans on the part of the FRA to revise it or in the sense of law enforcement agencies in Europe putting it to work.”

Interestingly, supporters of the working definition have on occasion admitted the reality.

Speaking in Washington last December, the American Jewish Committee’s Andrew Baker acknowledged that the document “still meets with some opposition, including from the EUMC’s successor organization” — before revealingly adding: “thus it bears repeating whenever possible” (Transcript: Hearing — Combatting anti-Semitism in the OSCE region: Taking stock of the situation today,” Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe, 2 December 2011).

In 2010, the Community Security Trust’s Michael Whine said that the Fundamental Rights Agency “does not even notify” partner organizations in EU countries that the definition exists, “let alone ask them to use it,” according to the Kantor Center’s conference program, referenced earlier.

Smears

Pro-Israel groups’ use of the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s definition has taken place in the wider context of the Israeli government’s efforts to attack the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Of particular note here is the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, because of the overlap between its participants and those involved in designing and pushing the working definition (and because it is run by the Israeli foreign ministry).

At the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism conference in 2007, for example, working groups addressed topics like “academic and economic boycotts: pre-emptive strategies” in Western Europe, and “means of response to hostile faculty and student bodies” under the bracket of “anti-Semitism in the academy” (“Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism to hold conference,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 8 February 2007).

At the 2009 conference, chaired by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a working group on tackling BDS was convened.

The group described BDS as “traditional bigotry,” and talked about a “five year plan” that included implementing “legislative prohibitions vs. BDS,” taking into account “different legal traditions” (see document produced at the conference) .

The real story of the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s draft working definition highlights the lengths to which some will go to undermine those supporting the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights.

The current focus on the University of California is an important opportunity to resist the implementation of a “definition” that would undoubtedly have an impact on ability of students and faculty to speak about and act on behalf of Palestinian rights — and only impair the fight against genuine anti-Jewish racism.

Ben White’s latest book Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy is published by Pluto Press.