Campaigners go on offensive against bogus UK anti-Semitism definition

A controversial “working definition” of anti-Semitism adopted by the UK’s Conservative government “has no legal status,” according to a human rights lawyer.

Palestine solidarity campaigners say the definition and an accompanying document lump together legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Prime Minister Theresa May announced the government’s formal approval of the definition in December, following a parlimentary report in October.

But a new analysis by human rights lawyer Hugh Tomlinson, says that public authorities in the UK are under no legal obligation to adopt the “unclear and confusing” definition.

The definition was originally drawn up by pro-Israel lobbyists as part of an exercise coordinated by a European Union agency in Vienna. Although the definition was never formally endorsed by the EU, it was subsequently taken on board – with minor amendments – by an intergovernmental body called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

An explanatory document accompanying the definition cites several “examples” of what “could” be considered anti-Semitism. They include stating “that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Since the UK government’s “adoption” of the definition, anti-Palestinian activists have promoted it aggressively. They have claimed that some criticisms of Israel are now outlawed.

Tomlinson’s analysis was recently discussed at a meeting in the House of Lords – part of the UK Parliament.

The government’s “adoption of the IHRA definition has no legal status or effect and, in particular, does not require public authorities to adopt this definition as part of their anti-racism policies,” Tomlinson states.

The definition “does not have the clarity which would be required” from a legal definition of anti-Semitism, according to his analysis.

This fact seems to have already been recognized by some experts.

Rejected by experts

David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London, has called the definition “bewilderingly imprecise” and the accompanying explanatory document dangerous because they may “place the onus on Israel’s critics to demonstrate they are not anti-Semitic.”

Valerie Amos director of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London told the BBC last month that that college would not be adopting the “contentious” definition.

The decision not to approve the definition was based on advice from the Centre for Jewish Studies at SOAS, Amos added.

Tomlinson’s analysis states that any public body choosing to adopt the definition must interpret it in a manner consistent with its legal obligation to protect freedom of speech.

In law, the examples accompanying the IHRA definition are not binding either. “The conduct listed is only anti-Semitic if it manifests hatred towards Jews,” Tomlinson states.

Tomlinson’s analysis states that absent evidence of hatred of Jews, “it would not be anti-Semitic to assert that as Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and thereby by race, and that because non-Jewish Israelis and non-Jews under its jurisdiction are discriminated against, the State of Israel is currently a racist endeavor.”

The analysis – also called a legal opinion – is the first step towards a test case challenging ways the IHRA document has been misused to prevent Palestine campaigners from holding meetings.

It was commissioned by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and three Jewish-led groups.

False anti-Semitism allegation

The House of Lords event heard of ways the IHRA definition has been used to chill legitimate freedom of speech since December.

In March, members of the UK Labour Party in Hampstead and Kilburn – an area in north London – were barred from discussing a call for an investigation into Israeli interference in British politics.

Peter Taheri, chairperson of the Labour branch in Hampstead and Kilburn, argued that the discussion had to be halted on grounds of “anti-Semitism.”

A motion blocked for discussion had cited an Al Jazeera documentary – broadcast in January – on the activities of Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel lobbyists in London.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, had called for an investigation into revelations that Israeli embassy officer Shai Masot had expressed a desire to “take down” a senior government minister.

But Taheri claimed the motion constituted “anti-Semitism” because the government and the Labour Party leader “have adopted the definition of anti-Semitism” from the IHRA.

Taheri did not reply to a request for comment.

Both Taheri’s statement and the motion he rejected can be read in full below.

Asked about Taheri’s allegations, a spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn said: “Jeremy is appalled by and condemns anti-Semitism in all its forms. Jeremy has called for an inquiry into the extent of improper interference following the Al Jazeera documentary.”

Corbyn supports the two-sentence IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, his spokesperson confirmed. The spokesperson declined to comment on the accompanying explanatory document and the “examples” of anti-Semitism contained in it.

“On the offensive”

In his analysis, Tomlinson makes a distinction between the actual IHRA definition and the examples of alleged anti-Semitism.

Tomlinson argues that those who regard the definition and the explanatory document as the same thing are “mistaken.”

That analysis challenges the position taken by the British government, which has indicated that it views the definition and the accompanying examples as inseparable. A similar interpretation has been taken by a number of other institutions.

For example, the University of Central Lancashire canceled an Israeli Apartheid Week event in February, incorrectly claiming that the new definition meant the planned event “would not be lawful.”

The cancellation was part of a wave of repression in the UK which unsuccessfully attempted to shut down Israeli Apartheid Week in 2017.

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said that the lobby group We Believe in Israel had in January written to every council in the UK telling them they should adopt the definition, saying it was “endorsed by the Labour Party” and the government.

In an email obtained by The Electronic Intifada, We Believe in Israel director and right-wing Labour activist Luke Akehurst states: “The definition is very specific about which forms of extreme anti-Israel discourse cross a line and are anti-Semitic.”

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign is circulating Tomlinson’s paper among public authorities across the UK, according to Jamal.

“We intend to go on the offensive,” said Naomi Wayne of Jews For Justice For Palestinians.

Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, a lawyer and consultant for the Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq, said that a successful test case was the best way to protect free speech on Palestine.

She said: “Banning Palestinian activities needs to be shown to be a costly undertaking.”


Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London. He is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and co-host of our podcast.

He is author of the bestselling book Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2023).