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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
She said: “Banning Palestinian activities needs to be shown to be a costly undertaking.”
- International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance
- Labour Party
- Jeremy Corbyn
- Theresa May
- Home Affairs Select Committee
- Hugh Tomlinson
- Free Speech on Israel
- Palestine Solidarity Campaign
- Jews for Justice for Palestinians
- Independent Jewish Voices
- Salma Karmi-Ayyoub
- Ben Jamal
- European Union
- David Feldman
- Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism
- Valerie Amos
- School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
- House of Lords
- Peter Taheri
- Shai Masot
- University of Central Lancashire
- We Believe in Israel
- Luke Akehurst
- Naomi Wayne