Approach new definition of anti-Semitism with caution, Palestinians say

People stand holding banners

Israel lobby groups have attempted to brand some support for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic. Will a new definition of anti-Jewish bigotry help change that?

Mahmoud Ajjour APA images

A new definition of anti-Semitism has been released, aiming to clarify and “improve” a widely discredited interpretation that has inhibited and threatened advocacy for Palestinian rights.

But Palestinian and Jewish civil society groups are urging human rights campaigners to approach the declaration with caution.

The Jerusalem Declaration on anti-Semitism, signed by more than 200 scholars, is offered as an alternative to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates criticism of Israel and its state ideology, Zionism, with hatred of Jews.

In the effort to shield Israel from criticism, Israel lobby groups and associated individuals in Europe, Canada and the US have pushed lawmakers and university administrations to adopt the IHRA definition with some success.

But there has been steady pushback by advocates for human rights and free speech.

The new declaration states that anti-Semitism should be defined as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews” and asserts that criticism of Zionism, opposition to Israel’s apartheid and settler-colonial system, and support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign are not anti-Semitic.

But while the new definition “can be instrumental in the fight against the anti-Palestinian McCarthyism and repression that the proponents of the IHRA definition” have intentionally promoted, the Jerusalem declaration “excludes representative Palestinian perspectives,” states the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC).

Along with the declaration’s “unfortunate title and most of its guidelines, it is focused on Palestine/Israel and Zionism, unjustifiably reinforcing attempts to couple anti-Jewish racism with the struggle for Palestinian liberation, and therefore impacting our struggle,” the coalition group adds.

The exclusion of Palestinian perspectives, they say, points to “an omission that is quite telling about asymmetric relations of power and domination and how some liberals still try to make decisions that deeply affect us, without us.”

This new definition “risks reinforcing the impulse to decide for Palestinians and their allies what is acceptable to say about Israel and Palestinians’ lived experiences,” stated Palestine Legal director Dima Khalidi.

Additionally, the declaration fails to properly identify white supremacists and extremist right-wing groups as those primarily responsible for anti-Semitic violence.

This “inadvertently lets the far right off the hook,” the BNC warns, “despite a brief mention” in the declaration’s list of frequently asked questions.

Welcoming with caution

Corey Balsam of Independent Jewish Voices Canada stated on Thursday that the JDA could serve “as a useful tool for governments and institutions who are serious about combating anti-Semitism, rather than simply scoring points with the Israeli government and pro-Israel lobby groups.”

However, Balsam cautioned that the declaration’s focus on Israel-Palestine “risks contributing to the intense policing of discourse” and distracts “from the real dangers we face as Jews today from white supremacists and the far right.”

“It is regrettable that more than a year’s worth of intellectual time and energy had to be spent on this initiative, which risks further classifying speech concerning Jews as a ‘special case’ that requires its own set of guidelines,” writes Barry Trachtenberg, a scholar and signatory of the declaration, in Jewish Currents.

Trachtenberg is also a member of the academic advisory board at Jewish Voice for Peace.

“However, the damage done by the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is profound. It has restricted reasonable debates about Israel and done nothing to lessen anti-Semitism. It must be stopped in its tracks,” he adds.

This week, Palestine Legal published an online interactive toolkit to track the evolution and implementation of the IHRA and document how Palestinian rights advocates have been impacted.

In 2020, state and federal lawmakers introduced more than 20 measures “aimed at silencing, condemning, or punishing advocacy for Palestinian rights,” the civil rights group reports. Those measures included bills condemning the BDS campaign as well as promotion of the IHRA definition.

Of the hundreds of incidents of suppression to which Palestine Legal responded in 2020, 66 percent included false accusations of anti-Semitism.

Widespread efforts to promote the IHRA definition “may have played a role in an uptick in false and politically motivated accusations of anti-Semitism against supporters of Palestinian rights,” Palestine Legal states.

Whose rights?

Another major critique of the declaration by Palestinian rights campaigners is over language that could prioritize the rights of Israeli settlers over Palestinians.

While the Jerusalem Declaration upholds “the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil and human rights, as encapsulated in international law,” it also defines “Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality” as an act of anti-Semitism.

Here, the BNC notes that this alarmingly fails “to fully uphold the necessary distinction between hostility to or prejudice against Jews on the one hand and legitimate opposition to Israeli policies, ideology and system[s] of injustice on the other.”

The declaration signals that it would be anti-Semitic to deny Jewish Israeli settlers the “right” to replace Palestinians on ethnically cleansed land, the BNC warns.

“Should Palestinian refugees be denied their UN-stipulated right to return home in order not to disturb some assumed ‘collective Jewish right’ to demographic supremacy?” the group adds.

“What about justice, repatriation and reparations in accordance with international law and how they may impact certain assumed ‘rights’ of Jewish Israelis occupying Palestinian homes or lands?”

Most importantly, the Palestinian coalition group says, “what does any of this have to do with anti-Jewish racism?”




If this can displace the IHRA definition, so much to the good. However, there needs to be a minimalist principle applied: how can we minimally define racism so that it applies to every case? "Racism is hatred of and negative prejudice towards individuals or groups on the basis of their putative racial characteristics." Something like that, which allows us to take any example of racism and demonstrate it to fit the definition. It's in no one's interest to make the definition too long or elaborate. Maybe EI could publish the full JDA? Crucially, we need a definition which exempts States from criticism because they claim the represent a racial category. The same holds true of religion. It isn't Islamophobic to criticize the policies of the Iranian State. The State is a powerful, overweening institution at best. To seek to protect it from criticism in any way is always suspect. The State must justify itself, as power always must.


"“as a useful tool for governments and institutions who are serious about combating anti-Semitism, rather than simply scoring points with the Israeli government and pro-Israel lobby groups.”"
Sounds like quran ,"who doesn*t understand its use is not serious."
A little more butter on the bread of allegations may be asked too much from some.


Will anybody explain to me the connection between the quotation from the JDA and the BNC criticism? The whole JDA is framed precisely in order to distinguish between "hostility to or prejudice against Jews on the one hand and legitimate opposition to Israeli policies, ideology and system[s] of injustice on the other.” Does the BNC oppose Israeli Jews solely because they are Jews, or because they are occupiers and discriminators? Obviously the latter. The JDA pointedly does not exclude Palestinian perspectives -- just compare it with the statement of Palestinian intellectuals and civil society people published in the Guardian, and you will see the latter's influence.

This JDA is intended to be an alternative to the IHRA, which is why it focused on Israel-Palestine. I can imagine what the reaction would have been had it not.

Neither the BNC, nor Palestine Legal, nor EI, nor JVP has published a single criticism of the actual wording of the document (since they agree with almost all of it), much less the actual definition of anti-Semitism in the JDA. Instead they have focused on what it doesn't say or -- and this is my favorite -- what somebody who "abused" the text of the document could (in some possible world?) say. (See the BDS website for that criticism.)

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).