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.
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.
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?”