The recent use of the controversial IHRA definition of anti-Semitism to silence political speech about Palestine shows what a dangerous weapon it is.
Originally passed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016, the actual definition within the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism is vague but not particularly controversial.
The threat to speech critical of Israel arises with the 11 examples which are instrumental to how the definition is meant to be applied.
Many of these examples expand anti-Semitism to discussions of Israel, such as denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination.
Any statements considered to be delegitimizing Israel, such as calling it a racist endeavor, are therefore deemed anti-Semitic by default.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism holds a clause that allows for criticism of Israel.
Despite this, Independent Jewish Voices Canada has documented more than two dozen instances of the IHRA definition being used to suppress Palestine rights advocacy in Europe and North America.
In late 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry, adopting the language of the IHRA definition.
Soon after, the US Department of Education began investigating the University of California at Los Angeles for hosting the national conference of Students for Justice in Palestine the previous year.
The complaint against UCLA, filed by a Zionist legal organization, alleges that Students for Justice in Palestine is a “terror front” and that the conference was an “attack on Jewish students.”
Meanwhile, in the UK, law student Malaka Shwaikh faced attacks over comments she made about Israel after she was elected to the University of Exeter student union in February 2017.
Shwaikh, who had previously helped organize a march against anti-Semitism, said that “the point of these attacks is … to bully those who speak up for Palestinian rights, in order to scare others away from Palestinian activism.”
Two years later, a London council refused space to The Big Ride for Palestine’s fundraiser for children’s sports equipment in Gaza. Freedom of information requests revealed that officials were fearful that the event could contravene the IHRA definition due to references on The Big Ride for Palestine’s website to apartheid and ethnic cleansing.
In 2018, Emory Douglas, the former Black Panther minister of culture, was accused of anti-Semitic hate speech for displaying an image portraying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hitler along with the text “guilty of genocide” during a guest lecture at the University of Michigan.
Meanwhile in Germany, the Cameroonian post-colonial philosopher Achille Mbembe faced accusations of anti-Semitism for drawing similarities between Israeli and South African apartheid, throwing Israel’s “legitimacy” into question.
Jewish solidarity with Palestine has not been spared from being smeared as anti-Semitic.
Following the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and deadly Israeli bombing in Gaza in 2018, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace chapters planned to hold a joint vigil at the University of California, Berkeley campus.
The organizers faced backlash, including a complaint filed with the US Department of Education claiming, among other things, that the vigil would portray Israel as a racist nation – speech that falls under the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism.
The public mourning was canceled and the event was held privately off-campus in the face of this pressure.
In Germany, the Bank for Social Economy investigated and ultimately closed the account of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, a group that backs the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in support of Palestinian rights.
The bank had come under pressure from the Israeli government and its local advocates, finding its name listed among the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s top 10 worst global anti-Semitic incidents for 2018 for initially maintaining Jewish Voice’s account.
According to Iris Hefets of Jewish Voice, the bank relied on the IHRA definition in its decision to close the group’s account – the first closure of an account belonging to a Jewish organization in post-war Germany.
Nearly 30 countries have adopted the IHRA definition, including France, Italy, Argentina, Greece and Canada. Many local governments have adopted it as well. The IHRA definition is a grave threat to the Palestinian solidarity movement the world over.
Rowan Gaudet is a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada and conducts research for its No IHRA campaign launched in 2019.