The European Union is pledging to help Israel crack down on critical speech.
During a visit to the Israeli foreign ministry in Jerusalem this week, EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova lauded efforts to remove so-called hate speech from online forums.
Jourova said that Europe had made “substantial progress” in removing “illegal hate speech” through cooperation with technology firms.
Her visit was billed as part of the EU’s cooperation with Israel aimed at “combating racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.”
Her Israeli host, foreign ministry director general Yuval Rotem stated, “Israel believes that the IT industry needs to take on greater responsibility in the proactive effort to detect hate speech online.”
Target is criticism of Israel
But while genuinely combating hate speech might be laudable, the evidence is that this initiative is more about trying to suppress criticism of Israel.
The joint statement issued by the EU and Israel places their effort in the context of the European Parliament’s recent endorsement of the so-called International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition on anti-Semitism and calls for using it “for better training of law enforcement and government.”
That definition was never formally adopted by the EU.
It contains the uncontroversial statement that anti-Semitism “is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and which may be manifested through rhetorical or physical attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions.
But the definition is flanked by an explanatory memorandum, citing examples that muddy the waters between anti-Semitism – bigotry against Jews – on the one hand, and criticism of Israel and its state ideology Zionism, on the other.
Those examples include “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
This could mean that arguing for a single, democratic non-sectarian state in historic Palestine in which Jews, Muslims and Christians enjoy equal protection amounts to anti-Semitism.
It also implies that accurately cataloguing the racist laws and principles Israel is founded on – especially the denial of the right of return of Palestinian refugees solely because they are not Jewish – could be deemed anti-Semitic.
“The definition deliberately elides the difference between criticizing Jews for imagined negative characteristics, and criticizing Israel for very real negative behaviors,” the Jewish-led activist group Free Speech on Israel wrote to European Parliament lawmakers in March. This is no accident. “The construction of a defensive shield against advocacy by and on behalf of Palestinians is the specific purpose that the definition was created for,” Free Speech on Israel added.
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 examples dangerous because they may “place the onus on Israel’s critics to demonstrate they are not anti-Semitic.”
In a letter to members of the US Congress last December, Stern warned that giving the definition legal status would be “unconstitutional and unwise.”
Stern highlighted the difficulty with legislating against political opinions, asking, “If denying the right of Israel to exist is enshrined as anti-Semitism by law, would Congress then pass parallel legislation defining opposition to a Palestinian state as anti-Palestinianism?”
Stern stated that the original definition he had drafted “was never intended to be used to limit speech … it was written for European data collectors to have a guideline for what to include and what to exclude in reports.”
Yet the EU is now signalling that it plans to use the definition to train police, who will presumably use it to monitor and punish citizens’ utterances.
Ignoring Israeli incitement
Israel and its supporters have long pressured social media companies, especially Facebook, to crack down on Palestinians, and the company has in the past blocked the accounts of Palestinian journalists.
Jourova tweeted that her meeting with Shaked would herald “deeper EU-Israel cooperation.”
In 2014, Shaked notoriously promoted a call for genocide of the Palestinians on Facebook.
Shaked’s posting declared that “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy” and justified its destruction, “including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.”
The posting also called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.”
The EU has never launched an initiative to hold Israeli leaders accountable for their pervasive racist and genocidal incitement, whether against Palestinians or refugees and asylum seekers from African states.
But Israel can count on the EU to help in its thought-policing and punishment of criticism of its regime of occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism.