“Zionist” isn’t hate speech

Pro-Israel groups are pushing Facebook to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that has a chilling effect on speech criticizing the state’s treatment of Palestinians.

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

Should criticism of the State of Israel and the political ideology of Zionism be labeled anti-Semitic?

This question has been debated in company board rooms, university administrations, government legislatures and, now, the headquarters of Facebook.

Last summer, Facebook received a request from a coalition of pro-Israel groups to adopt the “working definition” of anti-Semitism drafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

A leaked company email that followed sparked concern as the global communications platform considers a change to its hate speech policy.

The IHRA working definition has been used to shape laws and policies in 30 US states, numerous universities, governments and other organizations around the world. The US State Department adopted the definition and a department official recently affirmed the Biden administration’s support.

Early in February this year, Jewish Voice for Peace and 50 partner organizations launched a global campaign urging Facebook not to add the word “Zionist” as a protected category in its company’s hate speech policy.

The IHRA definition has had a chilling effect on criticism of the State of Israel’s laws and practices affecting the lives of the millions of Palestinians living under its rule.

Facebook posts critical of Israel’s occupation have already been labeled as unacceptable speech and taken down.

Jewish Voice for Peace’s petition with some 57,000 signatories was personally delivered to Facebook offices in 17 cities around the world.

The petition asserts that “we cannot dismantle anti-Semitism if we are blocked from voicing our opinions and sharing our experiences with each other.”

“We ask Facebook to not erect barriers impeding users from connecting with each other as we engage in this work,” the petition adds.

The only public statement that Facebook has made was in response to a reporter’s inquiry for The Verge. A spokesperson for the social media platform denied that there are plans to include the word in its hate speech policy.

Facebook added: “Just as we do with all of our policies regularly, we are independently engaging with experts and stakeholders to ensure that this policy is in the right place, but this does not mean we will change our policy.”

Consensus broken down

Until recently, there was broad agreement about what constitutes hate speech and acts of hate directed at Jews and the Jewish people. It’s captured in what the IHRA defines as its “non-legally binding working definition”:

“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

But that consensus, writes Antony Lerman, former director of Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research, “had clearly broken down by the first years of the 21st century, almost entirely over the issue of Israel-Palestine and how far anti-Israel rhetoric can be defined as anti-Semitism.”

Hence, the IHRA added to its definition a list of “manifestations” and “contemporary examples.” These descriptors are at the heart of the current debate.

Critics of the definition’s codification in law and policies make two related arguments: one, that the wording of the examples is confusing; another, that they can be misused to censor advocacy for Palestinian rights.

In their academic reviews of the IHRA definition, Peter Ullrich and Rebecca Ruth Gould decry the increase in anti-Semitic incidents. But each cautioned against its use and both offer a negative assessment.

In his report, Ullrich – a fellow at the Centre for Research of Antisemitism at Technische Universität Berlin – concludes that the definition is “inconsistent, contradictory and formulated very vaguely. It therefore does not satisfy the requirements of a good definition.”

Ullrich adds that the “weaknesses of the ‘Working Definition’ are the gateway to its political instrumentalization, for instance for morally discrediting opposing positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict with the accusation of anti-Semitism.”

In her 2020 article printed in The Political Quarterly, Gould, professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Birmingham, points to two phrases in the document that are most contentious: “self‐determination” and “racist endeavor.”

The first term, Gould argues, ignores many legitimate reasons for denying self‐determination to Jews and others, “such as an aversion to nationalism.”

The description of the State of Israel as “a racist endeavor,” she states, could be an expression of anti-Semitism, but “it is not per se anti-Semitic to call Israel a racist endeavor.”

Moderating hate speech

The civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation states that “hateful speech presents one of the most difficult problems of content moderation. At a global scale, it’s practically impossible.”

The group describes the challenges with which Facebook has to contend: defining hateful speech with necessary specificity on a global platform with billions of users; outsourcing the work of discerning nuance and context “to low-paid workers at third-party companies or worse: to automated technology.”

Ultimately, the fact that the company is in the position to make such a decision with such far-reaching free speech implications is a problem.

Hopefully, Facebook will not limit yet another nuanced term that it lacks the capacity to moderate fairly. In any case, Facebook must ensure that its rules are transparent and that users have the ability to appeal – to a human moderator – any decisions that are made.

Jeff Wright is a global service worker appointed to Kairos Palestine by the Board of Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.




Rather than engage in endless wrangling over the details of this preposterous "definition" and Facebook's purported struggle at compliance, attention should be concentrated on factual matters such as the appointment to Facebook's Oversight Board of Israel's former Director General of the Ministry of Justice Emi Palmor. In her previous capacity, Palmor supervised Israel's Cyber Unit, responsible for censorship of Palestinian voices, having had particular success persuading Facebook to take down thousands of pages. Now she sits at the heart of a the company itself. Incidentally, no equivalent figure from Palestinian government or civil society has been invited to take up such a position.

Israel occupies a central place within Facebook's decision-making apparatus, and the instruments employed in the exercise of this power are of secondary importance. Entirely too much time and energy has been devoted to parsing the IHRA document, while too little goes to examining the structural nature of bias through high level appointments and the ideological commitments of state agents such as Palmor. The IHRA "definition" was introduced for the sole purpose of confusing public response to the plain, day to day reality of apartheid, sidetracking discussion and reassigning blame to defenders of Palestinian rights and away from their oppressors. Do we really need to engage in a protracted exercise in debunking, when we have such a strong positive case for Palestine?

In my view, the only effective way to combat the IHRA document is in the courts, as the occasion arises. Aside from that venue, little can be accomplished by expert rhetorical demolition ad infinitum. As for censorship at Facebook, making the company's structural relationship to Israel and apartheid the issue rather than trying to work out a satisfactory definition of antisemitism should get discussion back on the right track. Because the issue here isn't antisemitism. It's Israel/Palestine.


Tom is right. There is little to be gained from the semantics of the definition. But it's worth saying that the definition proper doesn't embrace a pre-existing consensus, but is woolly and silly. The appended examples are a cartload of red herrings. The question, as Tom is suggesting, is where does power lie? It lies with big money and the State. Facebook is an egregious example of the first and Israel of the second. Not until we understand that the power of big money and the State must be dismantled and returned to the common folk from who it was stolen by violence, colonialism, exploitation and oppression will we be free of these coalitions of unfreedom. The Israeli lobby has done its work well by diverting energy into discussion of a sub-GCSE definition of anti-Semitism. Its success in intervening in British internal politics, effectively restricting the choices of the British people according to the wishes of the Israeli Statists, is remarkable and outrageous. It is the real scandal of our politics. The media focus on Johnson's wallpaper in a sham concern for integrity, while the Labour Party defies its own rules and data protection law and not a word is written or said. Of course, the right-wing media are now happy to attack Johnson: he has done what they wanted. Now's the time to dump him and get someone more statesman like in control. A sideshow. The followers of Herzl have subverted our democracy and no one says a thing. Such is the political circus. The IHRA definition is part of the clown's performance. And Starmer pulls out of a Muslim event because the B o D puts on pressure. Disgusting cowardice. The public has been bamboozled by factitious anti-Semitism while, as Tom says, the real issue is Israel/Palestine. Who benefits? Who has the power? Who has the money? These are the questions that matter.


The delegitimization of "hate speech" has extremely broad ramifications because any strong protest against injustice can be interpreted as an expression of hatred of the people deemed responsible for the injustice. Complaints about ill treatment of workers by employers can be labeled as expressions of hatred of employers. Protest against the persecution of Uighurs can be interpreted as an expression of hatred of China and Chinese people. Those who condemn negative phenomena in American life can be accused of "hating America." And so on and so forth. Although the Zionists are pioneering this stratagem it's a game that in principle anyone can play, though how seriously their manipulations are taken depends on what power they have. But logically it can end up with all of us terrified of making any public criticism of anyone else, of any interest group or state or institution. Not much freedom of expression would be left if we are all confined to "love speech"!