Definition of antisemitism is a threat to no one but antisemites
This week British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she would adopt “the working definition of antisemitism,” due to an increase in the number of antisemitic incidents and because the battle against anti-Jewish prejudice is an important part of her efforts to build a fairer society. Last week that definition was discussed at a UNESCO conference in Paris, and later in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At both conferences there was mention of the adoption (for the first time) of the definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in May in Romania. Each of the organizations has dozens of members.
At the UNESCO conference director general Irina Bokova and IHRA chairman Mihnea Constantinescu recommended adopting the definition, and expressed opposition, if indirect, to the decision approved in the organization’s plenum (and by the United Nations General Assembly), to the effect that Jerusalem’s history and present are exclusively Muslim. History must not be distorted, they said. We have to disseminate the factual information and preserve Jerusalem’s legacy as a city sacred to the three monotheistic religions.
A clause in the definition of antisemitism, which discusses denying the right of the Jewish people to self determination, made it possible to say at the conference that self determination means identity, history and roots, whose denial – in reference to the ancient Jewish people of all groups – is discrimination, if not antisemitism for its own sake.
Now the United States has introduced an initiative to approve a law calling for awareness of antisemitism – the Antisemitism Awareness Act – and a stormy discussion erupted on the subject, since until now adoption of the definition has not been legally binding. During the discussion there was mention of another adoption of a working definition of antisemitism, over a year ago, by the U.S. State Department. The European Union appointed a coordinator for the fight against antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, who is promoting the use of the definition, and in Austria the justice minister recently announced that the definition will be part of the training of new judges and prosecutors in his country.
How did the definition, that few (if any) were familiar with, turn into a hotly controversial, international issue? This is a definition whose wording is a product of the joint work of organizations, scholars and activists, and the member countries – including both Jews and non-Jews. It’s a practical definition – one page in length – that does not go into the identity and motives of antisemites or a description of their image of Jews. It determines, in one sentence, that “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
This is followed by a series of examples: incitement to harm Jews, myths about their imaginary power, Holocaust denial and accusations of dual loyalty. In the end, examples of statements against the State of Israel that are defined as antisemitism, such as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
A few years ago the definition was removed from the website of that EU monitoring body, perhaps for technical reasons, as its directors claim. Since then, leading personalities and organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish, have been trying hard to reinstitute it, and, as mentioned, lately there have been results. That may be happening due to the constant effort, and perhaps because in Europe, where fascist and totalitarian regimes flourished, the attitude towards legislation differs from that in the United States, and therefore a definition of antisemitism that serves as a basis for identifying activity, or for legislation to counter it, could open the door to a definition of Islamophobia, as well as hatred of Christians, blacks, Roma and other minorities.
The need for such tools has increased in light of the wave of refugees and immigrants arriving in Europe, one reason being that the rise of violent antisemitism makes it difficult for countries that must pay for the protection of Jewish communities: Disturbing the public order often begins with the Jews, but it has already been proven that it doesn’t end with them. The need for these tools may also arise because there is a growing realization that some anti-Zionist statements have made use of antisemitic motifs. Such statements have already been condemned by Pope Francis and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. The working definition, according to scholar David Hirsh, does not pose a threat to anyone except antisemites.
Prof. Porat is the chief historian of Yad Vashem International Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, and head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry in Tel Aviv University.