EXPLAINER

Will the US adopt IHRA’s anti-Semitism definition? What’s the controversy?

IHRA claims its definition has been adopted by 43 governments, but the US has entered uncharted territory by introducing it into federal law.

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community advocate for a free Palestine at the gates of Columbia University in New York City [File: David Dee Delgado/Reuters]By Federica MarsiPublished On 8 May 20248 May 2024

The United States House of Representatives passed a bill on May 1 that could expand the federal definition of anti-Semitism, and the Senate – the upper house of Congress – is now expected to debate and vote on the legislation.

The Democratic Party’s Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday that the bill faced objections from some Democrats and Republicans, but that “we’re going to look for the best way to move forward”.

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At the heart of the debate and controversy over the bill is the definition of anti-Semitism that it seeks to adopt – despite opposition from several civil liberties groups.

The bill codifies a definition drafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that has been accused of conflating criticism of the state of Israel and Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Critics of the bill warn the non-legally binding working definition was developed as a tool for monitoring anti-Semitic incidents worldwide and was never intended to serve as a legal framework.

As protests against Israel’s war in Gaza continue to roil US campuses, concern is rising over the possible use of a new definition to stifle dissent and curb academic freedom.

What is the IHRA definition?

The IHRA is an intergovernmental body established in Stockholm in 1998 and comprised of 35 member nations and eight observers. Its stated purpose is to enhance “Holocaust education, remembrance and research”.

The organisation adopted a working definition of anti-Semitism during a plenary meeting in Bucharest on May 26, 2016 as a non-legally binding statement.

The IHRA definition consists of a four-line description as follows: “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.”

It goes on to provide 11 “contemporary examples of anti-Semitism” to illustrate its application, seven of which deal with the State of Israel.

One of the examples states that anti-Semitism is embodied in “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, i e, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

It is also anti-Semitic to apply “double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”.

Which countries adopted the IHRA definition?

IHRA claims its definition has been adopted by 43 governments, including all European Union states except for Malta and Ireland.

However, there is no fixed rule on what adoption entails.

The United Kingdom was the first country to endorse it as a “non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism” to be used by public bodies and agencies. Others have followed suit in setting the definition as a guideline for public institutions.

The US was tallied as having formally adopted the definition in December 2019, when former President Donald Trump ordered executive departments and agencies charged with enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, and national origin – to “consider the definition”.

The US is now entering uncharted territory by attempting to introduce it into federal law, through the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2023,” which incorporates the IHRA definition into Title VI. The bill was passed by a margin of 320 to 91 in the House of Representatives on May 1.

In a letter sent to US senators on May 3, the non-profit Middle East Studies Association argued the bill “endangers the constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech as well as academic freedom at this country’s institutions of higher education”.

“We believe that requiring the federal government to define anti-Semitism so broadly and vaguely will have a chilling effect on scholarly and public discussion of international affairs and current events in this country,” it said.

“Indeed, it is likely to have the perverse effect of defining as anti-Semitism even criticism of Israeli policies advanced by Israeli scholars, or by Jewish students and faculty in the United States.”

Why is the definition controversial?

Several Middle East experts and prominent lawyers have argued it expands the definition of anti-Semitism beyond its traditional meaning of hatred against Jews to encompass all criticism of Jewish institutions, including Israel.

The slogans “Free Palestine” or “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are considered anti-Semitic under the definition. As a result, monitoring organisations in several countries in the US and Europe warned of a rise in anti-Semitic incidents since the beginning of the war in Gaza on October 7.

statement issued in 2022 by 128 scholars, including leading Jewish academics at Israeli, European, United Kingdom and United States universities, said the definition had been “hijacked” to protect the Israeli government from international criticism.

Former UN Special Rapporteur on racism, E Tendayi Achiume, said it was being “wielded to prevent or suppress legitimate criticisms of the State of Israel, a State that must, like any other in the United Nations system, be accountable for human rights violations that it perpetrates”.

“Those primarily harmed as a result are Palestinians, as well as human rights defenders advocating on their behalf,” Achiume added in a 2022 report.

In the UK, where two-thirds of academic institutions adopted the definition, studies have found it had a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) and the European Legal Support Centre (ELSC) analysed 40 cases where UK university staff or students in 14 institutions were accused of anti-Semitism. The report, published last year, found that none of these accusations resulted in legal action, except two that had yet to be substantiated.

Despite that, “those falsely accused have felt their reputations to have been sullied, and they are anxious about possible damage caused to their education and careers”.

Israeli Professor Neve Gordon, vice president of BRISMES and professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University in London, told Al Jazeera that by conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, the IHRA definition may result in the paradoxical branding of critical Jewish voices as anti-Semitic.

“If I were to teach in a class the Human Rights Watch report stating that Israel is an apartheid state, I could be accused of anti-Semitism,” Gordon said.

In one recent example, renowned British Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu-Sittah was branded an anti-Semite for a post on social media equating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, the main architect of the Holocaust.

Abu-Sittah, who spent 43 days tending to the wounded in Gaza City last year, was refused entry into Germany to speak at a conference and forbidden from appearing on video link. Then, last week, he was also barred from entering France, where he was visiting to address the upper house of Parliament.

“The idea that comparing policies carried out by Israel with policies carried out by the Nazi regime is anti-Semitic is crazy,” Gordon said. “What the definition tries to do is to silence legitimate critique of Israel and the genocide it is carrying out in Gaza.”

Source: Al Jazeera