Defining antisemitism

The IHRA definition of antisemitism demands recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish ethnic state. That shuts down legitimate argument about Israel’s past, present and future.


I started this series by stating my own understanding of what antisemitism is. In fact, the very question of how to define antisemitism has become a highly contested one. The controversy centres around the Working Definition of Antisemitism, a “non-legally binding” definition promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and adopted in different forms by a number of countries, including the UK, and also by the British Labour Party. The IHRA‘s definition of antisemitism itself is rather vague:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.

This definition is so lacking in content that it becomes critically dependent on the included list of examples of what it considers antisemitic attitudes, and this is where the controversy begins. It’s striking that some classic antisemitic tropes, such as that Jews are tight-fisted or dishonest, are missing from the list. What’s even more striking is that seven of the eleven examples refer to Israel in some way; here’s Example 7:

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 statement begs a lot of questions. First of all it assumes that Jews globally make up one people, with its own right of self-determination, rather than an ethnic category within a number of different nations, with its own rights within those nations. This whole question has huge implications, and has been highly controversial in the past. In fact, up until the Second World War many Jewish organisations rejected Zionism on the grounds that it might compromise the rights of Jews within their nation of birth or residence. Moreover, Example 7 claims the general right of “the Jewish people” to self-determination, but the concrete example that it gives implies that self-determination means statehood, when as Peter Beinart has argued that is only one possible form that self-determination can take. Where ethnic groups are intermingled as they were and are in Israel/Palestine then the right to self-determination may have to take different forms.

Example 7 goes on to link that right of self-determination to “a State of Israel”. Does it mean the principle of a Jewish state? If so, why not say a “Jewish state”? Or does it refer to the State of Israel? If so, there’s a further logical leap from stating that the Jews have a right to their own state in principle, to saying that the State of Israel as it is constituted is legitimate and that any accusations of racism against it are antisemitic. In practice the distinction between “a” State of Israel and “the” State of Israel is liable to disappear; for example, during the conflict over antisemitism in the Labour Party, the Guardian cited Example 7 as follows: “claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour” [emphasis mine].

There are several ways in which you could characterise the state of Israel as racist, starting with the assumption by the Zionist founders that the Jews had a claim to Palestine that took precedence over that of its majority Arab inhabitants. You could point to the mass expulsions of Palestinians in 1948 and the continued exclusion of the refugees and their descendents. You could also refer to all the ways in which Israel discriminates against its Palestinian citizens and denies rights to the Palestinians in the occupied territories, all in the name of preserving the Jewish ethnic character of the Israeli state. It may not fit into the typical imperial-colonial context of racism because Israel’s history is unique, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a form of racism.

So in fact there are three contestable assumptions within Example 7: that Jews constitute one nation with its own right of self-determination, that self-determination necessarily implies statehood, and that the State of Israel is the legitimate expression of Jewish statehood. Anyone who doesn’t accept this chain of logic is condemned as an antisemite. Certainly the question of the best long-term exit from the conflict over Israel/Palestine is a difficult one, with arguments for and against two-state or one-state solutions, but such an accusation just closes down thought.

I’ve focused on Example 7 because it’s the part of the IHRA definition that has the widest political significance, but other parts of the definition can be criticised on similar grounds (see for example Stephen Sedley’s critique in the London Review of Books). The point is, the IHRA definition in general and Example 7 in particular is so ambiguously drafted that it could be used to suppress a wide range of criticism of the Israeli state’s history, law and practices, way beyond what could reasonably be considered antisemitism. Indeed one of the original drafters of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has himself expressed concern about the way that it is being exploited to suppress legitimate debate in American universities.

Antisemitism may motivate some criticism of Israel, but what we know about antisemitism is that it can be quite subtle in its manifestations; a simple checklist approach to defining antisemitism is always likely to be a blunt instrument. The IHRA definition is a very blunt instrument. It seeks to constrain criticism of Israel so that any challenge to the way that Israel is constituted is ruled out of bounds. By conflating antisemitism with legitimate arguments about Israel it actually makes it harder to think about antisemitism rather than easier.