Who should define antisemitism?

Some proponents of the IHRA definition insist that only the mainstream Jewish organisations have the right to decide what constitutes antisemitism, and refer to the Macpherson report for justification.

With such a complex and contentious issue as antisemitism, the issue of who defines it becomes a sensitive one. Since there is wide disagreement about where to draw the line, how do we reconcile the competing standpoints? Who has the authority to say what it is? This became a key issue during the controversy over antisemitism in the UK Labour Party. In the summer of 2018, under pressure on the issue, the party developed its own definition of antisemitism, which modified the IHRA definition in several ways, in particular in relation to Israel. Jewish bodies such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Labour-affiliated Jewish Labour Movement rejected this and insisted that the party adopt the original definition with all its examples without modification. In fact Mike Katz, the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, claimed that only Jews had the right to define antisemitism. This was a right accorded by the Labour Party to all other ethnic minorities, so Jews were being prejudiced against when Labour modified the IHRA definition of antisemitism, a definition widely supported by the official British Jewish bodies.

In justification he cited the “Macpherson principle”, referring to the report of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry led by Sir William Macpherson. In doing so he was following the lead of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism who stated that in the light of the Macpherson Report “it is the Jewish community itself that is best qualified to determine what does and does not constitute antisemitism” (in their 2006 Report Into Antisemitism, page 1). So what did the Macpherson Report actually say? Most of the report relates to the details of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent investigation, but Chapter 45 takes a wider view of how racist incidents are treated by the police. The then definition of a “racial incident” was too vague and left too much discretion to the police. The report recommended that the definition of a racist incident should be “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.”

It’s clear from the context that this related only to the way incidents are reported. The report didn’t state that someone’s perception of racism should preempt the results of an investigation, the presumption of innocence or any other legal process. It certainly didn’t claim that only ethnic minorities have the right to define prejudice against them. So where did this notion come from, if not from Macpherson? One possible source that you can point to is from within feminism. According to standpoint theory, oppressed groups such as women have a clearer perspective on the power structure of society than men. They have “epistemic privilege” by virtue of their subordinate position; they can see through the biases and prejudices of the dominant order whereas those who are invested in it are blind to those biases.

However, more recently the concept of intersectionality has complicated the picture: patterns of oppression can overlap and interact, so that for example white women can be oppressed in one context and privileged in another. Therefore any epistemic privilege can only be relative, rather than absolute; you can say that women can have a clearer picture of sexism than men, but they don’t have absolute authority to define it. The wider picture of domination and subordination has to be taken into account, what Patricia Hill Collins called the “matrix of domination”.

As I stated in my first piece on this issue, racism can be unconscious and buried in people’s way of thinking, so that the victims of prejudice are more likely to be alert to it. If members of an ethnic minority warn us that something is prejudiced against them, then we should certainly take that seriously. But to base the definition of racism purely on subjective perception leads to “conceptual and political chaos” as Professor David Feldman put it (in his sub-report to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism’s 2016 inquiry, page 8). The fight against racism isn’t the responsibility of each ethnic minority alone; it has to be based on a coalition. The understanding of racism needs to be negotiated and shared by the coalition, and no one constituent of that coalition should be able to impose its perspective on the whole. Jews can’t have the exclusive right to define what antisemitism is, and certainly not in the context of Israel and Palestine, where Jews represent the dominant group. As Joanna Phillips points out, it’s not just Jews who are affected by how antisemitism is defined; many Palestinians have strongly objected to the IHRA definition of antisemitism. We should take their objections seriously too.