Last week, 200 academics published the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which they recommended to replace the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition. You might wonder why: in the five years since the IHRA drew up their working definition, it has been used as an informal tool for investigating antisemitic incidents by governments, police, prosecutors, local authorities, football clubs, universities and regulators. It has been endorsed by the European Parliament and recommended by the United Nations Secretary General, and in the UK is accepted as the standard guide to defining and identifying antisemitism.
For these academics, though, the IHRA definition is a problem because of what it says about anti-Israel language. For example, the IHRA definition says that when people deny Israel’s right to exist, compare Israel to Nazi Germany or discriminate against Israel while using double standards, it could be antisemitic.
As its name suggests, the Jerusalem Declaration is largely focused on the appropriate language when discussing Israel and Palestine. It mentions Palestine or Palestinians nine times but has not a single mention of hate crime. Ten of its 15 “guidelines” are devoted to Israel and Palestine, despite criticising the IHRA definition for placing “undue emphasis” on this same issue. The Declaration is over twice as long as IHRA and is much less relevant for incident investigators. The academics who wrote it did not consult with Jewish community organisations, hate crime monitors or other complaint investigators, and it shows. It reads like guidelines for an academic seminar on Israel and Palestine.
Even then, the Jerusalem Declaration has serious flaws. Its core definition tells us antisemitism is “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).” This formulation risks missing all but the most overt cases. The Hungarian government’s campaign against George Soros never mentions the fact Soros is Jewish but it derives its resonance and force from the use of antisemitic language.
The Jerusalem Declaration agrees that antisemitism and anti-Israel language sometimes come together, but it differs significantly from IHRA over where to draw the line between the two. The IHRA definition’s warning against comparing Israel to Nazi Germany has been removed; instead we are told that “even if contentious, it is not antisemitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases”. Whereas the IHRA definition says it could be antisemitic to deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination, the Jerusalem Declaration finds a convoluted way to say that it is not, on the face of it, antisemitic to argue for the elimination of Israel, as long as Jews’ “collective rights” are respected in any future arrangement.
The Jerusalem Declaration runs contrary to what surveys have shown most Jews in Europe and the US believe about Israel-related antisemitism. You might expect any definition of antisemitism to prioritise the views of Jewish communities over the interests of those who want to campaign against something Jewish, but that is not the case. It would be bizarre, for example, if a definition of antisemitism went out of its way to protect the right to campaign for shechita or brit milah to be banned, yet the Jerusalem Declaration’s authors felt the need to say it is not antisemitic to call for the world’s only Jewish state to disappear.
The academics who have written and signed the Jerusalem Declaration are responding to an environment in which the IHRA definition has been repeatedly misrepresented as silencing all criticism of, and campaigning against, Israel. The belief that the IHRA definition has a chilling effect on pro-Palestinian activism is so widespread that opposition to it has become totemic for many opponents of Israel. For example, this idea of a chilling effect is cited in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Legal Guide for Palestine Solidarity Student Activists, even though that same PSC guidance states that in the UK “there is no known case of any university directly citing the IHRA definition to close down an event that is legitimately critical of Israel and is therefore not antisemitic”.
If a bunch of academics want to write themselves some guidelines about how they and their students can discuss Israel and Palestine, that is up to them. They might even consider that it is often Jewish students who are inhibited from expressing their support for Israel, rather than Israel’s critics who are silenced. But calling this a definition of antisemitism and suggesting it could replace the IHRA guidelines risks setting back genuine efforts to tackle antisemitism.
Dr Dave Rich is Director of Policy at the Community Security Trust and author of ‘The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel & Antisemitism’
This piece was edited to more fully reflect the PSC's stance.