Lipstadt lawyer challenges IHRA critic to debate

Anthony Julius, who was also Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer, issued the challenge to Birkbeck professor David Feldman


The lawyer who represented Deborah Lipstadt when she beat Holocaust denier David Irving in court has challenged a leading critic of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism to a public debate.

Anthony Julius, who was also Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer, issued the challenge to Birkbeck professor David Feldman, an author of the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism (JDA), presented as an alternative to IHRA. Dr Julius was joined by John Hyman, a UCL philosophy professor, in calling for the debate. Writing for the JC this week (below), they warn that JDA would fail to protect Jewish students from antisemitic abuse if taken up by universities.

“JDA is not fit for purpose because it fights shy of engaging with antisemitic anti-Zionism, which is the form of antisemitism that poses the greatest threat to Jewish students’ safety and wellbeing,” they write.

Dr Julius told the JC: “We invite Prof Feldman to debate the merits of the two definitions in public. Let’s let the public decide which one better withstands scrutiny.”

It comes in response to an article in The Guardian last month by Prof Feldman, claiming that IHRA was often “used to tarnish opinions that are deeply unwelcome to most Israel-supporting Jews, but which are not antisemitic”.

Prof Feldman responds to the challenge set by Dr Julius and Dr Hyman below (scroll down).

Are we doing enough to combat antisemitism?

By John Hyman and Anthony Julius

A recent article in the Guardian begins by asking: “Are we doing enough — or even the right things — to combat antisemitism?” Good question. But do we know what antisemitism is?

There is a broad consensus in the Jewish community that we do know, and that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition gets as close to capturing the complexities of antisemitism today as we can reasonably hope to achieve on one side of A4. 

In universities across the country, the presidents and officers of JSocs are united in the belief that IHRA empowers them to call out antisemitism cloaked in political discourse, as opposed to angry but legitimate political speech.

David Feldman, the author of the Guardian article, Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, and one of the authors of a freshly minted rival definition known as the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), disagrees. 

In our view, JDA is not fit for purpose. It fights shy of engaging with antisemitic anti-Zionism, which is the form of antisemitism that poses the greatest threat to Jewish students’ safety and wellbeing — mirroring the situation in the community as a whole. 

If a university governing body adopted JDA in place of IHRA, it would be failing in its duty to protect Jewish students from antisemitic bullying and harassment.

Take the comparisons between Zionism and Nazism and between Israelis and Nazis. There is broad agreement that these comparisons are often outrageously antisemitic. This is the position of IHRA, and the EHRC report on antisemitism in the Labour Party agrees. 

What about JDA? It says: “It is not antisemitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid.” Notice the evasion. JDA avoids mentioning the comparison with Nazism explicitly, but the phrase “other historical cases” evidently does include Nazism, and JDA’s implicit legitimation of the comparison has been welcomed by its supporters.

Another striking example of JDA’s engagement with anti-Zionism is its stance on the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations to statehood versus the legitimacy of the State of Israel. In one paragraph, we read that “denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews” is “on the face of it” antisemitic. In the next, that “supporting the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil and human rights” is not, “on the face of it”, antisemitic.

Undoubtedly, both sentences are true. But the absence of the word “national” in the paragraph about Jews in the State of Israel reveals the JDA’s political agenda, because it implies that denying Jewish Israelis their national rights (“collective” existence is a lesser thing, and consistent with many sub-statal forms), while acknowledging the Palestinians’ own “full … national … rights”, is not antisemitic — even though it would deny Jews what it would grant to Palestinians. 

Why does Prof Feldman believe that IHRA needs to be replaced? The reason, he says, is that “too often” IHRA is used to “tarnish opinions” that are “unwelcome” to many Jews but “not antisemitic”. This vague allegation would be difficult to prove, so it is not surprising that he does not attempt to prove it.  Instead he inserts a single link to an article in the JC, which mentions the charge that Amnesty’s “apartheid Israel” claim is antisemitic. But in fact, IHRA does not mention the “apartheid” slur. It says that “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour” can be antisemitic, depending on “the overall context”. A glance at the Hamas charter is sufficient to confirm this.

Does this apply to the Amnesty report? Opinions differ. But when the latest edition of the annual Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit places Israel just behind France and Britain, and ahead of Spain, Italy and the United States, it is surely legitimate to raise the question. 

In sum, JDA cannot be “a tool to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism” that can work effectively on university campuses today.  It abandons the aim of protecting Jewish students from political antisemitism, and instead legitimises anti-Israel and anti-Zionist speech, regardless of whether it is antisemitic in purpose or in effect. 

Its real purpose is not to raise awareness about antisemitism, but to undermine IHRA. If it succeeds, it will demoralise Jewish students, make it harder to educate anti-Zionist students about the difference between politics and hate speech, and strengthen the hand of activists who regard Jewish students as collateral damage in their political campaign.

So, what is to be done? If JSocs cannot count on the support of Jewish professors, those professors can at least be asked to explain themselves. Let us start here, with two sets of questions addressed to Professor Feldman.

First, some of the most hateful antisemitic slurs are comparisons between Zionism and Nazism, between the IDF and the SS, between Israeli politicians and Hitler, Himmler or Goebbels, between Gaza and Auschwitz, between Israeli policies and the Holocaust, and so on. Can the JDA be an effective tool “to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism”, while failing to acknowledge the antisemitic character of these comparisons? Why does JDA choose to legitimise them with the phrase “other historical cases”? And why does it not do so explicitly?

Second, IHRA says that denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination could be antisemitic, “taking into account the overall context”. Do you accept that it is antisemitic “on the face of it” to denounce the Jewish desire for national self-determination as racist while acknowledging the legitimacy of the same desire of Kurds, Scots, Catalans, Georgians and Palestinians? If so, why does JDA omit this? Why does it acknowledge the legitimacy of the Palestinian demand for the “full grant” of their national rights, while remaining silent about the same demand by Jews?

Since you believe that JDA “provides clarity on when criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism lapses into antisemitism,” you should not find it difficult to answer these questions. 

We are waiting.

John Hyman is the Grote Chair in the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at UCL; Anthony Julius is Deputy Chairman at law firm Mishcon de Reya.

In defence of the Jerusalem declaration

By David Feldman

We have reached a critical moment in the struggle against antisemitism. For the last twenty-five years, Jews in Britain have had moral and material support from British governments as they combat antisemitism. Yet the Community Security Trust announced recently that it recorded the highest ever total of antisemitic incidents in 2021. Jews in Britain are more anxious about antisemitism than they were a decade ago. We need to do better. 

Support from government is not enough. To combat antisemitism the Jewish community needs to build stronger alliances with other communities and organisations committed to opposing racism. Not least, this is important on the left and in British universities where anti-racist activism and support for Palestinians too often runs alongside indifference to antisemitism, and sometimes worse. This was the argument of an article I published in The Guardian last month.

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) makes a positive contribution to this work. Composed by an international group of academics (of which I was a member), the JDA responds to the confusion and controversy created by another definition, the IHRA working definition. Published in March 2021, the JDA brings clarity to the task of defining antisemitism. It has been signed by more than 300 scholars across the world in Jewish Studies, Antisemitism Studies, Holocaust Studies and related fields. The JDA can be used either as a stand-alone definition or alongside the IHRA working definition as a tool for interpreting it. Importantly, it provides a valuable tool in the struggle against antisemitism, because it explicitly sees antisemitism as a form of racism and so lends itself to building alliances with non-Jewish minorities.

John Hyman and Anthony Julius take me to task for what I wrote in The Guardian, yet they ignore the greater part of my article. Their  commentary is devoted solely to discrediting the JDA, the discussion of which comprised less than 10 per cent of the word count.  They challenge me to debate the two definitions publicly and I am pleased to do so here.   

Professor Hyman and Dr Julius vaunt the IHRA working definition. My personal view is that the IHRA working definition would have made a flawed but serviceable guide to antisemitism had its proponents been able to agree on what it means and had they consistently used it “taking into account the overall context” as the document itself prescribes. Unfortunately, neither of these conditions applies. 

What is the working definition? Some advocates tell us that it consists of a core definition and eleven examples, but others tell us that there is no core definition and that the examples are in fact the definition. The IHRA secretariat offers no guidance at all. Confused? I know I am. 

One thing is clear. The working definition states its examples do not comprise a check list. Cases need to be assessed according to context. Too often this condition is forgotten when the working definition is brought to bear on legitimate criticism of Israel. This has severely damaged the working definition’s credibility. This is why we need an alternative or supplement to it - the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. 

Tellingly, Professor Hyman and Dr Julius do not attempt a substantive defence of the IHRA working definition. Instead, they attack the JDA.  There are two things about the JDA which most provoke them. First, they  imagine the JDA provides an “implicit legitimation” of comparisons between Zionism and Nazism. Second, they assert the JDA implicitly prefers the Palestinians’ right to national self-determination to that of the Jews. Fortunately, neither of these things is true.

The JDA brings much needed clarity to the question of when political speech on Israel and Zionism becomes antisemitic. Its fifteen guidelines help us determine when speech does cross that line and when it does not. It states that contentious historical comparisons with apartheid or settler colonialism and other historical cases are not on the face of it antisemitic. The claim made by Professor Hyman and Dr Julius that the phrase “other historical cases” means any other historical cases, and therefore includes all comparisons to the Nazi regime, is wrong.  

In fact, the most commonplace analogies made between Israel‘s policies and the Nazis are covered by the JDA. Nazism is routinely employed figuratively in speech as an equivalent for evil. Here the JDA is clear: linking Israel to the forces of evil in the world in such a way is antisemitic. 

But some comparisons to the Nazis are more difficult. JC readers may recall the furore in 2015 when on Yom Hashoah, Yair Galon,  the deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, spoke about his fear that “horrifying processes that occurred in Europe…70, 80 and 90 years ago” were present in Israel, in the IDF in particular. What Golan said is troubling, in more ways than one, but it is not antisemitic. 

How can we tell when an analogy to Nazism is antisemitic and when it is just painful? In the end, we have to make a judgment. Context is vital. While the working definition acknowledges this, it does not help us identify which contexts matter. In contrast, the JDA helps us to make judgments on this key problem.  

What Professor Hyman and Dr Julius write about the JDA and national self-determination is simply incorrect. Contrary to what they assert in their final question, the JDA does not deal with the legitimacy of Jewish or Palestinian demands for national self-determination. Its objective is to clarify when discussion of these demands becomes antisemitic. 

The JDA states that calling for equality between Jews and Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is not on the face of it antisemitic. Regrettably, some Jews in Israel and in the diaspora believe Palestinians should forever endure second class status and perceive all support for Palestinian equality as antisemitic. The JDA shows we do not have to make a fateful choice between the struggle against antisemitism and the quest for equality.

In the Jewish community’s battle with Labour when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, the IHRA working definition became a symbol, perhaps a necessary one.  Support for the working definition became an emblem of allegiance to the struggle against antisemitism. That moment is now in the past. 

Today the working definition has become a problem.  It was always of limited educative or practical use, but now its repeated abuse and its heavy-handed imposition on universities by the government, divides Jews and also separates them from potential allies in the struggle against antisemitism. It is time to move on and build the widest possible coalition against antisemitism. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism provides one significant tool as we set about this important work. 

Professor of History and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, University of London

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