Does the UK Government’s Anti-Semitism Definition Discredit Legitimate Criticism of Israel?

This morning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the UK intends to formally adopt an official definition of anti-Semitism in order to, as an earlier Downing Street statement reportedly put it “ensure that culprits will not be able to get away with being antisemitic because the term is ill-defined, or because different organisations or bodies have different interpretations of it”. The definition is written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and is included in a press release from earlier this year.

It reads:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The UK government’s statement comes on the back of a widely reported “spike” in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the UK, which is borne out to some extent by figures collected both by UK authorities and the Jewish advocacy group Community Security Trust (CST). The data is summarized below and is available here (UK, 2009-2015), here (CST 2011-2015), and here (CST 2016).

  UK Authorities Community Security Trust
Year Anti-Semitic incidents reported Anti-Semitic incidents reported
2009 703
2010 488
2011 440 609
2012 307 650
2013 318 535
2014 1179
2015 786 924
2016 557 (first 6 months only)

The announcement has drawn criticism from prominent voices on the left. Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald, famous in part for his role in publishing documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, described the definition as including criticism of Israel that “officials view as excessive”.

In another tweet, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)’s Adam Johnson quoted the guidance included in IHRA’s press release, stating “In the U.K., it is officially antisemitic to claim “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor””.

In the Independent, Ben White claims that adopting the definition will stifle criticism of Israel (in White’s defence, this is a causal claim that may be true, though the claimed effect could not, as I will show, be fairly blamed on the definition).

I expect these kinds of worries will be raised repeatedly in the coming days following this announcement. In a broader context of attempts to conceptually tie criticism of Israel and its policies to anti-Semitism as such, nervousness about these kinds of government pronouncements is understandable. Consider, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s jab at the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement at the end of an article principally about fighting the use of violence against Israel. This article unfairly lumps BDS together with far more controversial forms of resistance to Israeli hostility and with attempts to achieve more nefarious anti-Israeli goals. Or consider Clinton’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in which she drew a direct, if (unsubtley) implicit, connection between the “alarming” BDS movement and anti-Semitism.

Relevant also is that these attempts are occurring in a further context of appalling Israeli policies toward Palestine, supported (albeit with occasional murmurings of dissatisfaction) by many countries in the Westprimarily the US but also the UK. (For extensive documentation of these policies and practices, see here). Tying opposition to Israeli policies and anti-Semitism together, therefore, has the menacing  effect of shielding oppression using the language of justice.

The definition, that anti-Semitism  may be expressed as “hatred towards Jews”, is hopeless by itself; is A an anti-Semite for hating B and C, who are incidentally Jewish (perhaps A doesn’t even know B and C are Jewish) but non-incidentally arseholes? Perhaps recognizing this, IHRA have supplemented it with illustrative examples of purported anti-Semitism. At least two of the examples would be worrying were they unqualified. First there is the example Johnson quotesclaiming that “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor” (although saying ‘a state of Israel’  rather than ‘the state of Israel’ seems more plausibly anti-Semitic, if only because it implies that any attempt to create a culturally Jewish state, not just the current one, would be racist). The other debatable example of anti-Semitism the document provides is “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”. It strikes me as a good default policy not to make such comparisons at least on grounds of tastefulness. But whether the comparison is anti-Semitic surely depends on the accuracy or avoidability of the comparison, as well as the circumstances in which it is made. Would comparing a Keynesian Israeli economic policy in this way, perhaps in the context of a sober historical discussion, be anti-Semitic? At the very least, such a potentially controversial case probably shouldn’t serve as a model illustration of one’s definition.

However, the document is quite clear that the examples are meant to illustrate cases that could constitute cases of anti-Semitism and which therefore, by implication, needn’t. Responses like Greenwald’s, Johnson’s, and White’s appear to ignore this important qualification, especially since the document also prefaces the examples by explicitly stating that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.

There are good grounds to think that various parties are trying to discredit legitimate criticism of Israeli policy by associating it or its proponents with anti-Semitism. There may even be grounds to think that people within the UK government are trying to do so too, perhaps even by adopting this definition. Still, the adopted definition (and examples) itself provides no obvious tools for doing so, even if it goes on to be misused for this purpose.


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