Weaponizing Anti-Semitism: IHRA and Ending the Palestine Exception — Introduction

The following introduction and overview of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism was developed by USACBI Organizing Collective members Terri Ginsberg, John King, Bill Mullen and Heike Schotten and presented by Heike Schotten at the USACBI webinar on this topic on April 6, 2021:

Weaponizing Anti-Semitism:  IHRA and Ending the Palestine Exception 

– Terri Ginsberg, John King, Bill Mullen, Heike Schotten

Welcome to “Weaponizing Antisemitism:  IHRA and Ending the Palestine Exception.”  We are very pleased you could make it to this fourth in a series of webinars (1, 2, 3, 4) hosted by USACBI, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.  My name is Heike Schotten, and I am a member of the USACBI organizing collective.

Today’s webinar will discuss the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism and its impact on Palestine solidarity activism, free speech, and academic freedom. Formed in 1998, the IHRA is an international organization dedicated to working with governments to promote education about the Holocaust and upholding the Holocaust exceptionalist premises of the 2000 Stockholm Declaration.

Released in 2016, the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is in fact only two sentences long.  It reads:

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

While this definition has been criticized on many grounds, including conceptual vagueness, provisional language such as “may be,” and its emphasis on “perception,” what has proven even more problematic is the long list of examples of antisemitism appended to this definition, some of which include:  

  • Denying Jewish people the right to self-determination
  • Declaring Israel to be “a racist endeavor”
  • “Applying double standards [to Israel] by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

These examples rely on a number of problematic assumptions.  They assume that Jews comprise a unified “people”; that an apartheid political structure can also, simultaneously, be a democratic national entity; that Israel is a “Jewish state”; that criticizing Israel constitutes “singling it out” or exceptionalizing it; and that criticizing a government is equivalent to criticizing a group of people. 

Defining antisemitism in terms of “Holocaust Remembrance” has been a Zionist strategy since at least the 1980s.  This move reduces all politics to a single narrative past of Holocaust exceptionalism, centering Jewish victimization in a way that erases the Nakba and the Zionist colonization of Palestine.  This stacks the rhetorical deck against Palestinians from the outset, rendering their claims to justice invisible.  

Similarly, then, the IHRA calling criticism of Zionism and Israeli state policies “antisemitic” functions to repress and silence advocates for Palestinian liberation. Although never intended to be used on college campuses to monitor or regulate speech, the IHRA working definition has been invoked on U.S. university campuses with increasing frequency.  For example, at Florida State University, state-level politicians tried to remove Ahmad Daraldik, the first Muslim Palestinian student body president, from his position because of his work with SJP in support of BDS.  At Fordham University, the Zionist organization Stand With Us invoked the IHRA working definition in trying to shut down that campus’s SJP.  Palestinian-American San Francisco State University Professor and USACBI Advisory Board Member Rabab Abdulhadi has been subjected to a years-long lawsuit by the Zionist organization The Lawfare Project, which relies on the IHRA working definition as its “factual” basis for accusing the professor and her university of antisemitsm.  More recently, in a very troubling precedent, students at the University of Minnesota voted overwhelmingly, at the public urging of the campus Hillel organization, to adopt the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism. 

To date, the IHRA’s working definition has been adopted by 29 countries, including Canada, the US, the UK and Israel, as well as the United Nations and the European Union.  Despite this, its false conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism has been frequently rejected by US courts.  For example, the IHRA definition was adopted at NYU only after legal complaints filed by Zionist lawfare organization The Louis D. Brandeis Center (no connection with Brandeis University) failed to convince judges that pro-Palestinian campus groups created a hostile learning environment for Jewish students. 

This blame-the-victim logic, redolent of McCarthyism, creates an environment of fear and intimidation for everyone, faculty and students alike.  It silences the legitimate questioning of Israel’s continuing, unabated, brutal, internationally enabled ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Professors who teach about Palestine and Zionism in these contexts, or who engage in public criticism of Israel, continue to be subjected to censure, non-promotion, firing, and other forms of discipline and punishment.  Students who engage in Palestine advocacy on campus continue to be targeted, threatened, harassed, intimidated, disciplined, and punished.

The dangers of IHRA cannot be overestimated.  Its implications for political activism and academic freedom are as far-reaching as the political and economic interests which it represents.  Our speakers today will discuss, from their respective positions, not only how and why the IHRA is so dangerous, but also how critics of Israel and supporters of Palestinian liberation might resist its repression and encroachment on their political work.  

Further resource links: 

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