Activists campaign to redefine antisemitism

February 26, 2023
A protest for Palestine in Sydney in 2021. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Attempts to shackle criticism of Israeli violations of Palestinian rights have rebuffed in recent months, as Palestinian activists and their supporters win endorsements for a Sydney Statement on anti-Palestinianism.

The Sydney Statement was drawn up in September 2021 by the Arab Australian Federation. It received backing last November from both houses of the South Australian parliament, which passed a resolution moved by Labor Party members and supported by the Greens. The Statement has also been adopted by two of Australia’s largest municipal councils — Canterbury-Bankstown and Liverpool in Western Sydney.

Arab Australians decided to draft the Statement in the context of a worldwide attempt by supporters of the Israeli state to impose a Working Definition of Antisemitism, drawn up by a conference, in Romania in 2016, of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

IHRA’s Working Definition has since been endorsed by governments of at least 30 countries, including Australia, as well as by the European Union and the United States.

Along with winning support from governments and other state bodies, advocates of IHRA’s Working Definition have also campaigned to have its terms inserted into the policies and regulations of universities.

What, one might ask, could be objectionable about an initiative to keep fresh the memory of the World War II massacre of most of Europe’s Jewish population — one of the most horrifying episodes in human history?

Doesn’t the world need a clear, shared definition of antisemitism, an ugly throwback that refuses to vanish from humanity’s collective psyche?

Unfortunately, the picture is not so straightforward.

IHRA definition a booby-trap

The IHRA’s Working Definition can fairly be viewed as a conceptual booby-trap, aimed at aligning the unwary with the policies — often very objectionable — of successive Israeli governments. It also represents a tool for bullying into silence anyone who takes issue with those policies.

The IHRA Working Definition begins: “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.”

That seems unexceptionable. But, if someone shows hostility to a particular Jewish individual, or institution, this may be for reasons quite distinct from their Jewishness.

Are we then seeing a case of antisemitism? Here, the IHRA’s Working Definition is not clear. In a formula meant to be incorporated into laws and regulations, this can pose real dangers.

The sharpest objections to the Working Definition, however, relate to a list of 11 “contemporary examples of anti-semitism” appended to it, and offered as guidelines for its application. Seven of these examples refer to the state of Israel. Some condemn genuinely reprehensible behaviour.

But what are we to make of this? “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”? Here, the task of formulating and illustrating a definition has been left far behind and we are into tendentious political argument.

What is antisemitism?

So, is it antisemitic to call Israel racist?

Let’s note a 2018 set of changes to the Israeli Constitution, which now includes the sentence: “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.”

What if you are a Palestinian, born in Palestine, or the child or grandchild of people who were? Sorry, you don’t get self-determination in Israel. Jews, by contrast, even if their ancestors have lived outside the present-day Israel for millennia, possess the automatic right to “return”.

In a further insult to Palestinians, the 2018 constitutional changes stripped Arabic of its status as an official language. If that isn’t racism, it can only be for the technical reason that “race” is not a valid scientific concept.

Another example of “antisemitism” listed in the IHSA’s Working Definition runs as follows: “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

More than a few “democratic nations” (including Australia) have shocking records of mistreating their First Nations peoples. But even these countries, for the most part, have not expelled their indigenous populations from the territory of the nation-state and stopped them coming back.

The founding, in 1948, of the state of Israel (Palestinians refer to this as the Nakba, or catastrophe) led to an estimated 750,000 Palestinians being forcibly driven from their homeland, or fleeing from the accompanying war and terrorist attacks. Few of these people ever saw their homes again.

Around 1.5 million Palestinians today live under deplorable conditions in the Gaza Strip, subject to an arbitrary Israeli blockade and intermittent military assaults.

If Israeli leaders feel unduly put upon, the reason may simply be that their behaviour has been uncommonly vicious. In any case, criticising their actions and policies is not the same thing as antisemitism.

Slipped into the IHRA’s Working Definition’s justified condemnation of anti-Jewish hatred and discrimination is something altogether different: a dishonest conflation of protest against the crimes of the Israeli state with antipathy to Jews as such.

The methods used by the IHRA’s Working Definition to mislead opinion and stifle debate are a pitiable con trick. Still, there is no question that if used relentlessly enough, the devices rolled out in the Definition can score results.

Jeremy Corbyn scapegoated

Jeremy Corbyn, British Labour Member of Parliament, had a long record of defending Palestinian rights, before being chosen as leader in 2015. Almost from the day Corbyn was voted in, big-business media and the political right began a campaign slandering him as a collaborator with antisemites. It helped distract attention from the Conservative government’s poor performance and the smear campaign helped secure a heavy election defeat for Labour in 2019.

The IHRA’s Working Definition was adopted by the Scott Morrison Coalition government in October 2021. By then, the Definition had long been attracting praise from Labor’s then-shadow foreign minister Penny Wong.

A cross-party Parliamentary Friends of the IHRA has been set up and is promoting the Working Definition. Last November, this association sent an open letter to university vice-chancellors, urging the IHRA’s Working Definition be adopted.

Will the CEOs of Australian universities, facing a squeeze on government funding, now defy organised pressure from pro-Israel politicians?

And will the vice-chancellors resist demands to censor teaching and discussion on Palestinian issues? Among those unconvinced is Sydney University branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union Nick Riemer. The Guardian on February 6 quoted Riemer as saying the Parliamentary Friends of the IHRA had launched an “outright attack on academic freedom”.

“[The IHRA] will prevent universities doing what they’re meant to do ... critically analyse the contemporary world without concern for lobbies.”

Open letter to VCs

Well over 100 academics and other educators, many of them Jewish, have now signed an open letter to vice-chancellors “opposing the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism in Australian Universities”.

Unlike the IHRA’s weasel-worded Definition, the Sydney Statement on Anti-Palestinianism being circulated by the Arab Australian Federation is a model of humanity and scruple.

“Anti-Palestinianism”, the Sydney Statement explained, “refers to language and practices that direct discrimination, racism, hatred or violence against the Palestinian people”.

“Accusations of Anti-Semitism,” the Sydney Statement continued, “should not be used to shield Israel from criticisms of its oppression of Palestinian people and its defiance of international law”. Then follows a list of principles, including one that spells out the right of Palestinians to their own state.

“Anti-Palestinianism is flagrant,” the Sydney Statement noted, “when this right is undermined by settlements and acts of annexation, both illegal under international law”.

Palestinians are also entitled to “all legitimate means of protest and advocacy”, and to “engage in resistance against unlawful policies and practices of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land”.

They have the right, the Sydney Statement continued, to present their case to the world; to advocate their right of return; to freely commemorate Nakba Day, the anniversary of their expulsion; and to be free from collective punishment.

These are the most pressing human rights issues in the region of Palestine today. They need to be acknowledged by Australian governments at all levels.

[Join one of the national protests to mark the 75th anniversary of Al Nakba on May 13.]

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