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The new Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism could be a useful tool in opposing the silencing of free speech on Palestine, writes John Clarke

Published last month, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) is a collaborative effort by ‘scholars in the fields of Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and Middle East studies.’ It was developed as ‘a tool to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism as it manifests in countries around the world today.’ It also very deliberately ‘responds to “the IHRA definition,” the document that was adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016.’

The writers of the JDA suggest that ‘Because the IHRA Definition is unclear in key respects and widely open to different interpretations, it has caused confusion and generated controversy, hence weakening the fight against antisemitism.’ They, therefore, ‘propose our non-legally binding Declaration as an alternative to the IHRA definition.’

It might then be helpful to briefly look at some of the damage that has been done by the IHRA definition before considering the contribution that might be made by the JDA.

IHRA Definition

The core definition of antisemitism that was adopted by the IHRA in 2016 is not particularly problematic in and of itself, even if it has been criticised for being somewhat imprecise. The difficulty lies with the focus of most of the eleven ‘examples’ of antisemitism that are attached to it. Fully seven of them relate to the State of Israel and, as such, they have been employed to present political disagreements with the Zionist project as expressions of anti-Jewish hatred. Indeed, they have been used to characterise anti-Zionism and even measured criticisms of Israel as one of the most pervasive and dangerous forms of antisemitism.

Kenneth Stern, who played the leading role in first developing the IHRA definition, has spoken out against its misuse as a weapon against free speech on Palestine. He has pointed out that the intention was to create a tool for data collectors and not a means of defining or policing hate speech. However, in the hands of Israel’s right-wing enablers, it has been used to attack free expression, to stifle Palestine solidarity and to target individuals and organisations that support the Palestinian struggle.

Taken up in this way, the disruptive role of the IHRA definition has been considerable and extensive. It played a major role in undermining the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. Since the enormously unfortunate decision by Labour to adopt the definition, in 2018, things have gone from bad to worse in terms of stifling free speech on Palestine.

Many examples could be given but the fact that Tower Hamlets council refused to host the Big Ride for Palestine in 2019, out of fear that this charitable event might violate the IHRA definition, drives home its chilling effect. Responding to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s efforts to impose the definition on universities, University College London’s (UCL) academic board declared in February that it “is not fit for purpose within a university setting and has no legal basis for enforcement.” Moreover, the board found that “the IHRA working definition risks undermining academic freedom.”

Here in Canada, a concerted drive is underway to get city councils to adopt the definition and it has already been taken up by both the federal and Ontario governments. Sheryl Nestel of Independent Jewish Voices has written a revealing study of the Annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents that is issued by B’nai Brith Canada. In the US, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) conducts a comparable study and, in 2019, it found evidence of 2,107 such incidents. For the same year, B’nai Brith ‘reported 2,207 antisemitic incidents in Canada.’

This is a truly astounding result since ‘the US has a population 9 times that of Canada and has 17 times as many Jews.’ The discrepancy is easy to understand once you compare the methodologies of the two studies. The ‘ADL is careful not to conflate general criticism of Israel or anti-Israel activism with antisemitism.’

B’nai Brith, on the other hand, openly declares that ‘To delineate the parameters of antisemitism and identify its root causes [it] uses the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism.’ In this way, a totally distorted picture of antisemitism is created that presents expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle as evidence of rampant antisemitism while diverting attention from the real and growing threat of antisemitic hatred coming from the far right.

Role of the JDA

As I indicated at the outset, the JDA is intended by those who authored and signed it as an alternative to the destructively misused IHRA definition, and it seeks to provide ‘(a) a clearer core definition and (b) a coherent set of guidelines.’ It is a collaborative effort by people of quite diverse views on Israel/Palestine. On that ‘vexed question,’ they make clear that ‘we are not seeking to promote a partisan political agenda.’ Their aim is show what may be considered legitimate opinion and what actually constitutes antisemitism.

The JDA provides a clear and crisp definition that suggests ‘Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).’ It then provides fifteen guidelines, the first five of which tackle the general features that mark antisemitic expressions or behaviour.

The remaining ten guidelines deal specifically with antisemitism in the context of Israel/Palestine. These, in turn, are divided into those that show when criticism of Israel or Zionist ideology can, ‘on the face of it,’ be driven by antisemitic sentiments and others that set out situations where such views or support for the Palestinian struggle should not be viewed as inherently antisemitic. These include ‘criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism’ and advocating ‘arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants “between the river and the sea,” whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.’ The document also suggests that calls for ‘Boycott, divestment and sanctions’ against the Israeli state are not ‘in and of themselves, antisemitic.’

The BDS National Committee has issued a ‘Palestinian civil society critique’ of the JDA that is supportive but that, nonetheless, makes a number of important criticisms of it. The critique suggests that ‘The JDA can be instrumental in the fight against the anti-Palestinian McCarthyism and repression that the proponents of the IHRA definition, with its “examples,” have promoted and induced, by design’ and it offers a series of clear arguments as to why this is so.

However, the Committee also objects to the fact that ‘the JDA excludes representative Palestinian perspectives’ and makes clear that ‘Palestinians cannot allow any definition of antisemitism to be employed for policing or censoring advocacy of our inalienable rights or our narration of our lived experiences and evidence-based history of struggle against settler-colonialism and apartheid.’

Barry Trachtenberg, makes clear that his decision to sign the JDA was not made without some ambivalence. As ‘a scholar of Jewish history,’ he had previously argued against the notion of working on a distinct definition of antisemitism that was set apart from other forms of racism. However, he makes the decisive point that the need for the JDA was created by the pernicious role of the IHRA definition. As he puts it, ‘I participated in the effort to produce the JDA to curb the growing momentum by the state of Israel and many of its supporters to wield the IHRA definition to restrict valid criticisms’ and he further makes clear that ‘the widespread adoption and abuse of the flawed IHRA definition has convinced me that it needs outright replacement.’

In my view, the most persuasive case for the importance of the JDA is put forward by Rob Ferguson, in an article written for Jewish Voice for Labour. The strength of his argument lies in the fact that he distinguishes the need for active Palestine solidarity, which he supports and advocates, from the question of upholding the right to free speech on Palestine and defending it from weaponised antisemitism. He agrees that Palestinians should not have to ‘justify their struggle for liberation against charges of antisemitism.’ Despite this, he points out that:

“The difficulty however is that we are facing a repressive, quasi-legal attack, deployed with significant success in suppressing free expression on Palestine itself. This makes the JDA’s systematic refutation of the IHRA, combined with its diverse authorship and list of signatories, a unique tool in building opposition to this attack.”

Ferguson puts forward a case for treating the defence of ‘free expression on Israel and Palestine’ as a distinct question and for using the JDA as a weapon against the harmful role of the IHRA definition. In this way, he suggests, a path can be opened for the most robust support for the liberation struggle of the Palestinians. With this perspective, he provides a very important contribution to the discussion.

The JDA is certainly not a perfect document. It pays insufficient attention to the rising tide of antisemitism on the right, as the BDS National Committee has pointed out. I would also suggest that, whatever the intentions of those who drew it up, the use of the name of the city that, more than any other, is associated with the colonial dispossession of the Palestinians was a hugely unfortunate choice.

However, as the international campaign to smear the Palestinian struggle and all who support it with the false accusation of antisemitism becomes ever bolder and more harmful, the IHRA definition is now the weapon of choice. In this situation, a mainstream and authoritative voice of reason and clarity that challenges that flawed definition is enormously helpful. The JDA is there to be used as a tool that helps to clear the way forward in the building of an international movement of solidarity with the struggle for a free Palestine.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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