24 May 2017
We are deeply concerned about paragraph C.2 in the motion for a resolution to wind up the debate on the Commission and Council statement on combating antisemitism at the plenary session of Parliament on 31st May. Embedded in an otherwise uncontroversial text, this paragraph would commit Parliament to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The IHRA attempts to define antisemitic speech in such a way that serious criticism of Israel would be seen as antisemitic, the intention obviously being to discourage open debate on Israel-Palestine.
(A) The definition
Briefly, the definition would create massive uncertainty as to what criticism of Israel would be legitimate and what would be antisemitic, thereby significantly undermining people’s confidence in criticising Israel. That would have three effects. Firstly, it would discourage people from criticizing Israeli policy or actions in any fundamental way for fear of falling foul of the definition. Secondly, it would discourage people from debating Israel-Palestine at all. Thirdly, it would simply cause confusion as to what is legitimate criticism. The effect on freedom of speech on Israel-Palestine would be chilling.
These are the two key sentences causing the uncertainty of the definition
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” and “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The first sentence does not clearly define what it purports to define. What does “certain perception” mean ? Also, it seems to be creating the fear that an innocent remark could be seen as hatred of Jews.
The second sentence is even more problematic. It is impossibly ambiguous.
Does it mean that any criticism of Israel can be regarded as antisemitic unless the person criticizing Israel has also criticized other countries in the same way ? Even worse, does it mean that the person can be regarded as antisemitic unless he criticises other countries in the same way at the same time ? Either way, it would discourage people from exercising their right to choose which political issues to concern themselves with.
Or does it mean that criticism of Israel can be regarded as antisemitic unless someone, somewhere, has already criticised other countries in the same way?
What does “similar” mean in this context ? What other countries have been belligerently occupying another people’s land, illegally settling it and taking its natural resources, and using violent and sometimes lethal means to repress resistance, for 50 years ?
Finally, Israel has all the responsibilities and obligations of a state, and its actions affect people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, inside and outside of its borders. It is open to criticism based on what it does, as is any state.
(B) The “examples” in the definition
The “examples” of antisemitic statements are a mixture of remarks (most of the examples) that would clearly be antisemitic, and three (italicised) that might or might not be, depending on the context and precisely what was said. They do not, however, reduce the uncertainty or ambiguity of the definition, but rather accentuate it by setting up straw men of extremely antisemitic remarks, but not giving any examples of legitimate criticism of Israel.
(C) We urge MEPS
We urge MEPs either to remove paragraph C.2 or to vote down the proposal.
The right to freedom of speech requires that people can criticise the actions of any state, including Israel. The essence of the issue is that criticism of Israel isn’t antisemitic provided it is worded specifically about Israel or the Israeli government, and not about Jews. That’s all that needs to be said.
We note that Federica Mogherini, in answering a Parliamentary question on 15 September 2016, supported freedom of expression specifically in relation to Israel-Palestine and BDS. She said: “The EU stands firm in protecting freedom of expression and freedom of association in line with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which is applicable on EU Member States’ territory, including with regard to BDS actions carried out on this territory. Freedom of expression, as underlined by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, is also applicable to information or ideas ‘that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.”
If Parliament considers that an official definition of antisemitism might be needed in the European Union, then it should ask the appropriate committee to consider the issue properly. It is noteworthy that the predecessor of the Fundamental Rights Agency, the European Monitoring Committee on Racism and Xenophobia, held the original version of he IHRA definition on its website as a draft work in progress, but the FRA removed it long ago as unfit for purpose.
Dror Feiler, Chair of EJJP, Judar for Israelisk-Palestinsk Fred (Stockholm).
Arthur Goodman, Diplomatic and Parliamentary Liaison officer, Jews for Justice for Palestinians (London)