26 August 2018
President, Liberal Democrat Party
Dear Madam President,
I am writing to you about the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which the Party may come under pressure to adopt. We urge you not to do so. The IHRA document is written in such a way that serious criticism of Israel can be automatically seen as antisemitic, the intention of its proponents obviously being to discourage open debate on Israel-Palestine.
I know that you have already been given the Tomlinson opinion and former high Court Judge Sedley’s article, which explain the document’ s legal inadequacies and the risks public bodies take by using it. Liberty has castigated the document as inhibiting free speech on Israel and undermining the fight against genuine antisemitism by conflating it with criticism of Israel. In this letter, I would like to concentrate on the linguistic confusions in the document.
(A) The definition
The document 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. The effect on freedom of speech on Israel-Palestine would be chilling.
These are the two key sentences causing the uncertainty:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” and (in the preamble to the examples) “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 anyone criticising Israel can be regarded as antisemitic unless he or she has also criticized other countries in the same way ? Even worse, does it mean that the person can be regarded as antisemitic unless he or she criticises other countries in the same way at the same time ? Either way, it would discourage people from exercising their right to criticise Israel.
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, creating an apartheid-like system of unequal rights, and using violent and sometimes lethal means to repress resistance, for 50+ years ?
(B) The “examples” attached to he 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 ambiguity and uncertainty of the definition, but rather accentuate it by setting up straw men of extremely antisemitic remarks but not balancing them with examples of legitimate criticism of Israel.
In fact, the document was written, years before the IHRA took it up, as a tool for gathering data on potentially antisemitic incidents on a consistent basis. It is being misused by the established pro-Israel Jewish leadership as a means of deciding whether any particular comment is antisemitic. The main drafter, Kenneth Stern, testified last year to the US Congress that it is not suitable for that purpose. The intended purpose of the document is indicated by the conditional wording relating to the examples, i.e. “may serve as illustrations” and “could, taking into account the overall context…”
The essence of the issue of antisemitism vs. criticism of Israel is that criticism of Israel isn’t antisemitic provided it is worded specifically about Israel or the Israeli government, and not about Jews. Neither is questioning the nature of Zionism antisemitic. Neither belief in Zionism nor an attachment to Israel are protected characteristics in the Equality Act. That was confirmed by an Employment Tribunal in Fraser vs. University & College Union in 2013.
If the Party considers that it needs to adopt a definition of antisemitism, it should use a simple definition that doesn’t confuse antisemitism with criticism of Israel. The two principal ones are by the philosopher Brian Klug and Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the study of antisemitism. Professor Klug defines antisemitism as hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which they are perceived as something other than what they are. He goes on to describe the stereotypes of malign, grasping, selfish and dishonest people. Professor Feldman proposes a two-part definition, which refers to antisemitic discourse that represents Jews as stereotyped and malign figures, and to institutional antisemitism which discriminates against Jews in practice.
We would welcome a meeting with you to discuss all this in more depth.
Diplomatic and Parliamentary Liaison officer, JJP
member of Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine