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June 1, 2016 2:47 pm

Human Rights Activists Celebrate Multi-Country Adoption of New Definition of Antisemitism

avatar by Lea Speyer

Policy experts and diplomats seen gathered at the IHRA Plenary in Bucharest in May 2016 where a working definition of antisemitism was adopted. Photo: IHRA.

Policy experts and diplomats seen gathered at the IHRA Plenary in Bucharest in May 2016, where a working definition of antisemitism was adopted. Photo: IHRA.

Human rights activists told The Algemeiner on Wednesday why they consider last week’s adoption by 31 countries of a new working definition of antisemitism to be a major step towards combating the reemerging phenomenon.

Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center — who proposed the adoption of the definition; Ben Cohen, author of Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism; Kenneth Marcus, president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law; and Manfred Gerstenfeld, founder of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ post-Holocaust and antisemitism program, all said that the adoption of the definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Plenary is a historic action that will now prompt leading countries to confront the growing issue head-on.

According to the IHRA definition:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestation of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

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Of particular significance is the accompanying text which presents “contemporary examples” of modern antisemitism, and includes reference specifically to Israel. Some examples are:

Manifestation might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.

Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.

Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.

Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

An earlier draft of this definition was formulated some 10 years ago and circulated by the European Union Monitoring Center (EUMC), the human rights arm of the EU. While the definition was never officially adopted, it appeared on the EUMC website. Following criticism for this, the EUMC eventually removed the posting.

Weitzman — who chairs the IHRA’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial — told The Algemeiner that he has been working for the last several years to get the IHRA to adopt it.

“We decided a couple of years ago that IHRA was the right venue to bring up the definition for adoption. The idea was proposed to my committee, who recommended it to IHRA’s Plenary and it took two years to get the definition through, which is remarkably fast in IHRA terms,” he said, comparing it to an earlier definition — of Holocaust distortion — which took five years to pass.

Weitzman told The Algemeiner he believed the adoption of the definition would “be more controversial and difficult.” He credits the current chair of IHRA — Romanian diplomat Ambassador Mihnea Constantinescu — with “taking this issue on as one of his country’s own objectives and putting his whole political weight behind it. This made a huge impact and signaled to IHRA that adopting this definition was a clear priority.”

Author Ben Cohen, a senior editor at The Tower magazine and director of partnership programs at The Israel Project, described the IHRA’s move as a “huge achievement.”

“We now have a respected international organization that understands the intersection of antisemitism with anti-Zionism,” he told The Algemeiner, referencing the IHRA’s decision to include antisemitic anti-Zionism among its working examples of antisemitism.

“There are many organizations that could benefit from using this definition, not least the UN itself,” Cohen added.

Marcus told The Algemeiner that the IHRA’s definition “is excellent, and it is important that it so closely mirrors both the US State Department definition and also the EUMC’s definition.” Its major significance, he said, is in the fact that “in this field, uniformity is key, because it facilitates international cooperation and comparison of data across countries.”

Calling the IHRA definition “well-balanced, rather than being overly narrow or broad,” Marcus highlighted two aspects of it. “First, the definition emphasized the importance of viewing any incident in its ‘overall context.’ In that respect, it wisely allows for case-by-case determinations. Second, the IHRA definition, like other similar tools, clarifies that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’ It is by no means the broadest of definitions,” he said.

While the IHRA and State Department definitions of antisemitism are legally non-binding, Marcus said, “Such adoptions are influential, even when they are symbolic, because they change the way we talk and think about hate and bias — how people think about the relationship between anti-Israelism and antisemitism. This is a multi-state process that can eventually lead to policy, enforcement and action, but it will take some time.”

Gerstenfeld told The Algemeiner that while the definition itself is “very good,” he takes issue with a word in one of the examples of antisemtisim provided by the IHRA: “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

“The word ‘democratic’ is misplaced,” he said. “According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the first paragraph, it is clearly implicit that every human being is responsible for his own actions. This is crucial because, for example, you can’t have a person say, ‘I’m a Palestinian and I admire murderers. But I’m only a Palestinian and therefore exempt. The word ‘democratic’ should not have been there. Instead, it should have read ‘of any other nation.’ This is my only criticism.”

The IHRA Plenary in Bucharest officially adopted the working definition of antisemitism on May 30, following a four-day meeting of 200 experts and policymakers from around the world to discuss the Holocaust as a contemporary political issue. Out of the IHRA’s 31 member countries, 24 belong to the EU, and others include the US, UK, Canada and Israel.

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