Antisemitism and delegitimisation

Critics of Israel are increasingly accused of delegitimising Israel and encouraging antisemitism. This creates a climate of suspicion in which the onus is on critics to somehow demonstrate they are not antisemitic.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2011 - 14:01
London, UK

The strong fight-back by Israel and its supporters against the country’s deteriorating public image has been sometimes crude, sometimes carefully pitched. The dissemination of a draft ‘working definition’ of antisemitism by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in 2005 has proven particularly effective. Inadequate as a definition and never formally adopted, it is not up for discussion by those who could change it. Yet it is increasingly presented today as the definition of antisemitism. It cannot bear this weight.

It came about in 2004 after the EUMC published a report highlighting the need for an operational definition of antisemitism to provide a common standard for data collection across the EU. Eventually, the EUMC posted a ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’ on its website.

The document was produced behind closed doors after a consultation with Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee and others (see Roth, ‘Proposal for a Redefinition of Antisemitism’), but not including those experts, cited in the original report, who sharply distinguished between antisemitism and legitimate opposition to Israel – even though the EUMC intended the definition to be ‘in line with the theoretical arguments’ in the report.

Let’s look at the document itself. It is unclear whether ‘Working Definition’ means the whole document (which fills a single A4 sheet) or just this paragraph which is in bold italics and preceded by the phrase: Working definition:

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.

If this is indeed the definition, it is so vague as to be useless as a practical tool. If it is the entire document (headed ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’), then it is not only unwieldy but also untrue to the original report which clearly differentiates political criticism of Israel from antisemitism. The ‘Working Definition’ leans towards conflating them.

Following the quoted paragraph, the document continues: ‘In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.’ This single sentence has dominated the way the ‘Working Definition’ is read.

The use of ‘could’, here and later in the document, is loaded. Following six relatively unproblematic examples of antisemitism, the document again focuses on Israel and lists five ways in which antisemitism ‘could’ be manifested, which are both confused and tendentious. The text says that ‘the overall context’ should be taken into account. Yet, regardless of context, one of the examples – ‘using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism’ – could hardly be anything but antisemitic. As for the remaining examples, the word ‘could’ draws attention to only one possibility – antisemitism.

Take, for instance, its example of “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”. This could be antisemitic. Equally, denying that same right to Basques, Catalans, Scots or indeed the Zulu or Afrikaner nations/peoples, could be racist. But there are all kinds of non-racist reasons why someone might not support these national causes. The right to national self-determination is after all not the primordial right.

Or consider this: ‘Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’. Of course this is wrong. It could be antisemitic. But no-one makes this accusation when Zionists routinely conflate Jews collectively with Israel. Indeed it is hard to have a discussion about Zionism without this notion coming up positively, expressed clearly in the idea of Israel as the Jewish state, acting on behalf of all Jews (e.g. Olmert in August 2006: “This is a war which is fought by all the Israelis. I believe that this is a war that is fought by all the Jews.”)

The document is riddled with problems; which perhaps is why, contrary to what the European Forum on Antisemitism claims, the ‘Working Definition’ was not adopted by the EUMC. As Beate Winkler, EUMC Director, said at the time, it ‘should be viewed as “work in progress” … with a view to redrafting.’

In fact, the document appears to be dead in the water as far as the Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), the successor body to the EUMC, is concerned. They recently told me that feedback on initial testing of the document ‘drew attention to a number of issues which impacted on its effectiveness as a data collection support tool.’ In other words, it wasn’t useful. ‘Since its development we are not aware of any public authority in the EU that applies it,’ the FRA official added.

Moreover, ‘The FRA has no plans for any further development’ of the ‘Working Definition.’ (24 August 2010)

The latest FRA publication on the topic - its Working Paper Anti-Semitism: Summary overview of the situation in the European Union 2001-2009 (April 2010) does not even mention the ‘Working Definition’. It does complain (p.3) that: “Even where data exist they are not comparable, since they are collected using different definitions and methodologies.” That was precisely the reason why a operational definition was called for in the first place. The ‘Working Definition’ clearly does not do this and is not fit for purpose.

None of this has stopped the perversely named ‘EUMC Working Definition’ from taking on a life of its own. The European Forum on Antisemitism has translated it into no fewer than 30 languages; in the United Kingdom an All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Antisemitism endorsed it uncritically (Sept 2006), as did the National Union of Students (March 2007, reaffirmed in 2010). Careless bloggers now even refer to it as the ‘EU definition’.

The reservations in the document, where things ‘could, taking into account the overall context’ be antisemitic, have all but disappeared in practice.

This document has little to do with fighting antisemitism and a lot to do with waging a propaganda war against critics of Israel. It is time it was buried.

Richard Kuper is a former chair of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, an organisation of more than 1,600 Jews in Britain. He grew up in apartheid South Africa and has been a political and social activist, publisher, trade-unionist and university lecturer.

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