On the 7th of September 2018, following a meeting with the Chief Rabbi, several media reported on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s appeal to the Church of England to formally adopt “the full IHRA definition” of antisemitism. Within 4 days the bishops of the Church of England rallied behind him. By praising the Labour MP’s who had voted to adopt the definition as is, the Archbishop had implicitly condemned Labour’s leadership (the NEC) for failing to adopt that definition without any qualifications. The NEC had not been opposed to the definition, but had wanted to include a free speech clause on Israel and Palestine. This clause was meant to prevent certain sentences in the definition from being used to stifle criticism of the State of Israel on account of their treatment of Palestinians.
The Archbishop probably assumed that any additions to the definition would weaken it, be unnecessary or both. In any case, he said he was “distressed” that it should be necessary to formally adopt the IHRA definition, implying that even without such an adoption the church should have been united in its understanding of antisemitism, but currently is not. Of course it would be ideal if the church would be 100% united in its understanding. The question is whether a formal adoption helps to bring about such unity. Another question is whether there really is such a distressing lack of unity.
My answer to the first question is that formal adoption of a statement seldom removes the differences in interpretation, as can be seen from many resolutions, passed in whatever council. The only advantage seems to be that an intention to pass a resolution sometimes sparks a more intense debate. In this case there does not seem to have been much debate, at least not at grass roots level. I firmly believe, with the previous archbishop, that the crisis in which many democracies find themselves today, is to a large extent due to what we may call the tyranny of the majority. Minority voices are constantly being overruled instead of seeking dialogue to establish what is best for everyone. The Church should really be at the forefront of the latter approach, even when it comes to views with a superficial resemblance to antisemitism, instead of showing off its moral superiority and ignoring relevant questions.
Fortunately, the word “distress” also points to some awareness of the disadvantages of a black and white “solution”. If you prefer that something would not be necessary, it is good to ask yourself whether it is necessary. How many wrong actions, even murders, are not justified by saying, “I wish that this would not have been necessary”. Usually there are others ways, which take other people and other views more seriously, which is one of the things Christianity teaches us.
The second question, about the perceived lack of unity, is more difficult to answer. It depends where you stand. If you accept only one valid interpretation (which obviously simplifies relationships with religious and political leaders) any deviation from this is perhaps distressing. If one hopes to see provisions for a variety of interpretations, while retaining the general rejection of antisemitism, and accepts that there is give and take in any relationship, the word “distress” becomes more like a veiled threat to anyone with a slightly different perspective.
A closer look at the text
Our final responses, though, should also depend on the actual words of the definition, its history and the current political situation. Let us start with the wording of the definition.
- A fundamental criticism of the text is that it does not make sufficient distinction between Zionism and the Jewish people, between Judaism and the Jewish people, and in particular between the Jewish people and the State of Israel. I share that criticism. There are definitely Jews who do not regard criticism of the State of Israel as a good example of (even potential) antisemitism.
- Antisemitism is defined as primarily a “certain perception of Jews”. This perception may be expressed as hatred towards them. It is true that all hatred starts in the heart before it can be expressed. Both the Old and the New Testament refer to this (cf. Mat. 12:34 and Ez. 16:30). However, I think we should distinguish between perceptions, attitudes and deeds. Perceptions arise in the brain almost instantly, on the basis of observations and previous knowledge. This previous knowledge may be incorrect, but in that case it does not help to attack or suppress the perception. We should go to the root of the problem, which is what we think we know. Unfortunately this definition hinders such a dialogue, because it never speaks of checking assumptions, not even in the examples which are given. By using the word “may”, the text does admit that an incorrect perception does not necessarily lead to hatred. In legal terms, it is not even the hatred (the attitude), but the expression of hatred which may be punishable. If we want to banish certain perceptions by adopting formal statements like these, it is not only futile, but may even be counter-productive when other incorrect perceptions (e.g. about the State of Israel) are not simultaneously addressed.
- The first example of manifestations of antisemitism which is given, later to be further explored in the bulleted list under “contemporary examples of antisemitism”, concerns criticism of the State of Israel. Although one cannot deny some connection between the Jewish people and the State of Israel, it is telling that this is the very first example of possible antisemitism which is given. That in itself could justify a certain suspicion that the definition and the organisations which promote it exist primarily to protect political interests and only as a bonus happen to protect the Jewish people.
- Admittedly, the text adds that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. However, as Richard Burden has said in his article Why I am concerned about the IHRA definition, “Instead of being a protection, unfortunately even this clause has been invoked to achieve the opposite. There are already examples of people being labelled as antisemites if they spend more time campaigning against human rights abuses by Israel than elsewhere on the grounds that their criticism of Israel is not ‘similar to that levelled against any other country’”. He continues, “I know only too well that if you speak up for the rights of Palestinians you will face a torrent of abuse alleging antisemitism. Here is a small selection of the abuse I have received on social media.”
- What is conspicuous by its absence, is the simple but essential observation that antisemitism is a specific instance of racism. A possible reason for not mentioning this relationship is that, on closer observation, the word antisemitism is a misnomer. Most Palestinians are also Semites, yet the term antisemitism is never used in connection with Palestinians. That would not be so bad if Palestinians could refer to something like anti-Palestianism. Again, we never hear that term or a similar one being used. This is not exactly a level playing-field.
- More generally speaking, I wonder if the presence of examples is not distracting from the generic characteristics of racism, which are already described in many constitutions and conventions. Separately defining what racism looks like in the case of a particular ethnic group, subtly suggests to us that some forms of racism are worse than others and deserve more attention, perhaps because of their history. Whatever happened in the past (and we all know what happened), and however we wish to prevent a repetition, that in itself does not make the present expressions of a particular racism worse or better. Some may reply that the Holocaust does make present antisemitism worse, because we should have learnt from the past. I agree that we should have learnt our lessons, but I am also disappointed that when we learn something, we do not seem to apply it to racism in general. We seem to become obsessed by fighting this one particular form of racism, while in the mean time, before our very eyes, other atrocities are taking place, which are treated as no more than unfortunate collateral damage, possibly exaggerated by the victims. In other words, if we are so opposed to adding qualifications to a definition of antisemitism, why not oppose the definition of the IHRA as well, which itself is a qualification of a definition, namely the definition of racism in general?
13 years without consensus, 2 of impatience
Some brief remarks about the history of the IHRA. In 1998 the Swedish ex-PM Göran Persson founded (or stimulated the foundation of) a so-called “Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research”. It is clear from its name, that the Task Force concentrated on fighting Holocaust denial and trivialising. This led to the Declaration of Stockholm, adopted at an International Forum on the Holocaust, in 2000. From then on, the Declaration formed the basis for the work of the Task Force. In 2013 it was transformed into a full intergovernmental organisation, cooperating with the UN, called “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance” (IHRA). 31 countries are currently members of the alliance and subscribe to its goals.
The content of the “IHRA” definition actually dates from 2004, was first published in 2005 on the website of the EUMC as a non-official document “without formal review”, hence removed by its successor, the FRA, in 2013. Mark Weitzman, who helped to get the definition and its list of examples to be adopted by the IHRA in 2016, later noted that this EUMC definition was used as “there was not enough time to invent a new one”. Some people were suddenly in a hurry.
The next year the EU voted to call on its member states (and their institutions) to adopt and apply this non-legally binding (!) definition. The first countries to adopt the working definition for internal use, were the UK and Israel. To date (2018), only 6 of the 31 member states of the IHRA have formally adopted the definition. In 2011 and 2018 the UK saw some “high-profile controversy” surrounding the concept of “new antisemitism” as held by the IHRA and the alleged link between antisemitism and criticism of Israel. According to Wikipedia, “the definition has been contested by scholars of antisemitism including Brian Klug, David Feldman, and Antony Lerman; jurists including Hugh Tomlinson, Stephen Sedley, Geoffrey Bindman, and Geoffrey Robertson; and one of the original drafters Kenneth S. Stern has opposed the misuse of the definition to suppress and limit free speech.” Nevertheless, the Church of England was in a hurry to not only adopt it as working definition, but to formally adopt it.
Finally, when we look at the political situation in the Middle East, we should note that the definition speaks of contemporary examples of antisemitism. The problem is that political situations change. What is contemporary today may be expressed differently tomorrow. This is why the text says “not limited to”. However, people fail to realise that these examples undermine the whole usefulness of the text as a definition for the longer term. In 14 years’ time a lot can happen. And indeed, since the working definition was born in 2004, a lot has happened which places “criticism of Israel” as a potential indicator of antisemitism in a whole new light.
For instance, precisely at the height of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in the Summer of 2014, the CAA (Campaign Against Antisemitism) was created, with the specific goal of demonising Israel’s critics. Posing as a charity to protect Jews against antisemitism, they concentrated on attacking supporters of justice for Palestine. The CAA was created by extreme elements in Britain’s Zionist community, who were not satisfied with the campaigns of established organisations such as the CST, which monitors antisemitic incidents in the UK. By comparison, Palestinians have very few national and international organisations defending their rights with equal vigour.
Add to this that we have admissions from high ranking Jewish politicians that they have been consciously exploiting charges of antisemitism to get away with inhumane policies and war crimes. This means we should exercise restraint in mechanically repeating the same old warnings. We should realise that these platitudes have now become weapons in the hands of clever manipulators who will stop at nothing. To be fair, the bishop of Manchester, David Walker, said “At the same time we will continue to speak out critically when governments here and elsewhere act in ways that our faith calls us to challenge”. This clause, however, does not occur in the full statement as adopted by the College of Bishops. If it had been included, they would have done the same as what they condemned in the NEC. Instead, we find the magical words, “without qualification or exemption”. This renders ineffective whatever the bishop of Manchester may have wanted to clarify. And by the way, the only possible reason for experiencing a “necessity” of now “making explicit” the adoption of the full IHRA working definition, which I can find in the statement of the bishops, is to mark 75 years of friendship since the establishment of the Council of Christians and Jews. This is not my idea of a necessity, but no doubt we don’t have all the information.
My conclusion is that the hasty adoption of the full IHRA definition by the Church of England was unwise and likely prompted by symbolic politics and a desire to have a quick fix for tensions which are far to complex to solve from behind a desk. We have seen this kind of behaviour before, for instance with a “covenant” to force the Episcopal Church to be less progressive. However, what is more concerning is that the Church of England is making itself less attractive to intelligent and critical minds who wish to promote justice for all parties involved. While the Church claims to fight stereotypes, new and equally dangerous stereotypes are introduced. I would like to see more evidence that the Church seeks to establish good relationships not only with the leaders of other religions and States, but also with the oppressed, the voiceless and the betrayed, even when that means facing dissatisfied “friends”.