Explainer: The IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism

February 03, 2021

What is the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism?

  • A definition of anti-Semitism, including 11 examples, initially drafted under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in the early 2000s and adopted in slightly modified form by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016. Not originally intended by its authors to be used by governments and others the way it has been, its spread began in 2005 when it was posted on the EUMC’s website.

  • Promoted by IHRA, the Israeli government and its supporters, it has been adopted or endorsed by 29 countries (as of February 2021), almost all European, and a number of educational institutions and international organizations. The countries include the US, UK, Canada, France, and Germany. In December 2019, President Donald Trump issued an executive order targeting Palestinian students and other critics of Israel on American campuses using the IHRA definition. In February 2021, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor said the Biden administration supported it as well.

What’s wrong with it?

  • Some of the examples are highly problematic, most notably:

    • “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 [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” 

It conflates legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism 

  • The example of “claiming the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is problematic because Israel’s establishment as a Jewish majority state (1947-49) was based on the ethnic cleansing of between 750,000 and one million indigenous Palestinians, who were driven from their homes and denied their legal right to return until this day because they’re not Jewish. The approximately 150,000 Palestinians who remained inside what became Israel were granted citizenship but had most of their land taken from them for the use of Israeli Jews and were governed by repressive, discriminatory military rule until 1966.
  • Today, Israel continues to systematically discriminate against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and other non-Jewish citizens, who comprise more than 20% of the population, including more than 50 laws like the “Jewish nation-state” law passed as one of the country’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws in 2018. Among other things, it declares the right to self-determination in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people” and urges the government to promote “Jewish settlement [segregated cities and towns] as a national value.” 
  • Since 1967, Israel has governed millions of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories (the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza) by violent, discriminatory military rule, denying them the most basic of rights, including the right to peaceful protest, because they aren’t Jewish. At the same time, in the same territory, Israel builds segregated illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land for Jewish settlers who enjoy the full rights and privileges of Israeli citizenship.
  • Over the entirety of its history, there has been a period of only about six months (1966-67) when Israel did not govern over large numbers of Palestinians by racist, undemocratic military rule.
  • Many legal experts and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Israeli rights groups B'Tselem and Yesh Din, and others, have accused Israel of comitting the crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people. As noted by Amnesty International in 2022: "Israel has established and maintained an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination of the Palestinian population for the benefit of Jewish Israelis – a system of apartheid – wherever it has exercised control over Palestinians’ lives since 1948. Amnesty International concludes that the State of Israel considers and treats Palestinians as an inferior non-Jewish racial group."

It conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism

  • The reference to “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is problematic because it confuses opposition to the religious-political ideology that Israel was founded on, Zionism, and Israel’s existence as a “Jewish state,” with hatred of Jewish people and the Jewish religion.
  • Under this example, Palestinians and others (including Israeli and other Jews) who advocate a single, democratic state with equal rights for all in Palestine/Israel are considered anti-Semitic because they oppose Israel being a “Jewish state.”
  • In addition to being a weaponized smear against Palestinians and their supporters, conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism harms the fight against real anti-Jewish bigotry, which has seen an alarming resurgence in the US and elsewhere in recent years. 

It threatens freedom of speech & academic freedom

  • Because it conflates legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, the IHRA definition’s adoption by governments and educational institutions has also been condemned by civil liberties groups, academics, and others as a threat to free speech and academic freedom, chilling and punishing voices critical of Israel and its abuses of Palestinian rights. In the UK, the government has even threatened to cut funding for educational institutions that don’t adopt it.

Who has criticized its adoption by governments & others?

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