Quick Facts: The IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism
President Trump signs an executive order, based on the IHRA definition, intended to suppress criticism of Israel on US campuses. December 2019. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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.
IHRA, Israel’s right-wing 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 supports it as well.
What’s wrong with it?
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) involved 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 behind were granted citizenship but had most of their land taken from them for the use of Israeli Jews and were governed by martial law until 1966.
Today, Israel systematically discriminates
against its Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens, who comprise about 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. 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.”
Meanwhile, since 1967 Israel has imposed a discriminatory military regime
on millions of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories (the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza), denying them the most basic of rights, including the right to peaceful protest, because they aren’t Jewish. At the same time, 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 it did not govern over large numbers of Palestinians by racist, undemocratic military rule. For this reason, many human rights organizations
, legal experts
, and others
consider Israel to be an “apartheid” state.
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 movement 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
, 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 fundin
g for educational institutions that don’t adopt it.
Who has criticized its adoption by governments and others?
The definition’s chief author, Kenneth Stern
, has spoken out against right-wing Jewish groups and others “weaponizing” it to silence critics of Israel. In a 2019 op-ed
, he warned Trump’s executive order that was based on it was “an attack on academic freedom and free speech” that “will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.”