Defining antisemitism – again, and again…

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There was a time when defining antisemitism was an activity confined to the realm of scholarship and (sometimes) the law. Certainly, Jews have not always needed a specific and carefully-worded definition to know how to recognise antisemitism. Nor, historically, have those who practised antisemitism usually been bothered to spend much time parsing definitions of what antisemitism was.

Today though, defining antisemitism has become an activity of intense interest that has drawn in scholars, lawyers, politicians, leaders of institutions, activists and more. That interest in definition also goes beyond Jews and antisemites themselves; it is a matter of political contestation in which fundamental issues of free speech, racism and the boundaries of legitimate political expression, are seen to be at stake.

Much of this contestation has concerned the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition. From its origins as a tool to assist in classifying hate crimes, it has become something totemic: To its defenders, it is an essential component in the fight against antisemitism that institutions (particularly universities) need to adopt in order for Jews to feel safe within them. To its detractors, it is at best a document that muddies the waters on the vexed issue of the relationship between criticism of Israel/Zionism and antisemitism; at worst it is seen as an existential threat to free speech and a bad faith attempt at suppressing pro-Palestinian activity.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that two rival definitions have recently been published, the Nexus document and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. Both are the collective work of scholars and both attempt to draw the line between antisemitism and anti-Israel activity much more precisely than they claim IHRA does.

So do they succeed? Do these definitions offer a way to calm the ever-escalating conflict over IHRA? Do they offer a more effective way to respond to the concerns of Jews and others over the process of defining antisemitism?

As someone who thinks the new definitions improve on IHRA in significant ways and was strongly tempted to sign the Jerusalem Declaration, my answer is…No they don’t.

Doubtless, these new definitions will be pored over and dissected; the motivation and background of their drafters and signatories will also be interrogated to find evidence of good or bad faith. Perhaps some institutions will adopt them; maybe in place of or in preference to IHRA.

What these definitions cannot – ‘by definition’ – do is to address the definitional politics of antisemitism itself. They cannot address the situation we are in now in which defining antisemitism in one way or another has become central to the identities of so many. Now that IHRA has taken on such totemic significance, it has ceased to become a text like any other, to be judged like any other. Rather, its adoption or non-adoption has become an existential question for institutions and individuals.

In this context, to treat definitions of antisemitism as definitions of antisemitism is to misunderstand what they have become. No nuanced interpretation of an existing definition, nor a carefully worked-out alternative can persuade others who are not minded to be persuaded. In this respect, those who have drafted the new definitions appear to have ignored the ways that texts are never just texts, they take on meaning within the particular contexts within which they are read. Definitions of antisemitism become meaningful in the contexts in which they are applied, by particular individuals, for particular purposes. A definition of antisemitism that does not attend to the multiplicity of ways it might be interpreted cannot achieve what it sets out to achieve.

None of this implies that we can do without definitions of antisemitism, for institutional and monitoring purposes at least. What I would suggest though is that in drafting a definition it is essential to start from the point of view that the definition will be misused in ways that the authors had not intended. The challenge then becomes to reduce the scope for misuse to the absolute minimum.

The IHRA definition was clearly not drafted with this misuse in mind. It is quite possible that one of the examples of antisemitism given in the definition – ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’ – was drafted with the intent to ensure at least the theoretical possibility that some post-nationalist visions of Israel that are predicated on the argument that Israel has become irredeemably racist, would not be classed as antisemitic. However, at least some of its proponents have used IHRA to define any kind of anti-Zionism and critique of Israeli racism as ipso facto antisemitic. While IHRA can certainly be read as ruling certain kinds of fierce criticism of Israel and Zionism as not antisemitic, this is not generally how it has been read – and its drafters did not build in adequate safeguards against absolutist readings.

Conversely, the Jerusalem Declaration, which attempts to open up a much wider space between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, is likely to produce a dominant reading as indemnifying all kinds of anti-Zionism as not antisemitic. Certainly, the following clause will inevitably be read as offering blanket permission for BDS: ‘Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic’. Again, from my knowledge of at least some of those involved in drafting the definition, this indemnification is not what was intended (and the FAQ on their website does offer some safeguards here). But really it hardly matters what was intended, given the motivated reasoning that will make certain readings prevail.

Personally, I am quite attracted to the Nexus document as offering the most careful approach to the borderline between antisemitism and anti-Israel activity. But it doesn’t really matter what I think, nor even what the drafters think. The document was produced as part of a pushback against particularly flagrant abuses of antisemitism on the US right. As such, it will be viewed as an indemnification of anti-Zionist antisemitism by the right. And even some of those who are not on the right who might, on its own terms, be sympathetic to the document, will be wary of it for the simple reason that it is not IHRA.

So the challenge for future drafters of definitions of antisemitism (and there will certainly be more in future) is to anticipate particular readings and to pre-empt them as far as possible. One of the ways of doing that is to focus precisely on those ‘limit cases’ that seem to run against the way the definition will be read. For IHRA, that means its proponents should explicitly state what forms of anti-Zionism might not be antisemitic in some cases. For the Jerusalem Declaration, that means its proponents should explicitly state how BDS might be antisemitic in some cases.

Part of the point of focusing on these limit cases would be to encouraging a certain discomfort in using definitions of antisemitism. It is difficult to judge something as ‘just’ offensive and objectionable rather than antisemitic. It is difficult to judge something as antisemitic when it comes from someone you have some political sympathy with. But if definitions have a point it is to ensure that one doesn’t shrink when confronted with judgements that are uncomfortable. Right now, definitions of antisemitism are too often used as ways that ensconce people in their comfort zone. Both opponents and supporters of IHRA can be smug and complacent in their opposition/support. Those who draft such definitions need to model the discomfort they should seek from their users.

Further, definitions of antisemitism need to exhibit greater awareness of the ways in which definitions are adopted or not by institutions. While some organisations have adopted or not adopted IHRA as a consequence of lengthy consultations and a genuine desire to do the right thing, we should also recognise that in other cases such decisions are made transitionally: Given that adopting or not adopting IHRA will upset a significant group of people, which group of people do we have most scope to upset?

The potential for transactional anti-racism (or, in some cases, coerced anti-racism) needs to be recognised by those who draft definitions of antisemitism. I know that no one who drafted IHRA or the other definitions believes that opposing antisemitism begins and ends with a definition. Rather, anti-racism of any kind has to involve attention to institutional culture and to the processes through which institutions police themselves. Yet the greatest weakness of all these definitions is that one can adopt them without paying any attention to how they are applied and implemented. That can make adopting or not adopting a definition a ‘cost free’ transactional exercise that allows one to placate a particular group without actually doing anything.

A productive definition of antisemitism therefore needs to include guidelines and conditions for its adoption and implementation. It also needs to include procedures for monitoring its use and calling out misuse. Ironically, a definition of antisemitism that ‘clarifies’ what antisemitism is, may not be what we need right now. Rather, we need to inculcate a sense that, in some cases at least, judging what is antisemitic involves difficult and complex judgements. Of course, all the definitions acknowledge this point in theory (IHRA is a ‘working’ definition, in part, for this reason), but too often this is not how they are used in practice.

Texts are inert things. They do not take responsibility for the multiple ways that humans breathe life into them. A definition of antisemitism needs to be an injunction for institutions and individuals to take responsibility and not to outsource that responsibility to a lifeless document. Right now, definitions of antisemitism – even those with which I personally agree, even those that are written by the finest scholars – are being used as ways to avoid taking that responsibility. That needs to stop.


Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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