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What’s in a word? Antisemitism

By Michael Carberry

The tragic events in Gaza since the barbaric attacks by Hamas terrorists on October 7th last year have again brought the issue of antisemitism to the forefront of international consciousness.  Reports of antisemitic incidents have proliferated in the United States, the UK, France and other Western countries and across the Arab World. These include defacing of Jewish synagogues and schools, vile on-line abuse of prominent Jewish individuals, and threatening or intimidating behaviour towards Jews going about their ordinary business. Given the history of antisemitism in the twentieth century and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust this should give us all cause for concern.


But what do we mean by ‘antisemitism’?  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it as “hostility to or prejudice against Jews”.  Few people would argue with that but there are many who do not think the definition goes far enough.  At a meeting in Bucharest in May 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a Berlin-based intergovernmental organisation with members from more than thirty countries adopted a non-legally binding “Working Definition of Antisemitism” which says:

 “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.”

This definition was subsequently accepted by the European Parliament, the US and UK governments and other national and international bodies and employed for internal use by a number of governmental and political institutions but not without considerable controversy.


The original draft included a list of eleven “contemporary examples of antisemitism” of which no less than seven relate to the State of Israel and it is with these that that problems mainly arise. The Plenary, the decision-making body of the IHRA, did not include any of these examples in the definition and member countries were only able to reach a consensus on adopting the definition by excluding the examples.  Likewise, many of adoptions by countries or organizations have either not referenced or excluded the examples. Nevertheless, the published document that contains the definition, which has been very widely circulated and used as a reference, contains these potential illustrations.  Both the US and UK governments have adopted the definition in full including the examples.


Unsurprisingly the IHRA definition has been heavily criticised by academics, including legal scholars, and many prominent Jews who say that it stifles free speech relating to criticism of Israeli actions and policies. A paper published in April 2021 by an Oxford PHD student, Jamie Stern-Weiner, argues that:      

 “senior IHRA officials and pro-Israel groups” that were involved in the publication of this document “have misrepresented the IHRA Plenary’s decision in order to smuggle into the Working Definition examples that can be used to protect Israel from criticism.” *


In the foreword to the paper, Professor Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, states that “Jamie Stern-Weiner’s report demonstrates in irrefutable detail how a definition intended to protect Jews against antisemitism was twisted to protect the State of Israel against valid criticisms that have nothing to do with anti-Jewish racism”.       


Nevertheless, pressure on governments and other organisations around the world has been remarkably successful. In the UK the government not only adopted the IHRA definition and examples in full but it actually rejected calls from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee to insert two “clarifications” to the IHRA definition and examples: firstly, to clarify that it is not antisemitic to criticise the government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent; and secondly, to clarify that "it is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies.”


 In October 2020, Gavin Williamson, then Secretary of State for Education, urged higher education institutions to follow suit in adopting the definition with its examples, writing that the “definition helps us better understand and recognise instances of antisemitism”. Most significantly, he threatened to suspend funding streams for universities that did not sign up to the definition. That did not go down well with the universities who saw it as a threat to free speech, which they and the Department for Education have a statutory duty to uphold.


A paper published on-line on 11 May 2020 by two British-based scientists, Jan Dekkers and Jonathan Coulter, makes a lengthy and very detailed “philosophical analysis” of the definition and all the potential examples.  They also concluded that:  

“… the definition and its list of examples ought to be rejected. The urgency to do so stems from the fact that pro-Israel activists can and have mobilised the IHRA document for political goals unrelated to tackling antisemitism, notably to stigmatise and silence critics of the Israeli government. This causes widespread self-censorship, has an adverse impact on freedom of speech, and impedes action against the unjust treatment of Palestinians. “ **


An example of such self-censorship has been the British Labour Party.  The Party has a long and proud tradition of opposing racism, intolerance and discrimination all of which, including antisemitism, were seen as very much the prerogative of the far-right.  The party had good relations with the Israeli Labor Party which dominated Israeli politics for many years until the advent of the right-wing Likud party under Menachem Begin in 1977.  I was therefore very surprised to hear increasing accusations of antisemitism within the Party particularly under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Those who know Jeremy Corbyn personally would argue that, as a life-long campaigner against racism, he does not have a racist or antisemitic bone in his body.  Indeed, he had repeatedly condemned antisemitism.  Why then would he preside over a Party of antisemites?


Corbyn has always been a fierce opponent of the current Israeli government and a supporter of the rights of Palestinian people What is clear from the article by Deckers and Coulter is that pro-Israeli lobbies in the UK, particularly the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) which includes about 80%of Conservative MPs and the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) have made it their task to police the adoption of the IHRA definition by bringing complaints of antisemitism against any MPs, candidates or political party activists they deem to be contravening it.  While MPs of all parties have been targeted the overwhelming majority were left-wing Labour members who had been critical of Israel, including Corbyn, allowing Conservative ministers (who have had party colleagues facing accusations of Islamophobia) to routinely condemn Labour as antisemitic.  Rather than seeking to expose the hollowness of these allegations Corbyn’s successor, Sir Keir Starmer,  chose to accept them at face value and has almost fallen over himself trying to show that he has “changed” the party by rooting out antisemitism, starting with accepting the IHRA definition in full. Initially Labour’s Code of Conduct incorporated five of the IHRA examples verbatim and an additional two with minor amendments.   But under intense pressure from pro-Israeli groups its National Executive Committee (NEC) caved in and adopted the remaining examples verbatim.  As Professor Shlaim (himself an Israeli citizen) puts it:

“In the Orwellian world of the post-full-adoption Labour Party, many of the members who have been suspended or expelled for the crime of antisemitism were themselves Jewish. Several Jewish Labour Party members have been investigated since 2016, nearly all on the basis of allegations of antisemitism. This made a mockery of the claim of Keir Starmer, who succeeded the allegedly antisemitic Jeremy Corbyn as leader, to be making the Labour Party a safe place for Jews.” ***

It also resulted in Corbyn, who maintained that the scale of antisemitism within the party had been overstated for political reasons, being deselected for the Parliamentary seat he had held for more than 40 years and expelled from the party he had served all his life.


Similarly, the veteran black MP, Dianne Abbot, was suspended for almost a year following a tweet about Jewish or Irish people not being subjected to racism all their lives   The remark was crass, untrue and offensive and Abbot was rightly censured for it, but it was not antisemitic any more than it was anti-Irish. Nonetheless she was not only required to apologise, which she did immediately, but to undertake an antisemitism awareness course before she could be re-admitted to the party and allowed to stand for the parliamentary seat which she has held for thirty-seven years.


Starmer may have felt that such self-censorship with regard to criticism of Israel was actually beneficial in helping to distance himself from those on the left of the Party, but with the war in Gaza, the policy has come back to bite him.  As the situation on the ground deteriorated and civilian casualties mounted many Labour Party members were angered by his refusal to call for an immediate cease-fire and only re-iterating Israel’s right to defend itself.   Only after five months when the scale of the atrocities – and they are atrocities - being perpetrated by the Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza had vastly exceeded those committed by Hamas in the original terrorist attack and opinion around the world was turning against Israel, did the party belatedly change tack.  But not before a number of shadow ministers had resigned. It has not prevented some left-wing and Muslim Labour activists, including local councillors, quitting the Party. And it suffered reverses in places with large Muslim populations in local elections last month.


One of the problems of accepting the IHRA definition is that equating anti-Israeli sentiment with antisemitism tends to suggest that the reverse is also true i.e., that all Jewish people support and therefore are tainted by the actions of the Israeli state.  It is important to note that one can hate Jews for reasons other than antisemitism.  If I hate Jews because the Jewish state has stolen my land, and the Jewish state’s military have bombed my home, slaughtered my family and left my remaining children without food, water or medical care, and because Jewish people sitting in comfort and security defend such actions on the grounds of “self-defence” or “self-determination”, that is not antisemitism.  It is simply a normal human reaction to inhuman treatment. But the danger is that if no clear distinction is made between Jewish people and the State of Israel that hatred will spill over into hatred of all Jewish people world-wide and manifest itself in the kind of increasing antisemitic incidents we are currently witnessing.


The State of Israel was conceived as a safe haven for Jewish people - an idea given added resonance by the horrors of the Holocaust.  Yet ironically and tragically, the way that state has conducted itself, particularly under Netanyahu’s Likud-led government, has kept alive and nurtured the virus of antisemitism.   Israel is here to stay – a fact reluctantly conceded by most Palestinians as well as most Arab and Muslim states.  The vast majority of ordinary Palestinians just want to get on with their lives but like most people they also want freedom and justice.  Antisemitism is an evil which should be called out whenever it occurs.  But muddying the waters to conflate genuine antisemitism with hostility to the State of Israel for its aggressively expansionist policies at the cost of the Palestinian people or to the current Israeli government for its barbaric actions in Gaza, is an offence against truth and justice which does no one any favours, least of all Jewish people around the world.




*Stern-Weiner, Jamie. 2021. The politics of a definition. How the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is being misrepresented. Free Speech on Israel. (2021a)

** Jan Deckers  and Jonathan Coulter . What Is Wrong with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Definition of Antisemitism?

Res Publica. 2022; 28(4): 733–752.

Published online 2022 May 11. doi: 10.1007/s11158-022-09553-4

***  Shlaim, Avi. 2021. On British colonialism, antisemitism, and Palestinian rights. Middle East Eye.


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1 Comment

Jun 19

Another oddity in all this is the word itself. The term "Semite" includes the Arabs who, along with the Jews are, according to the bible, descendants of Shem, son of Noah. Of course the origin of a word should not be taken as its current meaning but it's another indicaiton of how confused and confusing things are in the "Middle East". And by the way, whatever happened to the "Near East", a term you seldom hear these days.

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