Over 100 civil society groups warn UN against adopting IHRA anti-semitism definition

Over 100 civil society groups warn UN against adopting IHRA anti-semitism definition
Over 100 civil society organisations said the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-semitism has 'often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic'.
3 min read
20 April, 2023
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism is highly controversial [Jack Taylor/Getty-file photo]

More than 100 civil society organisations have warned the United Nations against adopting a definition of anti-semitism that they believe is a threat to free speech on the issue of Palestine.

An open letter addressed to UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Under-Secretary-General Miguel Ángel Moratinos was initially released on 3 April with 60 signatories, rising to 104, according to a Thursday update.

The letter cautions against the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-semitism.

"The IHRA definition has often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and thus chill and sometimes suppress, non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel and/or Zionism, including in the US and Europe," the letter reads.

"Some advocates of the IHRA working definition have presented it as a non-controversial 'consensus definition'.

"However, many leading antisemitism experts, scholars of Jewish studies and the Holocaust, as well as free speech and anti-racism experts, have challenged the definition, arguing that it restricts legitimate criticism of Israel and harms the fight against antisemitism."

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The signatories said that as the UN develops an action plan on anti-semitism, governments and others have been promoting its adoption of the definition.

The letter's signatories include prominent Palestinian rights groups Adalah, Addameer and Al-Haq, Israeli organisations B'Tselem and Breaking the Silence, and international watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The groups criticised an example attached to the IHRA definition that says "claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour" is potentially antisemitic.

"The wording… opens the door to labelling as antisemitic criticisms that Israeli government policies and practices violate the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the findings of major Israeli, Palestinian and global human rights organisations that Israeli authorities are committing the crime against humanity of apartheid against Palestinians," the letter says.

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It adds the IHRA gave qualifications by saying "criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic" and that overall context must be considered.

"However, in practice, these disclaimers have failed to prevent the politically motivated instrumentalisation of the IHRA definition in efforts to muzzle legitimate speech and activism by critics of Israel's human rights record and advocates for Palestinian rights," the letter reads.

The IHRA definition's main drafter, Ken Stern, said last year it was "hyperbole and frankly nonsense" that the document was "needed to be able to identify anti-semitism".

Two alternative anti-semitism definitions, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism and the Nexus Document, "set out more clearly what constitutes antisemitism" and "provide guidance surrounding the contours of legitimate speech and action around Israel and Palestine", the letter reads.