Trump takes leaf out of Netanyahu's book to label rights groups 'anti-Semitic'

Trump takes leaf out of Netanyahu's book to label rights groups 'anti-Semitic'
Comment: Trump is using a highly problematic definition of anti-Semitism to silence rights groups, while right-wing anti-Semitic violence flourishes, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
6 min read
29 Oct, 2020
The Trump administration is considering labelling groups such as Amnesty anti-Semitic [Getty]
The Trump administration is considering labelling international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam as anti-Semitic because, it alleges, they support the international movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Although Amnesty, HRW, and Oxfam do not, in fact, endorse BDS, they, along with 100 other groups, co-signed a letter in August 2019 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights calling for the release of a list of companies doing business in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

According to a state department memo obtained by Mother Jones Magazine, US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Elan Carr reasons that, "Certain non-governmental organisations (NGOs) regularly participate in and promote the Global BDS Campaign (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) or engage in other activities that meet the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of anti-Semitism."

This move furthers the assault on the free speech of BDS activists that hit its stride last year when President Trump issued an executive order that effectively labelled BDS activism anti-Semitic.

The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has become a matter of great dispute. According to the scholar who led the team that crafted it in 2005, Kenneth Stern, "It was created primarily so that European data collectors could know what to include and exclude. That way anti-Semitism could be monitored better over time and across borders." It was not intended to be used as a regulatory standard for hate speech, Stern asserted.

How, then, did it evolve to become just that?

Weaponising anti-Semitism

On 27 October, I, like many Jewish Americans, commemorated the two-year anniversary of the bloody attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where a white supremacist inspired by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of US President Donald Trump killed 11 Jews as they worshipped on the Sabbath.

Donald Trump's presidency has emboldened those inspired by hate and anti-Semitism, which like all types of bigotry and xenophobia, has risen dramatically as a result

Such violent attacks on Jews in the United States have been overwhelmingly, nearly exclusively, the province of the far-right. Donald Trump's presidency has emboldened those inspired by hate and anti-Semitism, which like all types of bigotry and xenophobia, has risen dramatically as a result.

Yet as conservative columnist Bret Stephens demonstrated in the New York Times on this grim anniversary, right-wing violence has presented defenders of Israel's policies with a problem.

For decades, spurious accusations of anti-Semitism have been deployed to shield Israel from the legitimate criticism it faces for its dispossession of the Palestinians and for holding millions of people under a brutal military occupation for over 53 years.

But the increased boldness and visibility of anti-Semitism under Trump - and its overwhelming presence on the right - problematises the attempt to "both sides" this issue. While right wing anti-Semitism is almost always directed at Jews as Jews, incidents of alleged anti-Semitism from the left are much more frequently tightly connected to Israel.

In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, David Nirenberg, the dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and author of the book "Anti-Judaism" said, "I think, at times, people have rejected arguments about the power of anti-Semitism by pointing out that defenders of Zionism often invoke anti-Semitism to quell criticism of Israel, which has undoubtedly been the case in different times and places. And you still hear that. But that doesn't mean that there isn't, in fact, an increasingly powerful and dispersed anti-Semitism today."

False accusations of anti-Semitism have been hurled so frequently at defenders of Palestinian rights that many Jews are now railing against it. Of course, no political ideology is free of anti-Semitism, any more than any are free of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. But violent anti-Semitism is rare on the left in the United States, while it is common on the right.

Defenders of Israel's occupation needed a way to deflect the growing distaste around the world with crimes that had, in recent years become much more widely understood, thanks to the efforts of activists, human rights NGOs, and Palestinians finding ways to get messages out via social media. They found it in the definition of anti-Semitism developed in 2005 by Stern and his team and adopted in 2016 by the IHRA.

The devil in the details

The definition itself is straightforward: "Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."

Complications arose, however in some of the examples that accompanied the definition. Several of the examples of anti-Semitism used in the definition, and included in the IHRA's adopted version, related to criticism of Israel. All of them are debatable, especially from the point of view of millions of Palestinians living in the diaspora, under occupation, or as second-class citizens in Israel. These include: Claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour; comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; and holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

Using the standard set by the IHRA examples would mean that virtually all Palestinians are anti-Semites

These examples conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and define opposition to Zionism as anti-Semitic. It's certainly possible, under certain circumstances, that any of them can be examples of anti-Semitism, but it is simply untrue to claim that these are always examples of anti-Semitism.

In 2018, for example, the late Israeli political scientist Ze'ev Sternhell, who described himself as a "super-Zionist" and won Israel's most prestigious honour, the Israel Prize, said that in Israel there was a "racism akin to early Nazism". It obviously touches raw nerves, but it is a clearly defensible statement.

A Palestinian who objects to their dispossession for the creation of an ethnocracy in their former home certainly has a case for calling Israel racist. Using the standard set by the IHRA examples would mean that virtually all Palestinians are anti-Semites.

Benjamin Netanyahu said, in 2015, "I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people." According to the IHRA definition, Netanyahu is an anti-Semite. While he has been legitimately accused of fomenting, ignoring, or accommodating anti-Semitism, this is clearly not the intent of the IHRA definition.

This is not just a matter of labelling groups anti-Semitic. We've seen the IHRA definition, which gained infamy in the boiling dispute over anti-Semitism during Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party, used as a legal club to stifle all criticism of Israel.

As part of the controversy in Labour, Corbyn's desire to adopt the IHRA definition but omit the examples that dealt so poorly with Israel was seized upon as proof his alleged anti-Semitism. The success of that campaign, rightly or wrongly, represented a landmark in the efforts of the pro-Israel right to weaponise anti-Semitism in defence of any and all Israeli policies and actions, no matter how draconian.

Now, 29 countries have adopted the IHRA definition, with the latest addition, Bahrain, doing so on the two-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue murders.

The cynical use of the IHRA definition as a club to silence criticism of Israel is an assault on free speech. Worse, it dishonours the memories of all who have been murdered, whether in Germany or Pittsburgh merely for being Jewish. As many have called for, this perverted use of the definition must stop.

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.