An international organisation behind a controversial definition of anti-Semitism has misled the public about that definition, according to a new report by the British campaign group Free Speech on Israel, obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.
The report, written by Oxford University researcher Jamie Stern-Weiner and set to be officially published on Sunday, shows that statements made by spokespeople and publications of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) have misrepresented the “Working Definition of anti-Semitism” by claiming that it includes a hotly contested list of “examples” of anti-Semitism.
At a May 2016 meeting in Bucharest, the IHRA’s decision-making body, then representing 31 countries, adopted a document that included two separate sections.
The first section is a two-sentence definition of anti-Semitism:
“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.”
The second section is a list containing 11 “contemporary examples” of potentially anti-Semitic statements or behaviours.
Of these eleven examples, seven contain references to the Israeli state. One controversial example claims it may be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel as a “racist endeavour”, while another claims it could be considered anti-Semitic to “apply double standards” to Israel.
The organisation’s decision to adopt the document came after heated debate concerning the inclusion of the examples in the IHRA definition. According to a confidential internal memo from an ambassador to the 2016 IHRA plenary meeting, seen by Al Jazeera, Sweden and Denmark objected to the definition being rushed through as well as to “the examples added to the definition”.
In the end, the governing plenary decided to adopt only the two-sentence passage as its definition, excluding the controversial examples. The examples were not endorsed as part of the working definition but as “illustrations” to “guide IHRA in its work”.
Limiting free speech
Despite this decision taken by the plenary, Stern-Weiner’s report shows how the controversy surrounding the status of the examples has been omitted from the public record by high-ranking members of the IHRA.
Leading pro-Israel advocacy groups have depicted these examples as the most important part of the IHRA definition. A senior official at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that, while “the IHRA definition is in itself … minimalist”, what makes it “an essential definition in our eyes is the list of examples”.
Critics of the examples have expressed concern about the ways in which they restrict free speech, in particular, that of Palestinians to describe the occupation of their land and their continuing oppression by the Israeli state.
The examples have also been used by Israel lobby groups to disrupt the activities of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement around the world by claiming that a boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic.
In a foreword to the report, Oxford University Professor Avi Shlaim argues that its findings “ought to lead any government or organisation that is considering the adoption of the IHRA definition to think again”.
Stern-Weiner identifies repeated public statements made by IHRA, its spokespersons and representatives which misrepresent the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism by conflating it with the list of examples.
In May 2018, the IHRA’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial appeared to go against the decision taken by the plenary two years earlier, stating that “the definition and the examples constituted the full definition, and that the subject was not open to further discussion”. This was prompted by a pro-Israel lobby group active in the IHRA.
An article on the IHRA’s website, published later that year, falsely stated that “the Working Definition, including its examples, was reviewed and decided upon unanimously during the IHRA’s Bucharest plenary in May 2016”.
In June 2020, the IHRA’s Chair, Ambassador Michaela Küchler of Germany, alleged that IHRA member countries had “agreed” on “the text of the working definition” both the two-sentence passage “and the examples included”.
This inaccurate claim was repeated by a European Commission handbook on the IHRA definition, co-published by the IHRA in January 2021.
These statements run counter to other public statements where the IHRA applauded decisions by the German and French parliaments to endorse the working definition without the inclusion of the examples.
Despite repeated attempts by the report’s author to seek clarity from the IHRA on the status of the 11 examples, no answer from the organisation on this question was forthcoming.
This misrepresentation has affected those campaigning for Palestinian rights. For example, in early 2017, the IHRA Working Definition was leveraged to have pro-Palestine events on UK university campuses cancelled.
In 2018, Britain’s Labour Party was at the centre of a national controversy as pro-Israel advocacy groups, including the Jewish Labour Movement, pushed the party to adopt the examples, which these groups inaccurately depicted as integral to the IHRA definition.
Yet Labour had adopted the two-sentence IHRA Working Definition, exactly as agreed by the IHRA plenary.
Al Jazeera’s four-part investigation The Lobby, released in January 2017, revealed how the Jewish Labour Movement and others worked closely with the Israeli Embassy in London in order to influence the Labour party to include the examples referring to Israel in the definition and present the party leadership as “anti-Semitic” for not doing so.