Defining antisemitism

By Gadi Luzzatto Voghera*

After five years of controversy related to the working definition of antisemitism approved by the IHRA in 2016, a new and interesting attempt is on the horizon to propose a useful tool to combat the resurgent and widespread anti-Jewish hostility. The differences between the two documents are primarily institutional. While that of the IHRA is the product of an international intergovernmental body, the result of diplomatic mediations and multi-year negotiations, the new declaration is the result of the work of a group of academics who are among the leading scholars of the phenomenon from historical a point of view and must not respond to institutional requests. By the way, some of the signatories of this declaration are active and recognized members of national delegations within the IHRA.
Although the criticism of the drafters of the new declaration regarding the instrument proposed by the IHRA is explicit, the intent to overcome the sterile Manichean opposition that has been witnessed in recent years is clear. Expressing oneself with appeals and motions in favor or against the working definition proposed by the IHRA has too often ended up overshadowing the real emergency, which is and remains that of identifying and effectively combating a phenomenon in clear growth such as anti-Semitism, which is not limited to vague verbal expressions but produces ideologies, political movements and too often even physical attacks, assaults, killings, fires.
I am not naive and I already expect an outcry from many who in recent years have wanted to force and interpret the IHRA declaration, using it as a tool against all pro-Palestinian expression. However, I ask that the new declaration be considered for what it is, discussing it and proposing amendments, without merely reading it as an expression of adverse political alignments against which to oppose clear and unappealable closures. The goal was and must remain the same: the effective fight against all forms of anti-Semitic hatred, while respecting freedom of thought and placing respect for human rights and opposition to all forms of racism among the principles. The signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration are neither unwary nor dangerous extremists. Scholars of the highest level have judged the IHRA statement to be insufficient and in some cases not appropriate and have decided to propose an additional tool, which must be read and discussed. Both definitions seem to be interesting and useful, even if far from perfect.
There will be a way and time to study the effectiveness and the possibility of using the new declaration in an educational and political perspective, but I would like to write a few simple things about the two documents. I have already had the opportunity to express myself on the IHRA statement on several occasions. I consider it an important tool, even if far from perfect. In particular, I find the statement itself too general (excluding recommendations), while I think those recommendations that clarify the many forms of hostility towards Israel and towards Israelis are to be considered expressions of anti-Semitism are quite effective.
Above all, I find the institutional path that led to the creation in various countries of governmental figures responsible for drawing real strategies for the fight against anti-Semitism particularly virtuous. This is a political fact of absolute novelty and relevance, which I believe should be valued. The new Jerusalem declaration is decidedly more precise in its definitions, and also more explicit and less reticent. It can afford it precisely because it is not the result of intergovernmental mediation.
The definition itself is very simple and clear-cut and introduces a lemma – “prejudice” – which is of fundamental importance on a conceptual level and must definitely be considered when it is proposed to fight anti-Semitism.
The following guidelines are substantially shared by anyone dealing with anti-Semitism and do not introduce substantial changes except in section C (which will certainly provoke controversial observations). It indicates examples of actions and expressions used in the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would not be considered anti-Semitic in themselves. In this section I find some ambiguities that the text does not resolve. In particular, I believe that there should be more clarity on the manipulative use of the term “Zionism” which in the vast majority of cases is exploited and misinterpreted in the anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian political debate. In the same way, I find the text that mentions the BDS movement rather absolutive. We know that BDS was born with the intent of civil resistance, but it has taken on openly anti-Semitic accents in the majority of cases (especially on university campuses).
Finally, both the IHRA and the Jerusalem declaration underestimate (when are not completely silent) any reference to the religious root of anti-Jewish hostility and to its permanence in our contemporaneity. Whether it is Christian anti-Judaism (root of modern anti-Semitism at least in the construction of language) or Islamic anti-Judaism (which has become radicalized in the last century in the new Islamist fundamentalist movements, in particular those close to the Muslim brothers but even in the Shiite world), the absence of these elements is very visible and, in my opinion, totally unjustified.
However, I remain convinced of the usefulness of tools such as the one published in Jerusalem, as well as other attempts at definition that in past years have not had the media coverage they deserved.

*Director of the CDEC – Contemporary Jewish Documentation Foundation