Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth -

How the IHRA antisemitism definition became a pro-Israel cudgel

At the height of the attacks on Corbyn, IHRA officials joined UK Jewish groups in falsely claiming its antisemitism definition included examples that protected Israel, when delegates had specifically excluded the examples

Mondoweiss – 27 April 2021

New research charts a five-year campaign by highly partisan, pro-Israel lobby groups to mislead the international community about the nature of what has been widely described as the “gold standard” definition of antisemitism. 

According to a report published this week, the campaign has been so successful that political parties, the European Commission, European parliaments, and major public institutions, including universities, have been deceived.

They have been persuaded that the new definition of antisemitism is far more expansive than the terms adopted by the international body behind it. As a result, many governments and institutions have wrongly concluded that the definition severely curtails what can legitimately be said about Israel.

To date, the most high-profile victim of this campaign to protect Israel has been Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the British Labour party. He was widely characterized as presiding over an “institutionally antisemitic” party based in large part on misrepresentations about the definition.

In a foreword to the report, Avi Shlaim, an emeritus professor at Oxford University, observes that “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.”

Battle over examples

The deception, says the new report, “The Politics of a Definition“, by researcher Jamie Stern-Weiner, began almost from the moment the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, adopted a new “working definition” of antisemitism in 2016.  

The IHRA, now comprising mostly European member states, took its current form in 2013 and was set up to ensure historical accuracy about the Holocaust and to combat antisemitism. Since then, its so-called “international definition” has been adopted by 29 governments and many dozens of public institutions. 

The definition appears on the IHRA website in two parts: a two-sentence definition of Jew hatred, followed by a set of 11 illustrative examples, seven of which relate to Israel. According to the examples, it may be antisemitic to label Israel as “a racist endeavor” or argue that, as a self-declared Jewish state, Israel fails to qualify as a democracy.

There has been a heated debate since the definition was adopted about whether it stifles criticism of Israel. That battle culminated in a civil war inside the British Labour party in 2018, when Corbyn came under concerted attack from Jewish organizations and critics inside his own party to sign up to the IHRA definition “in full”.

Reticence in adopting all of the examples was cited as proof of an “antisemitism crisis” under Corbyn’s leadership. Under pressure, the party capitulated and accepted all of the examples in September 2018.

‘Smuggled into definition’

But the new report shows that, far from representing a “consensus” on antisemitism – as widely claimed – IHRA delegates were themselves deeply divided over the working definition at the 2016 meeting at which it was adopted. 

And further, despite claims to the contrary from the IHRA, its delegates actually voted specifically to exclude all 11 examples from the definition. The working definition was restricted to the two sentences relating to hatred of Jews, without reference to Israel.  

Pro-Israel groups, supported by IHRA officials, have “systematically and methodically misrepresented” that decision ever since, the report notes. It concludes that those deceptions were designed to “smuggle into the working definition examples that can be used to protect Israel from criticism”. 

Astoundingly, the report divulges, the IHRA has refused to respond to repeated questions to clarify what was included in the definition of antisemitism adopted in 2016. Stern-Weiner notes a culture of “extreme secrecy and cultivated ambiguity” surrounding the working definition. 

This conduct appears to support the claims of those who defended Corbyn that the issue of antisemitism was indeed “weaponized” against him. Corbyn himself suggested as much when he observed that concerns about antisemitism in Labour had been “exaggerated for political purposes”.

Bigger ambitions

But the struggle by Israel lobbyists to create a new definition of antisemitism for use by the international community ultimately has far bigger ambitions than simply damaging Corbyn, as the report suggests.

It is intended to stymie efforts, particularly within the European Union, to enforce more critical positions on Israel, such as labeling settlement products.

The definition is already proving highly effective in pressuring universities to deny a platform to critics of Israel. Pro-Israel groups have been lobbying EU member states to cut funds to any universities that host an “Apartheid Israel Week”, for example.

Israel’s strategic affairs ministry and Jewish organizations have called on social media platforms to regulate content based on the IHRA examples.

In undemocratic fashion, the adoption of the IHRA definition by the UK Labour party continues to block its ability to discuss important matters relating to Israel, such as a January position paper by an Israeli human rights group that described Israel as an “apartheid regime”.

The definition is increasing the pressure on European states to starve human rights groups of funding if they hold Israel accountable for its long-running abuses of Palestinians. Stern-Weiner notes that the European Commission has urged member states to condition funding on adherence to the IHRA examples.

And the definition is likely to be similarly weaponized if, as now seems more likely, the International Criminal Court seeks to put Israeli officials on trial for war crimes.

Text cut in two

Stern-Weiner has reconstructed the events that occurred at a 2016 meeting of the IHRA’s decision-making body, the Plenary, that adopted the definition. Plenary sessions of the IHRA are attended twice a year by national delegations, which are often headed by an ambassador from member countries. 

Stern-Weiner was helped by the leaking of a confidential document sent by one ambassador to his own government describing the meeting. Details contained in the ambassador’s account have been corroborated separately by interviews with delegates from three other countries, as well as through contemporaneous statements – now largely obscured – from the IHRA and observers to the meeting.

In a likely sign of how sensitive the issues around the definition have become with national governments, especially since the campaign to damage Corbyn, the delegates interviewed wished to remain anonymous.

The ambassador’s document states that the IHRA only reached agreement on the definition when “the original draft text was cut in two” – that is, the two-sentence definition was divorced from the examples. Sweden, Denmark and Ireland appear to have been the parties most strongly resistant to adopting the examples.

This is reflected in the IHRA’s own publicity, which separates the short definition of Jew hatred by placing it in a box and highlighting the text in bold, both physically and visually dividing it from the examples.

Email records from the time, cited by Stern-Weiner, appear to confirm the accounts of the ambassador and three delegates, each saying the examples were excluded. 

The emails show that shortly before the definition was adopted, the wording was amended from what Israel lobbyists had submitted – “The following text and examples are meant to illustrate some of the forms antisemitism can take” – to suggest that the examples were intended only to “guide the IHRA in its work”. 

In other words, the examples were seen as illustrative, conditional on context, and for internal IHRA use only.

Attack on human rights 

Nonetheless, the IHRA’s examples have been cited repeatedly to intimidate and silence human rights groups in their work on Israel, the report notes. For example, the leading Israeli human rights group B’Tselem was lambasted for supposedly violating the IHRA definition in its January position paper that described Israel as an “apartheid regime” ruling over Palestinians.

Pro-Israel lobby groups have at the same time been highlighting how European states fund human rights organizations like B’Tselem and Amnesty International. The implication is that this breaches their commitment to the IHRA definition and its examples.

The larger purpose of the Israel lobbyists seems clear: to either persuade European states to stop funding human rights groups investigating Israel, or to intimidate the human rights community into silence on Israel for fear of the financial consequences.

Either way, the Israel lobby wins. With detailed scrutiny and accountability removed, Israel can further entrench the occupation, expand its illegal settlements on Palestinian land, intensify violations of Palestinian rights, and prepare to formally annex the West Bank.

Misinformation spreads

According to Stern-Weiner, the IHRA bureaucracy has gradually colluded with Israel’s lobbyists in spreading misinformation about the definition. Today, the IHRA website wrongly claims that the working definition includes the examples, he points out.

In June 2020 the IHRA’s chair stated: “Each Member Country stands behind the text of the working definition in its entirety – the text inside the box, and the examples included.”

A handbook jointly published by the IHRA and the European Commission last January also repeated this false assertion.

But earlier statements from the IHRA and its delegates support the account of the ambassador and other witnesses. 

Private emails seen by Stern-Weiner show that, shortly after the Bucharest meeting at which the definition was adopted, Denmark’s foreign ministry stated that Copenhagen did “not consider the examples as being an integral part of the definition”.

Israel, one of early adopters of the definition in 2017, noted that as well as the working definition it had “also adopted the accompanying illustrations” – in apparent recognition that the examples were not part of the working definition.

In September 2017, Germany adopted what it called an “extended version” of the working definition that included none of the examples.

The same month, the IHRA’s permanent office responded in an email to a query from a Palestine advocacy group: “The working definition is the text in the box” – that is, it did not include the examples. 

At a 2018 meeting of the IHRA, Sweden demanded that the definition be distinguished from the examples “in all contexts” – a position that Slovenia supported, expressing its reservations about the examples and “implications for freedom of expression”. 

Bad-faith motives

The report also examines the bad-faith motives of those who advanced the original definition, long before it came to be adopted by the IHRA.

The drafting of the antisemitism definition and examples dates back at least 20 years and was carried out by outspoken pro-Israel activist groups, particularly the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Both have aggressively sought to conflate antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

From 2004 onward, both organizations waged a campaign to get their definition and Israel-protecting examples accepted by a credible international body. They briefly succeeded with the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), a European Union agency. It published a draft of the definition on its website in 2005, though it was left unclear whether the examples were included in the definition. 

But by 2013, amid mounting criticism, the definition was abandoned by the EUMC’s successor body, the Fundamental Rights Agency. The American Jewish Committee and Simon Wiesenthal Center again needed an international organization to breathe credibility into their expanded definition.

Stern-Weiner notes that Israel’s foreign ministry threw its weight behind the project, urging that the definition and examples “be reintroduced into the international arena with the aim of giving it legal status”.

Examples excluded

The Simon Wiesenthal Center scored a significant breakthrough when it recruited the Romanian ambassador, Mihnea Constantinescu, to their cause in the run-up to Romania taking over the chair of the IHRA in 2016. 

In the words of Stern-Weiner, Constantinescu agreed to present the definition “as a European rather than parochially Jewish, Israeli or Anglo-American initiative”. At short notice, it was pushed through a meeting of the IHRA’s Plenary in May 2016 and adopted as a “non-legally binding working definition”.

But two things were quickly obscured about the meeting. 

First, several countries, particularly Sweden and Denmark, were unhappy about the Israel-focused examples. Agreement was only reached by excluding the examples from the definition. The examples were instead adopted as internal “guidance” for the IHRA. 

Second, even with the examples restricted to use by the IHRA, they were not presented as definitive of antisemitism but as examples of statements and behaviors that could amount to antisemitism “taking into account the overall context”.

Campaign against Corbyn

Only from 2018 onward, Stern-Weiner shows, did IHRA officials start to explicitly obscure the 2016 decision, even though no new discussions had taken place on the subject in the IHRA Plenary in the subsequent two years. 

The IHRA’s change of tack came as UK Jewish organizations were trying to maximize pressure on Corbyn’s Labour party to force it to jettison its own antisemitism code of conduct and adopt the IHRA examples. By September, Labour was forced to acquiesce.

Earlier in 2018, IHRA chair Constantinescu had joined the Simon Wiesenthal Center in stating erroneously: “We can confirm that the definition itself (as stated in the text of the adopted definition) is part of the entire document, including examples.”

By May, the IHRA’s antisemitism committee also issued a statement wrongly claiming that the examples were part of the “full definition” and declared that the matter was closed to “further discussion”, even though the advisory committee had no authority to revise the Plenary’s definition or foreclose debate.

Floodgates open

Nonetheless, this opened the floodgates for Jewish organizations in the UK to misrepresent the status of the working definition as they rounded on Corbyn. 

The Community Security Trust averred: “The definition is a single document, but Labour treats it as having two parts … It is not a pick and mix selection of components. To adapt it is to reject it.”

The Campaign Against Antisemitism claimed: “The examples are not merely optional guidance but are an inseparable part of the definition itself.”

Eric Pickles, a Conservative politician and the head of the UK delegation to the IHRA, also publicized the “full definition” as including the examples, even though they had been excluded by the IHRA Plenary.

At the height of the concerted attack on Corbyn, in August 2018, the IHRA published on its website a statement from the UK’s seven delegates that was presented as a “damning rebuke” of Corbyn. The delegates stated: “Any modification of the IHRA definition that does not include all of its 11 examples is no longer the IHRA definition.”

Delicately, Stern-Weiner observes: “These assertions are impossible to reconcile, not only with IHRA’s internal record, but also with IHRA’s own public statements.”

Shroud of secrecy

According to Israel’s foreign ministry, only 10 of the 29 states that have adopted the IHRA definition have agreed to include the list of examples – a figure impossible to verify given the shroud of secrecy surrounding the issue.

But the apparent refusal of European countries to adopt the examples, and the silence of Jewish groups in the face of this rejection, tells its own troubling story. 

The selective outrage from Jewish organizations at Corbyn’s initial reticence over adopting the definition is now being directed at human rights groups scrutinizing Israel, universities that host criticism of Israel, and social media companies that tolerate “too much” free speech on Israel. 

The implications of Stern-Weiner’s report go far beyond exposing efforts by Jewish organizations to weaponize antisemitism. His research raises a question about the degree to which supposedly expert bodies have been captured by vested interests seeking to subvert public debate. 

The IHRA’s core mission is to ensure historical accuracy about the Holocaust and maintain trust in Holocaust scholarship. But the IHRA has effectively gambled with its reputation in furthering the goals of one state, Israel, to silence its critics. 

The IHRA has risked damaging its Holocaust work by colluding with Israel partisans, first, in promoting their highly controversial antisemitism definition and then in misrepresenting the decision of its own delegates.

There is a price to be paid for deceptions such as this, and it will be felt as popular trust in public institutions continues to decline.

If you appreciate my articles, please consider hitting a donate button (left for Paypal, right for GoCardless):

Supporting Jonathan Cook Supporting Jonathan Cook
Back to Top

You can also read my Blog HERE. To join discussions about my work, please visit my Facebook or Twitter page.