The UK Government is to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
There are three problems with the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
First, it’s not a definition. It describes antisemitism as follows: ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews’. True enough, but this is too vague (‘a certain perception’) to be justiciable. The IHRA then appends to this vague ‘definition’ a non-exhaustive laundry list of ‘examples’ of statements which ‘could’, ‘taking into account the overall context’, constitute antisemitism. This resolves nothing, since in each instance, people will debate whether ‘the overall context’ is such as to render the allegedly incriminating statement antisemitic. A definition is supposed to resolve controversy, not internalise it.
Second, the IHRA’s laundry list attempts to expand the definition of antisemitism to incorporate criticism of Israel that does not imply and in many cases does not reflect hatred of Jews. Its ‘examples’ of statements which ‘could’ manifest antisemitism include: describing Israel as a racist endeavour; drawing comparisons between Israeli policy and Nazism; and ‘applying double standards’ to Israel. To take just the last of these, many supporters of Israel view any criticism of Israel and all mobilisation against it as evidence of ‘double standards’. This definition is a weapon in their hands to bludgeon critics of Israeli human rights violations into silence, which is to say, to enable and prolong the torment in Palestine.
Third, the concept of a legal definition of antisemitism is misguided. The ‘definition’ itself acknowledges that context is decisive, while, if certain words are criminalised, antisemites will find ways around them. At my secondary school, a prick for all the ages called Iba used to mutter under his breath the word ‘Morah’ as he passed me in the corridor. That’s not a word; it just sounds like ‘Torah’. Are we going to criminalise belligerent poetry?
The Government’s adoption of the IHRA definition has nothing to do with antisemitism, which, available evidence indicates, is a marginal and mild phenomenon in UK public life, whose few manifestations are dealt with effectively by existing institutions. It is just an attack on Labour and Palestinian solidarity activism; unfortunately, one made all too easy by the strategic missteps of its targets.