What kinds of hostility to Israel may be understood as, or may lead to, or may be caused by, antisemitism? One of the ways this relationship is debated, or otherwise contested, is through disputes over how to define antisemitism. In this article I shed some light on the struggles over definition by tracing a brief genealogy of the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism. I go on to look at a case study of the definition’s disavowal during the 2011 debate within the University and College Union (UCU) in Britain and also the mobilisation of the Equality Act (2010) as an alternative definition of antisemitism by a member of the UCU who is alleging in court that the union has an unaddressed problem of institutional antisemitism.
A brief genealogy of the EUMC working definition of antisemitism
The EUMC (European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, now the Agency For Fundamental Rights, FRA) Working Definition is controversial because it states that particular kinds of hostility to Israel ‘could, taking into account the overall context, include’: ‘accusing Israel as a state of exaggerating or inventing the Holocaust’ and ‘accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to their own nations.’ It offers examples of the kinds of things which may be judged antisemitic, ‘taking into account the overall context’:
- denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor
- applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
- using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis
- drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
The definition then makes it clear that, on the other hand, ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’
[Note that there are a number of US spellings in the definition and this fact was later mobilised in the UCU debate to demonstrate its illegitimacy as a European and an antiracist doc'ument.]
Mike Whine of the Community Security Trust (CST) traces the pre-history of the Working Definition back to the immediate aftermath of the fall of Communism. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was a pre-existing international forum in which Europe, East and West, the USSR, later Russia and the secession states, and the USA, could talk to each other. It was a forum which lent itself to the project of attempting to shape the new Europe, in particular by formulating states’ commitment to the principles of human rights and democracy. In the 1990 Copenhagen Conference, commitments were made to combat ‘…all forms of racial and ethnic hatred, antisemitism, xenophobia and discrimination…’ These commitments were subsequently endorsed by heads of state in the ‘Charter of Paris for a New Europe’.
The peace process between Israel and Palestine broke down decisively in 2000 with the start of the Second Intifada. The coalition of pro-peace forces in Israel and Palestine collapsed into opposing national consensuses each of which portrayed the other as being responsible for the renewal of conflict. In September 2001, at a UN conference to discuss strategies for dealing with racism globally, there was a formidable campaign to portray ‘Zionism’ as the key source of racism in the world. A number of factors came together that week, in the conference venues and on the city streets and beachfront of Durban. At both the inter-governmental forum and at the parallel NGO conference, a huge event in a cricket ground bringing together tens of thousands of activists, there was an organised and hostile anti-Israel fervour. Some of it was expressed in openly antisemitic forms, some was legitimate criticism of Israel expressed in democratic antiracist forms, and some was antisemitism expressed in ostensibly democratic and antiracist language. A number of antiracists who were there experienced Durban as a swirling mass of toxic antisemitic hate. For some of them, the traumatic experience was heightened by the fact that they were unable to get home in the following days because air traffic was disrupted after the attacks on the USA on 11 September. The collapse of the peace process, Durban, and 9/11, as well as the reverberating symbolic representations of them, can be understood as heralding what some have called ‘the new antisemitism.’
The Porto Conference of the OSCE in December 2002 declared its concern over a rise in racist incidents against both Jews and Muslims and it authorized the OSCE to make strong public statements against racism and to follow them up in meetings and seminars. In Vienna in June 2003, the OSCE agreed to oppose antisemitism. However, argues Whine, there was disquiet from the Jewish participants at the assembled governments’ ‘failure to recognise that antisemitism was now coming from new and different directions.’ This sentiment was articulated particularly by the historian Robert Wistrich, the former French Justice Minister Robert Badinter, and the soon-to-be Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler.
Protester with anti-Israel placard, London 2011 (Graham Mitchell/ Demotix/Demotix/Press Association Images)
There were also, says Whine, attempts to raise the issue within the European Union. A series of meetings took place between the EUMC director Beate Winkler and European Jewish Congress (EJC) officials which resulted in the commissioning of a report on antisemitism in each country. The Centre for Research on Anti-Semitism (ZfA) at Berlin’s Technical University was asked to analyze the reports and publish a composite analysis. However, Whine notes, the report was badly received by the EUMC board because it apportioned much of the blame for the rise in antisemitism to Muslim communities.
It was leaked to the press by the EJC in December 2003.
A second report was published side by side with the main country-by-country analysis. ‘Manifestations of Anti-Semitism in the EU 2002-3’ was released on 31 March 2004 and the accompanying press release said that the far right remained the main promoter of antisemitism within Europe, contradicting the body of the first report.
Mike Whine writes:
In its 2004 report on antisemitism, the EUMC noted the lack of a common definition and requested one from a small group of Jewish NGOs. This [was] intended as a template for police forces and antiracist campaigners, for use on the streets. The definition was disseminated in March 2004, and although not directed at governments for incorporation into national legislation, it [was] nevertheless expected that it [would] seep into universal usage via adoption by the relevant parties.
This in fact happened. Delegates to the OSCE Cordoba Conference in May 2005 constantly referred to it and the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism in the UKrecommended its adoption, as did a number of similar initiatives around the world.
There is a strong tradition on the antiracist left of understanding racism and antisemitism as closely related phenomena and of opposing both equally and on a similar basis.
There is a strong tradition on the antiracist left of understanding racism and antisemitism as closely related phenomena and of opposing both equally and on a similar basis. The exemplars of this tradition include Karl Marx, anti-Fascism, Franz Fanon, and the Black/Jewish alliance during the civil rights movement in the USA. At Durban in 2001, however, racism had been defined such that ‘Zionism’ was its archetypal and most threatening form, and antisemitism was not only denied but was also practiced with impunity. A significant number of antiracists activists and thinkers were subsequently willing to lend implicit or overt support to organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, judging their antisemitism of those groups either to be exaggerated or of little politicalsignificance. To be sure, there is also a strong tradition of antisemitism on the left, from Bruno Bauer to Mikhail Bakunin to the Stalinists. Durban illustrated the possibility of the re-emergence of a schism between the worldviews of antiracism and anti-antisemitism.
The ‘whitening’ of jews & the schism between anti-antisemitism & antiracism
The issue of ‘whiteness’ is key to the understanding of contemporary antisemitism and it is linked to a number of developments in the 20th century left. The first is a tendency for parts of the left to understand ‘the oppressed,’ with whom it sides, more and more in terms of nations and national movements, which are fighting for liberation against the ‘imperialist states,’ or the ‘rich states,’ ‘the West,’ ‘the North,’ or the ‘white’ states. This is a different framework from the one in which the left thought of itself as supporting the self-liberation of the working class, of women, and of other subordinated groups.
The issue of ‘whiteness’ is key to the understanding of contemporary antisemitism and it is linked to a number of developments in the 20th century left.
Some found that the logic of their new position was to understand whites as the oppressors and non-whites as the oppressed, and to subordinate other forms of stratification to this central one.
Jews occupy an ambivalent position with respect to this black/white binary. On the one hand, antisemitism is a racism, arguably the prototype of European racism, and provides perhaps the clearest lesson about where racism can lead. On the other hand, antisemitism has often func'tioned, in the words of Moishe Postone, as a ‘fetishized form of oppositional consciousness’ through which Jews are thought of as conspiratorially powerful and lurking behind the oppression of others. In the USA Karen Brodkin’s 1998 book How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America presented a narrative of the ‘whitening’ of American Jews, and many began to picture Jews as part of the Judeo-Christian white elite. Israel, which in the early days was understood by some to be a life-raft for oppressed victims of racism, a national liberation movement against European colonialism and a pioneer of socialist forms like the kibbutz, later came to be conceived of as a keystone of the global system of white imperialist oppression of black people. In April 2009, when President Ahmadinejad of Iran made an antisemitic speech at the UN, Seumas Milne asked in his Guardian column, ‘what credibility is there in Geneva’s all-white boycott’?
A number of Jewish communal NGOs responded to the defeat and the trauma experienced at Durban by withdrawing into the OSCE and the European Union where they had some success in getting a positive hearing for their concerns. In this way the ideational polarization between black and white came to be mirrored institutionally. Durban, dominated by states which thought of themselves as non-white, represented one way of defining antisemitism; the Jewish organisations retreated into the OSCE, which could be seen as the international coalition of white states, and won it over to quite a different way of defining antisemitism.
Opponents of the EUMC Working Definition have pointed to the fact that the definition was the result of purposive political action by international Jewish groups, and so it was. But this genealogy can only cast shadows over the definition if there is thought to be something inappropriate about their input. Normally it would be unremarkable for communal groups to be involved in defining a racism of which they are the object. But in this case the Jewish groups are accused by anti-Zionists of acting in bad faith. The accusation implicit in this understanding is that the Jewish groups are not really working in the interests of the struggle against antisemitism. Rather they are secretly prepared to sacrifice the struggle against real antisemitism by co-opting its political capital to a dishonest attempt to de-legitimise criticism of Israel.
The Jewish groups, and their EUMC Working Definition, are conceived of as being ‘white’ and not antiracist; as part of the struggle of Israel against Palestine and neither part of the struggle of Jews against antisemitism nor part of the global struggle against anti-black racism.
The UCU: a case study of the struggles over defining of antisemitism
In May 2011 the Congress of the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK voted overwhelmingly to pass a motion which alleged that the ‘so-called’ EUMC Working Definition is ‘being used’ to ‘silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.’ Congress resolved to make no use of the definition ‘e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints’ and to ‘dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion.’
Representatives of the institutions of the Jewish community in Britain judged this disavowal to be the last straw, and said that it was a manifestation of what they called ‘institutional antisemitism’ within the union. Jeremy Newmark, Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council said ‘After today’s events, I believe the UCU is institutionally racist.’ His view was echoed by Jon Benjamin, the Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who said ‘the UCU has… simply redefined “antisemitism”… The truth is apparent: whatever the motivations of its members, we believe the UCU is an institutionally racist organisation.’
Since 2003, there had been an influential campaign within the UCU to boycott Israeli universities as a protest against Israeli human rights abuses while there had been no campaign against the universities of any other state. Some opponents of the boycott campaign argued that this singling out of Israel was antisemitic in effect and that it brought with it into the union antisemitic ways of thinking and antisemitic exclusions. Supporters of the campaign, as well as some opponents, objected strongly to the raising of the issue of antisemitism, arguing that it constituted an ad hominem attack against ‘critics of Israel.’
From the beginning, the boycott campaign sought to protect itself against a charge of antisemitism by including clauses in its boycott motions which defined antisemitism in such a way as to make its supporters not guilty.
Protest against Israel’s Gaza Blockade and attack on humanitarian flotilla – 5 June 2010.
At the Association of University Teachers (AUT) Council in 2003, Motion 54 was passed:
Council deplores the witch-hunting of colleagues, including AUT members, who are participating in the academic boycott of Israel. Council recognises that anti-Zionism is not anti-semitism, and resolves to give all possible support to members of AUT who are unjustly accused of anti-semitism because of their political opposition to Israeli government policy.
A witch-hunt involves accusing individuals of something which could not possibly be true: witchcraft. To characterise an accusation of antisemitism as a witch-hunt implies that it, similarly, could not possibly be true. The statement that ‘anti-Zionism is not anti-semitism’ is formally true. And nobody could argue against the resolution to support members who are unjustly accused of antisemitism, unless it was a purposely ambiguous way of insisting that all accusations of antisemitism which relate to Israel or to the boycott or to political opposition to Israeli government policy must be unjust.
The first Congress of the newly merged UCU passed a motion which stated that ‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic’.
At the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) conference in June 2005, a motion was passed which included the text: ‘To criticise Israeli policy or institutions is not anti-semitic.’
The first Congress of the newly merged UCU passed a motion which stated that ‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic.’ While the motion supported a boycott without resolving actually to implement one, the antisemitism clause referred only to ‘criticism of Israel,’ the implication being that boycott falls within the protection afforded to ‘criticism.’ The ‘cannot be construed as’ element implies that there is somebody who is trying to ‘construe’ criticism as antisemitic. It is an implicit allegation of the collective bad faith of those who raise the issue of antisemitism. The ambiguity of the motion was not accidental, since Congress explicitly rejected an amendment to clarify the wording so that it would read as follows:
While much criticism of Israel is anti-semitic, criticism of Israeli state policy cannot necessarily be construed as anti-semitic.
UCU Congress in 2008 passed a similar motion which was supportive of a boycott but which stopped short of implementing one. This time the wording on antisemitism was asfollows: ‘criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are [sic] not, as such, anti-semitic.’ This form of words dressed up all sorts of possibilities as ‘criticism’ and reassured us that ‘as such,’ it is not antisemitic.
This long pre-history to the disavowal of the EUMC definition is consistent. Each new form of words refuses the straightforward position that some kinds of hostility to Israel are antisemitic while other kinds are not. Instead, each specifies that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic, and it implicitly subsumes all kinds of hostility and exclusions under the category of ‘criticism’ [see The Livingstone Formulation]. Practically, the result has been to open up a loophole in the union’s guarantees against racism and bigotry. One kind of racism is excluded from these guarantees, and that is any antisemitism which can be read as taking the form of criticism of Israel.
Instead of addressing the antisemitic culture, the disavowal of the EUMC definition allows the union to carry on treating ‘Zionists’ as disloyal, singling out Israel and only Israel for boycott, holding Israeli universities and scholars responsible for their government, and allowing ‘Zionist’ union members to be denounced as Nazis or supporters of apartheid.
Israel murders children? Israel controls US foreign policy? Star of David = Swastika stuck on your office door? Jews invent antisemitism to delegitimise criticism of Israel? Host a man found guilty of hate speech by the South African Human Rights commission? Exclude nobody but Israelis from the global academic community? All of these are considered, implicitly by UCU motions, and clearly by UCU norms, to constitute ‘criticism of Israel’ and so are defined, in practice, as not being antisemitic.
Ronnie Fraser, a Jewish UCU member, is bringing a legal action against the UCU. His letterto the General Secretary of the union written by the lawyer Anthony Julius, says that UCU has breached ss. 26 and 57 (3) of the Equality Act 2010:
That is to say, the UCU has ‘harassed’ him by ‘engaging in unwanted conduct’ relating to his Jewish identity (a ‘relevant protected characteristic’), the ‘purpose and/or effect’ of which has been, and continues to be, to ‘violate his dignity’ and/or create ‘an intimidating, hostile, degrading humiliating’ and/or ‘offensive environment’ for him.
The letter alleges a course of action by the union which amounts to institutional antisemitism and it gives examples: annual boycott resolutions against only Israel; the conduct of these debates; the moderating of the activist list and the penalising of anti-boycott activists; the failure to engage with people who raised concerns; the failure to address resignations; the refusal to meet the OSCE’s special representative on antisemitism; the hosting of Bongani Masuku; the repudiation of the EUMC working definition of antisemitism.
In this article we have looked at two case studies of the practice of defining antisemitism. One is the result of an international coalition of Jewish NGOs fighting for their way of defining antisemitism within particular international institutions. The other is the result of a union with an anti-Zionist majority in its decision making bodies fighting for a conception of antisemitism which excludes any text, norms or practices from being understood as antisemitic so long as they are manifested in the language of hostility to Israel.
The struggle between these two ways of defining antisemitism is to be judged by a civil court according to the framework provided by the Equality Act. Of course, legal practice and legal definitions are also part of social life, not above it in some kind of magically impartial realm; they relate to ways of thinking with roots in wider civil society. Yet they also have a particular kind of weight and authority deriving from their ability to enforce their determinations and from the norms and practices which have developed over
the centuries to make that feel legitimate.
What happens in R. Fraser v UCU will be significant in the ongoing debates and struggles over the definition of antisemitism and may turn out to be as influential as academic debates and the determinations of activists, pressure groups and social movements.
Dr. David Hirsh is a Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London and the founder of Engage, a campaign against academic boycotts of Israel. His book Law Against Genocide: Cosmopolitan Trials won the Philip Abrams Prize.