The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA Center)
The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism Is Itself Antisemitic
By Dr. Dana Barnett October 3, 2021
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 2,166, October 3, 2021
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), presented in March 2021, was created to replace the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which had been adopted by 35 countries by 2020. The writers of the JDA wished to “clarify” the IHRA, which they feel is insufficiently obsequious to the Palestinians. Their real object is to use the fight against antisemitism as another weapon with which to vilify Israel.
The Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism (JDA) is the product of a group of international scholars of antisemitism and related fields who have been meeting since June 2020 in a series of online workshops convened by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Essentially, the new document charges the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism with blurring the “difference between antisemitic speech and legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism.” As a result, the IHRA definition “delegitimiz[es] the voices of Palestinians and others, including Jews, who hold views that are sharply critical of Israel and Zionism.”
The JDA was purportedly written as a resource for strengthening the fight against antisemitism, because “there is a widely felt need for clarity on the limits of legitimate political speech and action concerning Zionism, Israel, and Palestine.” The JDA is presented as the alternative, a “corrective to overcome the shortcomings of the IHRA definition.”
Nowhere in the IHRA definition are Palestinians mentioned; nor does it mention BDS. There are, however, three clauses that can be construed as applying to the actions of Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists. These are:
- the denial of the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination; e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor
- the application of double standards by requiring of Israel behaviors that are not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
- the comparison of Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.
Pro-Palestinian activists and anti-Israel groups have long complained about the IHRA definition because, in the grip of their fixation on Israel as fundamentally illegitimate and their flat denial of the Jews’ right to self-determination, they reject the premise that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
It should be noted that some of the authors of the new document are radical academic activists, including Israelis and non-Israeli Jews. Among them are Richard Falk, Neve Gordon, Anat Matar, David Feldman, Chaim Gans, Snait Gissis, Amos Goldberg, Avishai Margalit, Hagar Kotef, David Shulman, Dmitry Shumsky, Yair Wallach, Moshe Zimmermann, Moshe Zuckermann, Gadi Algazi, Seth Anziska, Bernard Avishai, Peter Beinart, Louise Bethlehem, Daniel Blatman, Daniel Boyarin, Jose Brunner, Naomi Chazan, Alon Confino, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, and David Enoch. Some of them have also called for the boycott of Israel. Recruiting Israelis and Jews to deflect accusations of antisemitism is a longstanding practice in anti-Israel and antisemitic circles.
As for its content, the JDA is essentially a wholesale denunciation of the IHRA definition. Some points stand out. The declaration accuses the IHRA definition of malpractice because it considers criticism of Israel antisemitic. However, the IHRA definition clearly states, “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The JDA suggests that “Institutions that have already adopted the IHRA Definition can use our text as a tool for interpreting it.” It doesn’t explain why an institution that had adopted the IHRA definition should wish to adopt the JDA version, which opposes it.
The JDA makes its political agenda clear by declaring its support for “the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil and human rights, as encapsulated in international law.” Similarly, the JDA wishes to “support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants ‘between the river and the sea,’ whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.”
What the JDA fails to mention is that in Palestinian parlance, the “demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil and human rights” is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state on its ruins. Similarly, the Palestinian demand for a “binational state” or a “unitary democratic state” has been used by the PLO since the late 1960s as code for the transformation of Israel into an Arab state in which Jews are reduced to a permanent minority living on the sufferance of the Muslim majority, a status known in Islamic history as Dhimmis. In the words of Edward Said: “[T]he Jews are a minority everywhere. A Jewish minority can survive [in Arab Palestine] the way other minorities in the Arab world survived.”
As for dismantling the “occupation,” this was effectively ended in January 1996 when Israel relinquished control of 95% of the West Bank’s Palestinian population in line with the Oslo Accords (control of Gaza’s Palestinian population had been transferred to the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA) in May 1994).
The key problem with the JDA is the claim that “Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism” is not antisemitic. It betrays its bias by failing to reject any form of nationalism other than the Jewish one. Needless to say, such a discriminatory denial of this basic right to only one nation (and one of the few that can trace its corporate identity and territorial attachment to antiquity) while allowing it to all other groups and communities, however new and tenuous their claim to nationhood, is pure and unadulterated racism.
No less disingenuous is the JDA’s claim that it is not antisemitic “to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid”—another attempt to discredit Israel’s right to exist on account of its alleged dispossession of the (supposedly) indigenous population. Apart from failing to indict any other manifestation of “settler-colonialism” (from the US, Canada, Australia, to most of Latin America, to earlier manifestations of this phenomenon in Europe and the Middle East), this claim ignores the fundamental fact that the Jews are not “colonial settlers” but rather the indigenous inhabitants of the Land of Israel (renamed Syria Palaestina by the Roman occupiers). This millenarian attachment was specifically emphasized by the 1922 League of Nations mandate, which tasked Britain with establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine.
If anything, it is the long string of Muslim occupiers of the Land of Israel (or parts of it)—from the 7th century Arab invaders, to the Seljuk Turks, to the Mamluks, to the Ottoman Turks, to the Egyptians, Jordanians, and newly formed Palestinians—that can be defined as colonial settlers.
As with the “settler colonist” slander, the apartheid canard is not only false but the complete inverse of the truth. Whether in its South African form or elsewhere, such as the US South until the late 1960s, apartheid was a comprehensive and discriminatory system of racial segregation, on the basis of ethnicity, comprising all walks of life—from schooling, to public transportation, to social activities and services, to medical care. None of this has ever been applied in Israel, where the Arab minority has enjoyed full equality before the law and has been endowed with the full spectrum of democratic rights—including the right to vote for and serve in all state institutions. (From the first, Arabs have been members of the Knesset.) From the designation of Arabic as an official language, to the recognition of non-Jewish religious holidays as legal rest days for their respective communities, to the granting of educational, cultural, judicial, and religious autonomy, Arabs in Israel may well enjoy more formal prerogatives than ethnic minorities anywhere in the democratic world. This is at a time when apartheid has been an integral part of the Middle East for over a millennium, and its Arab and Muslim nations continue to legally, politically, and socially enforce this discriminatory practice against their own minorities.
The JDA argues that calls for “boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic,” but it does not call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against any other nation except Israel. Quite clearly, the document is intended to legitimize the anti-Zionist boycott movement against Israel.
Ironically, after the JDA’s writers bent over backward to appease the Palestinians, a leading Palestinian group rejected the JDA. According to the Palestinian BDS National Committee, the highest authority on BDS, there are inherent flaws in the document, such as the following:
- The JDA excludes the Palestinian perspective as expressed by Palestinians themselves. “Some liberals still try to make decisions that deeply affect us, without us. Palestinians cannot allow any definition of antisemitism to be employed for policing or censoring advocacy of our inalienable rights,” including “[our] history of struggle against settler-colonialism and apartheid.”
- The JDA fails to mention that “white supremacy and the far right [are] the main culprits behind antisemitic attacks.”
- The JDA guidelines still try to “police some speech critical of Israel’s policies and practices, failing to fully uphold the necessary distinction between hostility to or prejudice against Jews on the one hand and legitimate opposition to Israeli policies, ideology and system of injustice on the other.”
Aljazeera, the Qatari media outlet, which favors the Palestinians, published a negative article about the JDA, calling it “an orientalist text.” Mark Muhannad Ayyash, an associate professor of sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, authored the piece. He says the core problem with both the IHRA and the JDA definitions of antisemitism is their failure to address the “silencing and erasure of Palestine and Palestinians.” He argues that by proclaiming that the Jews have a right to their own state, it obscures the fact that “this state was established on a land that was already inhabited by Palestinians.”
Ayyash goes on to say that like the IHRA definition, the JDA sets out to determine “which kinds of anti-Zionist critiques and views constitute antisemitism, and which do not.” But “like all liberal documents that have been produced in the thick of a colonial or settler-colonial moment, this document keeps intact the colonial contract whereby the colonial masters retain the position of privilege and supremacy in voice and status over the colonized.” Ayyash calls the JDA an “orientalist text” because it does not oppose the core problem of the IHRA definition: the “silencing and erasure of Palestine and Palestinians.”
Ayyash considers the JDA an example of “covert orientalism” because “hostility to Israel could be an expression of an antisemitic animus, or it could be a reaction to a human rights violation, or it could be the emotion that a Palestinian person feels on account of their experience at the hands of the State.” Therefore, the JDA, “in supposed opposition” to the IHRA definition’s “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” premise, tells its audience—the Euro-American world—that even the Palestinians, whom Ayyash apparently believes should be absolved of such attentions, should be policed for possible antisemitism. Because the Palestinians “are so reactionary, emotional, and hostile,” they are a “source of statements and campaigns that Euro-Americans should tolerate but also remain vigilant against.”
According to Ayyash, the JDA dares to question “the reasonableness and lack thereof of Palestinians,” and that very assessment is presumptuous and Orientalist. His concern is that according to the JDA, any Palestinian who “question[s] the validity of the idea of a Jewish State for a Jewish majority“ could be characterized as “at best unreasonable and at worst antisemitic.” This is “Orientalism at its best,” Ayyash concludes.
The JDA tried to appease the Palestinians by asserting that anti-Zionism is not antisemitic. But for the Palestinians, this is splitting hairs. In their view, both the IHRA and the JDA are inherently flawed because they accept the basic premise that Jews have a right to a Jewish State. The Palestinians flatly reject the Jewish right to self-determination in any form. No matter how the pro-Palestinian writers of the JDA might want to spin it, that view is fundamentally antisemitic.
Dr. Dana Barnett is a Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
THE JERUSALEM DECLARATION ON ANTISEMITISM March 25 2021 Preamble
We, the undersigned, present the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, the product of an initiative
that originated in Jerusalem. We include in our number international scholars working in Antisemitism
Studies and related fields, including Jewish, Holocaust, Israel, Palestine, and Middle East Studies. The
text of the Declaration has benefited from consultation with legal scholars and members of civil society.
Inspired by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1969 Convention on the Elimination
of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, the 2000 Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on
the Holocaust, and the 2005 United Nations Resolution on Holocaust Remembrance, we hold that while
antisemitism has certain distinctive features, the fight against it is inseparable from the overall fight
against all forms of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender discrimination.
Conscious of the historical persecution of Jews throughout history and of the universal lessons of the
Holocaust, and viewing with alarm the reassertion of antisemitism by groups that mobilize hatred and
violence in politics, society, and on the internet, we seek to provide a usable, concise, and historicallyinformed
core definition of antisemitism with a set of guidelines.
The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism responds to “the IHRA Definition,” the document that was
adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016. Because the IHRA Definition
is unclear in key respects and widely open to different interpretations, it has caused confusion
and generated controversy, hence weakening the fight against antisemitism. Noting that it calls itself
“a working definition,” we have sought to improve on it by offering (a) a clearer core definition and (b)
a coherent set of guidelines. We hope this will be helpful for monitoring and combating antisemitism,
as well as for educational purposes. We propose our non-legally binding Declaration as an alternative
to the IHRA Definition. Institutions that have already adopted the IHRA Definition can use our text as a
tool for interpreting it.
The IHRA Definition includes 11 “examples” of antisemitism, 7 of which focus on the State of Israel.
While this puts undue emphasis on one arena, there is a widely-felt need for clarity on the limits of
legitimate political speech and action concerning Zionism, Israel, and Palestine. Our aim is twofold:
(1) to strengthen the fight against antisemitism by clarifying what it is and how it is manifested, (2) to
protect a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine. We do not
all share the same political views and we are not seeking to promote a partisan political agenda. Determining
that a controversial view or action is not antisemitic implies neither that we endorse it nor that
we do not.
The guidelines that focus on Israel-Palestine (numbers 6 to 15) should be taken together. In general,
when applying the guidelines each should be read in the light of the others and always with a view to
context. Context can include the intention behind an utterance, or a pattern of speech over time, or even
the identity of the speaker, especially when the subject is Israel or Zionism. So, for example, hostility
to Israel could be an expression of an antisemitic animus, or it could be a reaction to a human rights
violation, or it could be the emotion that a Palestinian person feels on account of their experience at
the hands of the State. In short, judgement and sensitivity are needed in applying these guidelines to
Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or
violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).
1. It is racist to essentialize (treat a character trait as inherent) or to
make sweeping negative generalizations about a given population.
What is true of racism in general is true of antisemitism
2. What is particular in classic antisemitism is the idea that Jews
are linked to the forces of evil. This stands at the core of many
anti-Jewish fantasies, such as the idea of a Jewish conspiracy
in which “the Jews” possess hidden power that they use to promote
their own collective agenda at the expense of other people.
This linkage between Jews and evil continues in the present:
in the fantasy that “the Jews” control governments with a
“hidden hand,” that they own the banks, control the media, act
as “a state within a state,” and are responsible for spreading
disease (such as Covid-19). All these features can be instrumentalized
by different (and even antagonistic) political causes.
3. Antisemitism can be manifested in words, visual images, and
deeds. Examples of antisemitic words include utterances that
all Jews are wealthy, inherently stingy, or unpatriotic. In antisemitic
caricatures, Jews are often depicted as grotesque, with
big noses and associated with wealth. Examples of antisemitic
deeds are: assaulting someone because she or he is Jewish, attacking
a synagogue, daubing swastikas on Jewish graves, or
refusing to hire or promote people because they are Jewish.
4. Antisemitism can be direct or indirect, explicit or coded. For
example, “The Rothschilds control the world” is a coded statement
about the alleged power of “the Jews” over banks and
international finance. Similarly, portraying Israel as the ultimate
evil or grossly exaggerating its actual influence can be a
coded way of racializing and stigmatizing Jews. In many cases,
identifying coded speech is a matter of context and judgement,
taking account of these guidelines.
5. Denying or minimizing the Holocaust by claiming that the
deliberate Nazi genocide of the Jews did not take place, or
that there were no extermination camps or gas chambers, or
that the number of victims was a fraction of the actual total,
Israel and Palestine: examples that,
on the face of it, are antisemitic
6. Applying the symbols, images, and negative stereotypes of classical
antisemitism (see guidelines 2 and 3) to the State of Israel.
7. Holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s conduct or
treating Jews, simply because they are Jewish, as agents of Israel.
8. Requiring people, because they are Jewish, publicly to condemn
Israel or Zionism (for example, at a political meeting).
9. Assuming that non-Israeli Jews, simply because they are,
Jews are necessarily more loyal to Israel than to their own
10. Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and
flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance
with the principle of equality.
Israel and Palestine: examples that,
on the face of it, are not antisemitic
(whether or not one approves of the view or action)
11. Supporting the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant
of their political, national, civil, and human rights, as encapsulated
in international law.
12. Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism, or
arguing for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews
and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the
Mediterranean. It is not antisemitic to support arrangements
that accord full equality to all inhabitants “between the river
and the sea,” whether in two states, a binational state, unitary
democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.
13. Evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state. This includes its
institutions and founding principles. It also includes its policies
and practices, domestic and abroad, such as the conduct
of Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, the role Israel plays in
the region, or any other way in which, as a state, it influences
events in the world. It is not antisemitic to point out systematic
racial discrimination. In general, the same norms of debate
that apply to other states and to other conflicts over national
self-determination apply in the case of Israel and Palestine.
Thus, even if contentious, it is not antisemitic, in and of itself,
to compare Israel with other historical cases, including
settler-colonialism or apartheid.
14. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions are commonplace, nonviolent
forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli
case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.
15. Political speech does not have to be measured, proportional,
tempered, or reasonable to be protected under article 19 of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or article 10 of the
European Convention on Human Rights and other human
rights instruments. Criticism that some may see as excessive
or contentious, or as reflecting a “double standard,” is not, in
and of itself, antisemitic. In general, the line between antisemitic
and non-antisemitic speech is different from the line
between unreasonable and reasonable speech.
About the IHRA non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism
The IHRA is the only intergovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues, so with evidence that the scourge of antisemitism is once again on the rise, we resolved to take a leading role in combating it. IHRA experts determined that in order to begin to address the problem of antisemitism, there must be clarity about what antisemitism is.
The IHRA’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial worked to build international consensus around a non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism, which was subsequently adopted by the Plenary. By doing so, the IHRA set an example of responsible conduct for other international fora and provided an important tool with practical applicability for its Member Countries. This is just one illustration of how the IHRA has equipped policymakers to address this rise in hate and discrimination at their national level.
The working definition of antisemitism
In the spirit of the Stockholm Declaration that states: “With humanity still scarred by …antisemitism and xenophobia the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils” the committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial called the IHRA Plenary in Budapest 2015 to adopt the following working definition of antisemitism.
On 26 May 2016, the Plenary in Bucharest decided to:
Adopt the following non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:
Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.
Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:
- Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
- Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
- Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
- Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
- 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.
Antisemitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law (for example, denial of the Holocaust or distribution of antisemitic materials in some countries).
Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.
Antisemitic discrimination is the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries.
A Palestinian civil society critique of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism
March 25, 2021 By Palestinian BDS National Committee / Europe, European Union, North America
The “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism” (JDA), despite its flaws detailed below, presents a mainstream alternative to the fraudulent so-called IHRA definition of antisemitism and a “cogent guide” in the fight against real antisemitism, as many progressive Jewish groups define it–defending Jews, as Jews, from discrimination, prejudice, hostility and violence. It respects to a large extent the right to freedom of expression related to the struggle for Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law, including through BDS, and the struggle against Zionism and Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
The JDA can be instrumental in the fight against the anti-Palestinian McCarthyism and repression that the proponents of the IHRA definition, with its “examples,” have promoted and induced, by design. This is due to the following JDA advantages:
- Despite its problematic Israel-centered guidelines, it provides a coherent and accurate definition of antisemitism. Its authors explicitly reject codifying it into law or using it to restrict the legitimate exercise of academic freedom or to “suppress free and open public debate that is within the limits laid down by laws governing hate crime.” This is helpful in countering the IHRA definition’s attempts to shield Israel from accountability to international law and to protect Zionism from rational and ethical critique.
- It recognizes antisemitism as a form of racism, with its own history and particularities, largely refuting the exceptionalism that the IHRA definition (with its examples) gives it.
- Recognizing that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are “categorically different,” it does not consider advocating for Palestinian rights under international law and for ending Israel’s regime of oppression per se as antisemitic. It thus refutes the most dangerous and weaponized parts of the IHRA definition’s “examples.” Specifically, the JDA recognizes as legitimate free speech the following examples: support for the nonviolent BDS movement and its tactics; criticism of or opposing Zionism; condemning Israel’s settler-colonialism or apartheid; calling for equal rights and democracy for all by ending all forms of supremacy and “systematic racial discrimination;” and criticism of Israel’s foundation and its racist institutions or policies.
- It states that “holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s conduct or treating Jews, simply because they are Jewish, as agents of Israel” is antisemitic, a rule that we fully agree with. We call for applying this rule across the board, even when Israel and Zionists, whether Jewish or fundamentalist Christian, are guilty of violating it. Fanatic Zionist and Israeli leaders, like Netanyahu, for instance, often speak on behalf of all Jews and encourage Jewish communities in the US, UK, France and elsewhere to “go home” to Israel.
- It theoretically recognizes that context matters in the sense that particular situations influence whether a certain utterance or action may be considered antisemitic or not.
Still, Palestinians, the Palestine solidarity movement, and all progressives are urged to approach the JDA with a critical mind and caution due to its flaws, some of which are inherent:
- With the JDA’s unfortunate title and most of its guidelines, it is focused on Palestine/Israel and Zionism, unjustifiably reinforcing attempts to couple anti-Jewish racism with the struggle for Palestinian liberation, and therefore impacting our struggle. In spite of that impact, the JDA excludes representative Palestinian perspectives, an omission that is quite telling about asymmetric relations of power and domination and how some liberals still try to make decisions that deeply affect us, without us. Palestinians cannot allow any definition of antisemitism to be employed for policing or censoring advocacy of our inalienable rights or our narration of our lived experiences and evidence-based history of struggle against settler-colonialism and apartheid.
- Its ill-conceived omission of any mention of white supremacy and the far right, the main culprits behind antisemitic attacks, inadvertently lets the far right off the hook, despite a passing mention in the FAQ. Most far right groups, especially in Europe and North America, are deeply antisemitic yet love Israel and its regime of oppression.
- Despite freedom of expression assurances in its FAQ, the JDA’s “guidelines” still try to police some speech critical of Israel’s policies and practices, failing to fully uphold the necessary distinction between hostility to or prejudice against Jews on the one hand and legitimate opposition to Israeli policies, ideology and system of injustice on the other. For instance, the JDA considers as antisemitic the following cases:
A. “Portraying Israel as the ultimate evil or grossly exaggerating its actual influence” as a possibly “coded way of racializing and stigmatizing Jews.” While in some cases such portrayal of Israel or gross exaggeration of its influence may indirectly reveal an antisemitic sentiment, in the absolute majority of cases related to defending Palestinian rights such inference would be entirely misplaced. When Palestinians who lose their loved ones, homes and orchards due to Israeli apartheid policies publicly condemn Israel as “the ultimate evil,” for example, this cannot be reasonably construed as a “coded” attack on Jews.
Interpreting opposition to Israeli crimes and regime of oppression as anti-Jewish, as Israel and its anti-Palestinian right-wing supporters often do, effectively makes Israel synonymous or coextensive with “all Jews.” Ethically speaking, other than being anti-Palestinian, this equation is deeply problematic because in effect it essentializes and homogenizes all Jewish persons. This contradicts the JDA’s opening statement that it is “racist to essentialize … a given population.”
B.“Applying the symbols, images and negative stereotypes of classical antisemitism … to the State of Israel.” As the JDA itself admits elsewhere, such a sweeping generalization is false in all “evidence-based” cases. Consider, for instance, Palestinians condemning Israeli PM Netanyahu as a “child killer,” given that at least 526 Palestinian children were slaughtered in Israel’s 2014 massacre in Gaza, which the International Criminal Court has recently decided to investigate. Can this be considered antisemitic? Though the hard evidence is irreproachable, should Palestinians avoid using that term in this case simply because it is an antisemitic trope and Netanyahu happens to be Jewish? Is it Islamophobic to call the Saudi dictator Muhammad Bin Salman – who happens to be a Muslim — a butcher due to reportedly orchestrating the gruesome murder of Khashoggi, not to mention the Saudi regime’s crimes against humanity in Yemen? Would showing MBS holding a bloody dagger be considered an Islamophobic trope, given how Islamophobic caricatures often depict Muslim men with blood-soaked swords and daggers? Clearly not. So why exceptionalize Israel then?
C. “Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality.” The principle of equality is absolutely paramount in protecting individual rights in all spheres as well as in safeguarding collective cultural, religious, language, and social rights. But some may abuse this to imply equal political rights for the colonizers and the colonized collectives in a settler-colonial reality, or for the dominant and the dominated collectives in an apartheid reality, thus perpetuating oppression. Anchored in international law, after all, the fundamental principle of equality is not intended to, nor can it be used to, exonerate crimes or legitimize injustice.
What about the supposed “right” of Jewish-Israeli settlers to replace Palestinians in the ethnically cleansed land of Kafr Bir’im in the Galilee or Umm al Hiran in the Naqab/Negev? What about the ostensible “right” to enforce racist admission committees in tens of Jewish-only settlements in present-day Israel that deny admission to Palestinian citizens of Israel on “cultural/social” grounds? Moreover, should Palestinian refugees be denied their UN-stipulated right to return home in order not to disturb some assumed “collective Jewish right” to demographic supremacy? What about justice, repatriation and reparations in accordance with international law and how they may impact certain assumed “rights” of Jewish-Israelis occupying Palestinian homes or lands?
Most importantly, what does any of this have to do with anti-Jewish racism?
1. As recently revealed by Der Spiegel, a police report in Germany, for example, shows that the right and far-right were in 2020 responsible for 96% of all antisemitic incidents in Germany that are attributable to a clear motive. https://twitter.com/bdsmovement/status/1362411616638275586
The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism is an orientalist text
The JDA fails to produce true opposition to the core problem of the IHRA definition: the silencing and erasure of Palestine and Palestinians.
- Mark Muhannad AyyashAssociate Professor of Sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada.
21 Apr 2021
In a 2000 interview for the Israeli daily Haaretz, journalist Ari Shavit asks Palestinian literary theorist and anti-colonial writer Edward Said whether he thinks “the idea of a Jewish state is flawed”.
In response, Said asks his own questions about the notions of “Jewishness” and “who is a Jew” in this state. Shavit abruptly stops that line of thinking, stating “But that’s an internal Jewish question. The question for you is whether the Jews are a people who have a right to a state of their own?”
Shavit’s argument asserts that the very foundation of the Jewish state as a state for Jews is a matter only for Jews to debate and critically discuss. The only point of entry into this discussion for non-Jews, like Said, is to accept the non-negotiability of that foundation: namely, that Jews have the right to their own Jewish state. What this argument omits is that this state was established on a land that was already inhabited by Palestinians. This argument, and the omission of Palestine and Palestinian life from it, precedes Shavit by decades, and 21 years later, it persists.
Today, we are in the midst of a wave of definitions of antisemitism that are determined to protect the validity of the idea of the Jewish state from any serious critique coming from anti-Zionist Jews (whose Jewishness is increasingly questioned) and non-Jews, foremost among the latter being Palestinians like Said.
The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) illustrates this point. This document situates itself as the liberal replacement to the conservative International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Deﬁnition of Antisemitism. Like the IHRA definition, the JDA sets for itself the task of determining which kinds of anti-Zionist critiques and views constitute antisemitism and which do not. As one of its signatories, Yair Wallach, recently put it, “The JDA pays special attention to antisemitism in anti-Zionist veneer.”
As a liberal document, the JDA shows tolerance for the diversity of views and perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian question. But like all liberal documents that have been produced in the thick of a colonial or settler colonial moment, this document keeps intact the colonial contract whereby the colonial masters retain the position of privilege and supremacy in voice and status over the colonised.
The JDA is an orientalist text that fails to produce true opposition to the core problem of the IHRA definition: the silencing and erasure of Palestine and Palestinians.
I am not making a blanket statement on the signatories of the JDA and branding them as orientalists. I am saying that they all have signed an orientalist text.
Part A of the document is the only segment that is worthy of praise, though the anti-racist and anti-colonial intersectional framework could have been employed in much more depth in its formation. Putting that aside, let me focus on the Preamble and sections B and C.
An orientalist text
Said’s seminal work, Orientalism, did not become a classic only because it critiqued avowedly imperial and explicitly racist texts and authors. It gained widespread acclaim because it showed how imperialist and racist world views can also remain intact in texts that profess liberal and even anti-colonial positions.
Whereas the IHRA definition is an overtly conservative, settler colonial and racist text, the JDA casts itself as a liberal, tolerant and anti-racist document. I need not repeat the critiques of the IHRA definition here, which are plentiful. But the relatively covert orientalism of the JDA requires further explanation and critique.
Two main features of the JDA text clearly illustrate its orientalism.
The first feature concerns the positionality of the Palestinians in the document. Palestinians and the Palestinian critique of Israel appear in two main ways in the JDA.
First, near the end of the Preamble, the JDA states: “[H]ostility to Israel could be an expression of an antisemitic animus, or it could be a reaction to a human rights violation, or it could be the emotion that a Palestinian person feels on account of their experience at the hands of the State [emphases added].”
In supposed opposition to the IHRA definition’s blanket claim that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism”, the JDA tells its intended audience, the Euro-American world, that even though hostile, reactionary, and emotional, the anti-Zionism of the Palestinian can be, in some cases, tolerable. Thus, what is going to save Palestinians from the charge of antisemitism is not a fair hearing of the substance of their claims, statements, and campaigns which have always emphasised that their opposition is not to Jews but to a state that has committed acts of violence against them. Rather, what will save Palestinians is the idea that gentle hearts in the “civilised West” can appreciate that the Orient is an emotional subject whose irrational exaggerations are based on experiences of brutal eliminatory violence and therefore should be tolerated. Pardon me, I meant based on experiences “at the hands of the State.”
Second, precisely because they are so reactionary, emotional, and hostile, the document claims, the Palestinians are a source of statements and campaigns that Euro-Americans should tolerate but also remain vigilant against. This position is clear in the Preamble where it is stated, “Determining that a controversial view or action is not antisemitic implies neither that we endorse it nor that we do not.” Already Palestinian critique of the state of Israel is marred in “controversy”, whereas debates about the Jewish nature of the Jewish state are not. The JDA continues along this path.
The heading of section C states, “Israel and Palestine: examples that, on the face of it, are not antisemitic [whether or not one approves of the view or action]”. The brackets here are key. They are the warning label that appears in the document only when it is about to identify Palestinian critiques and campaigns (such as the BDS movement). No vigilance is required from Euro-Americans when Jews debate what they claim to be an internal Jewish question. But when it comes to Palestinians and their critiques, the message is to stay on guard, because these pesky Palestinians will make unsubstantiated statements as they are so emotional on account of their experiences “at the hands of the State”.
And just in case there was any remaining doubt about the out of control, emotional, and disproportionate responses of the Palestinians, guideline #15 under section C eradicates it: “Political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable … Criticism that some may see as excessive or contentious … is not, in and of itself, antisemitic. In general, the line between antisemitic and non-antisemitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.”
The coup de grâce: the JDA gets that questioning the reasonableness and lack thereof of Palestinians is appropriate, especially when they oppose “Zionism as a form of nationalism”, demand justice, ask for full equality in one state, compare Israel with other settler colonial and apartheid states, or when they advance and promote BDS, but that does not mean they are antisemitic. So, bear with and tolerate their emotional outbursts, despite their unreasonableness.
The second feature that illustrates the text’s orientalism is the framing as essentially antisemitic a core feature of the Palestinian critique of Zionism and Israel.
The JDA provides two sets of guidelines to determine what constitutes antisemitism. Section B lists five guidelines on Israel and Palestine where we find “examples that, on the face of it, are antisemitic” and section C lists five guidelines where the examples are not, on the face of it, antisemitic. And in guideline number 10 under section B, the JDA declares the following as antisemitic: “Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality.”
What are the boundaries of the State of Israel when it is a state that is engaged in an ongoing project of annexation that has no end in sight? At whose expense is this “flourishing” taking place? The Zionist project advances a zero-sum worldview: either Jews or non-Jews will be sovereign in the land of historic Palestine, there is no compromise. So how is this “principle of equality” to be secured in a context where the Israeli state must maintain Jewish sovereignty for a Jewish majority at all costs? Are Palestinians supposed to accept that the right of Jews in the State of Israel ought to take precedence over their own sovereign rights? According to the JDA, Palestinians are not allowed to answer these questions or any other questions about the Jewish right to a Jewish state by saying “not at my expense”.
Rhetorical sophistication aside, there is very little substantive difference between this guideline and the IHRA definition’s claim that arguing that Israel is a racist endeavour constitutes antisemitism. This probably explains why the JDA is so timid in its declared opposition to the IHRA definition, where instead of unequivocally opposing its adoption, it states, “Institutions that have already adopted the IHRA Definition can use our text as a tool for interpreting it.” And based on guideline number 10, I have full faith that such an interpretation is not only possible but also acceptable to the authors and promoters of the IHRA definition.
The colonial contract is merely repackaged in the JDA: should any Palestinian question the validity of the idea of a Jewish State for a Jewish majority [on the land of historic Palestine and at the expense of Palestinians], then they are at best unreasonable and at worst antisemitic. And the omission of the section in brackets seals and secures the contract, all under the rubric of liberal tolerance.
Orientalism at its best.
The Jewish and Palestinian questions intertwined
The JDA’s preamble states, “There is a widely-felt need for clarity on the limits of legitimate political speech and action concerning Zionism, Israel, and Palestine.”
The issue here is not that there are not any cases of antisemitism appearing in the veneer of anti-Zionism. These incidents certainly exist. But not only do similar deplorable and racist incidents exist against Palestinians, but Palestinians also have to contend with systemic anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism in diplomatic and allegedly peace-oriented discourses and processes, which dehumanise Palestinians and deny them their right to sovereignty.
The dehumanisation, dispossession, and erasure of Palestine and Palestinians is never properly situated in the JDA’s guidelines on the question of Palestine, Israel, and Zionism. Much like Israel’s unilateral annexation of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Declaration unilaterally determines what constitutes legitimate political speech and action without the slightest consideration of the Palestinian experience of Zionism as integral to the framing of the discussion. That is the epistemic violence of orientalist texts such as the JDA.
In the interview I cited in the beginning, Said stressed the connections between the Palestinian and Jewish experiences of exile, dispossession, and statelessness. When Zionism initiated and commenced a political project to colonise Palestine, it destroyed Palestinian society and life and created a Jewish state on top of it. The destruction of Jewish life in Europe was dealt with by destroying Palestinian life in Palestine, and thereafter, the Jewish question ceased to be an internal Jewish question and became intertwined with the Palestinian question. To properly name and tackle antisemitism means properly naming and tackling colonial modernity and the settler colonisation of Palestine. Anything short of that is bound to replicate colonial orientalist discourse and perpetuate colonial modernity.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
- Mark Muhannad AyyashAssociate Professor of Sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada.Ayyash is the author of A Hermeneutics of Violence (UTP, 2019). He was born and raised in Silwan, Jerusalem, before immigrating to Canada. He is currently writing a book on settler colonial sovereignty.