The IHRA definition will not help fight anti-Semitism

But it can very much hurt the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle and academic and advocacy freedom.

Pro-Palestinian protesters take part in a demonstration against Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip, in Ottawa on July 26, 2014 [File: Reuters/Chris Wattie]

Following in the footsteps of various European and North American local and national governments, the Legislative Assembly of Canada’s Ontario province was set to become the latest political body to adopt a controversial definition and list of illustrative examples of anti-Semitism.

First put forward in December 2019, the Combating Antisemitism Act, or Bill 168, sought to revise the province’s definition in accordance with what the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has outlined constitutes anti-Semitism.

But on October 26, the day before public hearings were set to begin, Premier Doug Ford instead issued Order in Council 1450/2020, which declared that the Ontario government would recognise the IHRA. Unlike Bill 168, however, the Order in Council did not reference the illustrative examples or amend existing statutes. It remains unclear whether Bill 168 will be shelved and whether decision-makers will still be encouraged to interpret the Order in Council as including the illustrative examples.

According to the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism:

“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.”

Many advocates for justice in Palestine find nothing wrong with this definition, and they indeed support the necessary fight against anti-Semitism. The problem, however, as they point out is the conflation of this definition with critiques of Israel. Even though the IHRA insists that it does not wish to censor criticism of Israel, the effect of adopting this definition and its examples is certainly to police and censor the Palestinian critique of Israel.

Despite the IHRA’s claim that the definition is non-legally binding, the definition and its adoption, according to American scholar Rebecca Ruth Gould, “comes to function as … a quasi-law, in which capacity it exercises the de facto authority of the law, without having acquired legal legitimacy”.

In short, the IHRA definition seeks to make rather banal and soft criticisms of Israel acceptable (eg, policy X failed because of certain unintended consequences, a misreading of the political conditions, etc.) while censoring more serious and necessary critiques (ie, the Palestinian critique of the colonial foundations of the Israeli state and the need to transform them).

Of the examples presented in the IHRA definition, three in particular stand out. The first casts as anti-Semitic any argument in which we may find the following feature: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

The list of academic articles and books that would become anti-Semitic if we accepted this example is indeed astounding. It would include the writings of Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Joseph Massad, Achille Mbembe, Robert Wolfe, Angela Davis, Hamid Dabashi, Audra Simpson and many others. In fact, an entire academic journal, Settler Colonial Studies, would have to be removed from all of our libraries.

What is really alarming about this example is that it posits the nation-state as a natural and irrefutable fact of social and political life, and one that is beyond reproach, critique and deep analysis. The historical reality is that the nation-state is a relatively new mode of social and political organisation.

The overwhelming majority of nation-states that exist today, including Israel, only came into being as modern nation-states during the 20th century. Academic theorisations and analyses of the nation-state are replete with critiques of these states as founded in violence, and as based in racial and sexual contracts that foundationally discriminate and attack certain racialised and gendered bodies.

Israel is not singled out when its statehood is called a racist endeavour. It is, in fact, treated with the same level of critique that is often directed against all nation-states, including Canada. The equivalent of this example if applied to Canada is to render the following statement as hate speech and potentially criminal: “Canada’s foundational structure is racist.”

If this is the path the IHRA is promoting, then let us stop all pretention and censor Indigenous studies and critical race theory, as well as all textbooks that mention these theoretical traditions and schools of thought. I realise that the Ford government and other conservative governments would welcome such a censorship, but the majority of the world’s scholars and thinkers would not.

Moreover, this example paradoxically violates another example put forth in the IHRA definition. As they state, “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” By stating in the first example that no one shall point out the racist endeavour that underpins the Israeli state, it actually applies a different standard to the Israeli state. The first example dissolves the very equality of standards that this second example is alleging to promote.

But there is also another serious problem with this example. What sort of behaviour qualifies as “not expected” of any other democratic nation? Supporters of Israel often argue that criticism of Israel’s violent actions in Gaza and other Palestinian territories, or maintaining the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land, or questioning Israel’s alleged democratic character constitutes anti-Semitism.

But is ending a siege on a native population “not expected” of a democratic nation? In Israel’s case, that would be Gaza, and in a country like Canada, that would be the political siege on Indigenous communities which allows the government to get away with not providing basic services to them, such as clean drinking water.

Is the demand not to kill civilians in military operations never asked of Canada or the United States when they commit war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq? Is the demand to allow Palestinians sovereign rights to their land and resources not also demanded of Canada when we are debating and critiquing the building of pipelines and their infringement on Indigenous sovereignty?

More generally, are we, as activists, scholars and citizens not allowed to ask questions about what constitutes a “democratic nation”, what demands and behaviours we ought to expect from our governments and other governments? As a Palestinian-Canadian scholar myself, am I not allowed to interrogate the nature of government in Israel? Do we expect Kashmiri-Canadians to not interrogate the Indian state and make demands of it? Or Irish-Canadians to not do the same in regard to the United Kingdom?

If that is the case, then more bodies of work need to be removed from our libraries: democratic theory, critical political and social theory, all Marxist analysis of democracy, postcolonial theory and feminist theory.

While we are at it, we had better remove Aristotle from our libraries as well. He does at one point suggest that democracy is not a favourable form of government because it does not serve us well in achieving the “common good”, and that might encourage students to question what makes a democracy a “democracy”, how its current structure may fail to achieve the common good, and this might lead them to challenge the accepted and conventional norms of what we ought to expect from a democracy.

And this in turn might lead Palestinian-Canadian scholars and others to question what we might demand of Israel and the nature of the Israeli state.

Finally, there is the third, more complex example: “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” Personally, I do not engage in this kind of comparison. I am mindful of the pain that this comparison can inflict on members of the Jewish community. But more to the point, I do not find it historically accurate or illuminating. For me, it is much more insightful to compare Israeli policy and violence with colonial (British) and settler-colonial states (the US, Canada, and Australia).

Nonetheless, one needs to ask here a very uncomfortable question but one that the example itself brings to bear: are the Holocaust survivors who themselves have made this comparison in the past, are they anti-Semitic? Does this mean that we ought to censor those particular accounts from Holocaust survivors, or books by Israeli and Palestinian academics who attempt to think the Holocaust and the Nakba (the 1948 catastrophe) side by side?

I realise that some will see my line of argument as an effort to extend these examples to absurd conclusions that do not really concern the proposed IHRA definition. This response in fact affirms my main point in this piece. Proponents of the IHRA will surely argue that they are not interested in censoring Indigenous theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, democratic theory, accounts of Holocaust survivors or Aristotle. And my retort to that assertion is why not?

All of these schools and ideas conjure a kind of critique that can deeply challenge the nation-state as a racist and ethnonational endeavour that ought to be transformed. Why is it that only when these critiques are applied to Israel that we ought to censor them?

The answer is that this definition and these examples are only interested in how Palestinian scholars and supporters of justice for Palestinians have taken up these critiques and directed them against Israel. That is their only target, and as such, this is a purely political manoeuvre, not a substantive one. These examples are, on a fundamental level, anti-Palestinian.

The absurdity here is not the logical conclusion I am drawing out of these examples. Rather, absurdity is embedded within these examples and guides them. These examples reveal that the effect of the IHRA definition is not the necessary, timely and important work of combatting anti-Semitism, but rather the censorship and erasure of Palestinian opposition to the violence that continues to dispossess them.

The strategic context in which all of this is taking place is critical to underscore. Palestinians are weaker than the Israelis militarily and politically. The only advantage that Palestinians hold is the justness of their cause and struggle. The moral basis of their struggle is what still connects many people across the world to the Palestinian cause, for example through the BDS campaign.

By painting Palestinian resistance, which comes in the form of a radical and deep critique of the Israeli state, as anti-Semitic, the IHRA definition effectively seeks to gain the upper hand for Israel and for supporters of Israel in the moral domain as well.

It should be noted that member countries in the IHRA are all European or the products of European settler colonialism – almost all of which are, to varying degrees, allies and supporters of Israel as a result of that shared colonial foundation and world view.

Regardless of what transpires in Ontario, one thing is clear: the IHRA definition with its illustrative examples will accomplish nothing in the fight against anti-Semitism. But it will present a serious obstacle to the work of scholars, groups and organisations that are struggling for Palestinian freedom and liberation, and thus, it stands in the way of peace and justice in Palestine/Israel.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.