Boycotts, antisemitism and free speech

Are ethical guidelines or legal restrictions legitimate means of responding to the singling out of Israel through boycotts and similar attacks?

Protesters hold abanner that reads "Boycott Israel" during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Paris (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET)
Protesters hold abanner that reads "Boycott Israel" during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Paris
Are ethical guidelines or legal restrictions legitimate means of responding to the singling out of Israel through boycotts and similar attacks? Or, as critics of these measures claim, are these guidelines anti-democratic infringements on free speech and attempts to prevent criticism of Israel?
The intensity of this debate has been increasing in parallel to the rise in violent antisemitic attacks in which the perpetrators justify their actions as responses to Israel and Zionism. Clashes surrounding BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns add to the friction, including (unsuccessful) efforts by activists to boycott the recent Eurovision song contest held in Israel, as well as the latest BDS initiatives led by global NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
In responding effectively, it is necessary to encompass the “old” theologically-based form, from the right of the political spectrum, as well as the “new” dimension that targets Israel, as David Hirsh (Goldsmiths College, London University), documents in his book on Contemporary Left antisemitism.
These concerns have produced a growing global consensus based on the working definition of antisemitism, adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and built on an earlier EU version. This document has been officially endorsed by the 32 state members of IHRA (France was the most recent addition). It has been used for training of police in the UK and elsewhere in order to provide criteria by which hate crimes directed at Jews can be identified with consistency. There are proposals to include in ethical guidelines for journalists and media platforms – the recent case of a New York Times cartoon, for which the editors apologized, highlighted the importance of an accepted definition of antisemitism. Other potential venues include influential NGOs and the United Nations.
The concise IHRA document includes language and examples of old and new antisemitism, with the innovation focused on the latter. Thus, the text refers to “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,” double standards requiring Israel to conform to “a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” “symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism... to characterize Israel or Israelis,” and “comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
AT THE same time, the expanding endorsement and application of the IHRA definition has triggered strong opposition, based on the claim that the sections referring to Israel serve to prevent legitimate criticism and free speech. Such statements were made during the UK Labour Party debate on whether to adopt the document (initially rejected, then accepted, but largely ignored).
However, the arguments of those who reject the IHRA definition are specious. According to the critics, without being able to compare Israeli responses to terrorism to Nazi practices, singling out the Jewish state uniquely for attacks and boycotts, or denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination, criticism of Israel is impossible. If these are the only means critics can find to oppose Israeli policies, they have a serious problem.
Furthermore, ethical guidelines exist in many different arenas (journalism, social media, academia, NGOs, political parties, etc.) – indeed, many social activists demand ever wider limitations on racist language or symbols when applied to other groups. In theory, they could argue that the IHRA terms need modification or watering down, but none has done so or proposed alternative language. Instead, opponents generally deny the existence of the new antisemitism entirely, and if there is no such problem, it follows that there is no need for a solution, a definition, or guidelines.
The IHRA definition is based on the understanding that antisemitism, like Holocaust denial, poses a public danger greater than that of restricting unfettered free speech to exclude blatant hate speech and incitement. Germany and a number of other Western European countries have laws banning Holocaust denial, and adoption of the IHRA definition, although not legally binding, is in a similar category. In Germany, on May 17, 2019, the Bundestag approved the governing coalition’s resolution condemning BDS as antisemitism, which quoted and was based on the IHRA definition.
This is the principle that was agreed to with the founding of IHRA in Stockholm twenty years ago, and eventually led to the writing and adoption of the working definition. If guidelines are “incompatible with free speech” or opposed because they ostensibly prevent legitimate criticism of Israel, either all anti-racist guidelines are thereby unacceptable, or attacks on the Jewish people and the Jewish state are deemed to be uniquely acceptable. And such a claim, which singles out Israel, is, according to IHRA, itself an expression of antisemitism.
Finally, those who reject the IHRA document, including many BDS proponents and activists, propose no alternative definitions. What these critics are really saying is that there is no need to define antisemitism, no need for ethical guidelines, and there should be no stigma attached to such behavior – meaning that they are a big part of the problem.
The writer is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Institute for NGO Research.