Defining antisemitism

The working definition’s strength is its controversial recognition of contemporary antisemitism’s principal preoccupation – the Jewish state.

December 11, 2017 22:44
3 minute read.
Defining antisemitism

Police is seen at the site of an attack near a synagogue in Gothenburg, Sweden December 9, 2017. (photo credit: TT NEWS AGENCY/ADAM IHSE/VIA REUTERS)


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This summer the European Parliament thrilled countless Jewish organizations by endorsing a definition of antisemitism that the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) had abandoned years earlier and continues to ignore. Now named “the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism,” the definition mirrors the one informally adopted by the FRA’s predecessor, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).

The working definition’s strength is its controversial recognition of contemporary antisemitism’s principal preoccupation – the Jewish state. As such, the definition specifically identifies Israel’s demonization and the double standards to which it is held as antisemitic. Moreover, it characterizes Israel’s delegitimization (i.e., “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”) as antisemitic.

While the definition’s opponents insist it unjustly stigmatizes all criticism of Israel as unreservedly antisemitic, the text states that when “criticism of Israel [is] similar to that leveled against any other country [it] cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Although the parliament’s recent resolution might generate more (not less) discussion and data about anti-Jewish animus, the FRA’s persistent reluctance to employ any consistent definition renders its annual monitoring of antisemitism a fool’s errand.

It is worth recalling that the original EUMC definition followed after its officials attempted to suppress a 2003 report on antisemitism that found radicalized Muslims and hard-left sympathizers had become antisemitism’s leading perpetrators in several EU member states. Indeed, virulent anti-Zionism fueled several of the most egregious attacks. Angered by the EU’s reticence to acknowledge these data, the European Jewish Congress and others publicly denounced the EUMC for its evasions. Embarrassed by that scandal and exposed for its questionable efforts against a prejudice it did not understand and had not defined, the EUMC attributed its shortcomings to its not having utilized an explicit definition of antisemitism for itself and its researchers.

According to the EUMC, the stated purpose of the definition was to provide a “practical guide for identifying incidents, collecting data, and supporting the implementation and enforcement of legislation dealing with antisemitism.” Yet, once casually adopted, the 2005 “working definition of antisemitism” languished in obscurity until the rebranded EUMC (now the Fundamental Rights Agency) withdrew the definition from its website in 2013. The withdrawal delighted the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It also generated controversy, particularly after an FRA spokeswoman was questioned about the definition’s disappearance and replied that because the definition lacked official adoption, it did not exist. The Parliament’s recent endorsement of the definition has not altered the FRA’s recalcitrance toward employing it. Indeed, the Parliament’s resolution is nowhere noted by the FRA.

The FRA’s latest report on antisemitism, released last month, is notable both for its dearth of new data and for its praise of United Nations measures against antisemitism, an assessment that would have been nearly impossible to reach had the agency applied the definition. This is less because the UN studiously avoids considerations of antisemitism that cannot be attributed to the far Right than because of its obsessive focus on Israel’s shortcomings (i.e., double standards).

Although the report again bemoans the absence of comparable data pertaining to a problem it refuses to define, the FRA attributes its limited findings to the divergent methodologies employed by the member states and the reluctance of victims of antisemitism to report.

Ignoring its own consistently flawed methodology, the EU agency portrays itself as a dedicated advocate of human rights that “continues to point to the problems of limited data in its latest annual overview of antisemitism data from across the EU, as it remembers the wave of violent anti-Jewish events of ‘Kristallnacht’ on 9 November 1938.” With only 17 of the 28 member states bothering to submit their data to the FRA on reported incidents of antisemitism for 2016, one might expect greater self-scrutiny.

While data is not everything, everything is data. Nearly 15 years have passed since the EU first acknowledged that its fact-finding efforts fell short on this fundamental rights matter. Despite the countless rhetorical repudiations made through minor legislation, human rights professionals and recycled reports, the FRA is no closer to countering antisemitism than the UN it commends. The data is in and the findings are few. Surely Europeans deserve better from their human rights professionals.

The author is Visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Comper Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism at the University of Haifa. She is also a professor of political science at Kalamazoo College (in Michigan) and author of The European Union, Antisemitism and the Politics of Denial (2014, University of Nebraska Press).

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