Lufthansa becomes first airline to adopt IHRA definition of antisemitism

The announcement comes after the airline barred a large group of Orthodox Jewish passengers from boarding a flight back in May.

Air planes of German carrier Lufthansa are parked at the airport in Frankfurt (photo credit: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH)
Air planes of German carrier Lufthansa are parked at the airport in Frankfurt
(photo credit: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH)

The German Lufthansa airline announced on Thursday that it would adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The announcement took place at a special event that Lufthansa hosted in Washington DC.

“I welcome Lufthansa’s firm commitment to combating antisemitism and am especially pleased that it has adopted the IHRA definition today,” said Dr Felix Klein, the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism.

Klein added that "for a long time I have been campaigning for as many businesses, associations, sports clubs and other groups as possible to take this definition seriously and to use it as an orientation in their activities. Not only has Lufthansa done this, but it has also installed an antisemitism officer and has introduced special training courses on antisemitism and discrimination for its staff.

"I believe these measures provide an appropriate and effective basis for preventing and combating antisemitism. I would be very glad if other German companies would follow Lufthansa’s example.”

"I believe these measures provide an appropriate and effective basis for preventing and combating antisemitism. I would be very glad if other German companies would follow Lufthansa’s example.”

Dr Felix Klein

The Working Definition of Antisemitism (also called the IHRA definition) is a non-legally binding statement on what antisemitism is, which was adopted by the IHRA Plenary with representatives from 31 countries.

Deborah Lipstadt, US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Dr. Emily Haber, German Ambassador to the US and Michael Herzog, Israeli Ambassador to the US watch as Lufthansa Group Executive Board Member Christina Foerster signs the IHRA antisemitism definition on Sep. 15. (credit: Cliff Owen)Deborah Lipstadt, US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Dr. Emily Haber, German Ambassador to the US and Michael Herzog, Israeli Ambassador to the US watch as Lufthansa Group Executive Board Member Christina Foerster signs the IHRA antisemitism definition on Sep. 15. (credit: Cliff Owen)

The statement reads: “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.” Among the 11 examples of antisemitism that accompany the definition, 7 relate to Israel.

Lufthansa announced in July it was creating a senior management role dedicated to preventing discrimination and antisemitism two months after it barred a large group of Orthodox Jewish passengers from boarding a flight. However, an independent investigation commissioned by the airline said there was no evidence of institutional antisemitism behind the incident, which the company’s CEO deemed “categorically inappropriate.”

What led to Lufthansa's moves?

In a letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Lufthansa Airlines CEO Jens Ritter said the airline had established an internal task force to investigate the May 4 incident in which more than 100 Hassidic passengers were kicked off a connecting flight from New York to Budapest because some of them had not worn masks and committed other flight violations, such as gathering in the aisles.

The incident outraged Jews in the United States and Europe, some of whom alleged that the crew had been discriminating against all visible Jewish passengers, even those who had complied with the rules.

As published by The Jerusalem Post in May, Lufthansa issued a public apology after dozens of passengers, whose appearance clearly showed them to be Jewish, were not allowed to board a flight in Frankfurt because some of them allegedly did not comply with COVID-19 mask rules.

“Lufthansa regrets the circumstances surrounding the decision to exclude affected passengers from the flight, for which Lufthansa sincerely apologizes,” said the statement. “While Lufthansa is still reviewing the facts and circumstances of that day, we regret that the large group was denied boarding rather than limiting it to the non-compliant guests.”

In addition, American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Lufthansa Group announced a joint initiative to combat global antisemitism on Thursday. The new partnership, detailed in a Memorandum of Understanding that the German airline and the leading global Jewish advocacy organization are signing, focuses on Lufthansa utilizing AJC staff experts to train airline employees to identify and respond to antisemitism.

What have been some of the responses? 

“We are grateful for Lufthansa’s strong commitment to addressing antisemitism and bias within the workplace. As global antisemitism rises, the private sector increasingly has a role to play, and Lufthansa aims to be a corporate leader in the fight against anti-Jewish prejudice. We are honored to partner with them in this endeavor,” said Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s US Director of Combating Antisemitism.

Lufthansa CEO Jens Ritter had promised in July that the airline would establish a senior management position “for the prevention of discrimination and antisemitism,” and adopt the IHRA Working Definition, after a group of Orthodox Jewish passengers traveling on Lufthansa from New York to Budapest was prevented from boarding a connecting flight. AJC, at the time, strongly criticized the treatment of Jewish passengers by airline personnel.

“Fundamental to standing against antisemitism is understanding what it is and how it manifests, both in overt forms and through unconscious bias. The IHRA definition recognizes all of this – that is its distinct strength,” said Lufthansa Group Executive Board Member Christina Foerster, who was in Washington, DC, meeting with Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism; Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Antisemitism; Emily Haber, German Ambassador to the US; and Michael Herzog, Israeli Ambassador to the US.

JTA and Michael Starr contributed to this report.