Prime Minister Theresa May today announced that the UK is formally adopting a definition of anti-Semitism agreed on earlier this year by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
This definition is not new, however, and it poses a familiar threat to legitimate criticism of the State of Israel.
The text of the IHRA definition is based on, and very similar to, a draft document first circulated by a European anti-racism agency in 2005, only to be subsequently abandoned as not fit for purpose.
That particular definition, drafted with the help of pro-Israel advocacy groups, was the subject of serious critique for its conflation of genuine anti-Semitic bigotry on the one hand, and criticism of or opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel on the other.
It is that definition which has now been resuscitated, and endorsed by a Tory government that has already sought to intimidate Palestine solidarity activism and undermine civil society boycotts.
I have experienced for myself how such a definition can have a chilling effect on free speech.
When I participated in a debate at the University of Birmingham on Israel and Palestine a few years ago, organisers told us not to use the term “apartheid”, for fear of falling foul of a definition of anti-Semitism recently passed on campus – the same definition now given a new lease of life.
In fact, the definition endorsed by May is almost identical to the one at the heart of a free speech furore in the US, pitching pro-Israel senators against groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Jewish Voice for Peace, who oppose efforts they see as intended to stifle pro-Palestine activism.
Writing in Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week, American Jewish commentator Peter Beinart suggested that such efforts “to classify anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, punishable by law” are a direct response to the growing number of “progressives” who “question Zionism”.
Beinart dismissed the idea that “denying Israel the right to exist” constitutes anti-Semitism, noting that “political Zionism – the belief that Jews enjoy the greatest safety and self-expression in their own state – has always been controversial even among Jews.”
Such views are not uncommon in US or even Israeli publications, but rarely appear in British papers. This lack of critical thinking and dissent when it comes to Israel and Zionism – especially in terms of understanding the Palestinians’ decades-long experience – now seems unlikely to improve.
UK news in pictures
UK news in pictures
1/18 23 June 2017
British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses a news conference at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 23, 2017
2/18 22 June 2017
Cosplay fans (L-R) George Massingham, Abbey Forbes and Karolina Goralik travel by tube dressed in Harry Potter themed costumes, after a visit to one the literary franchise's movie filming locations at Leadenhall Market in London, Britain
3/18 22 June 2017
Racegoers cheer on their horse on Ladies Day at the Royal Ascot horse racing meet, in Ascot, west of London
4/18 21 June 2017
A reveller walks among the tipi tents at the Glastonbury Festival of Music and Performing Arts on Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset, South West England
5/18 20 June 2017
A police officer lays some flowers passed over by a member of the public, close to Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, after one man died and eight people were taken to hospital and a person arrested after a rental van struck pedestrian
The Borough Market bell is seen in Borough Market in central London following its re-opening after the June 3 terror attack
Two women embrace in Borough Market, which officially re-opens today following the recent attack, in central London
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan attends the re-opening of Borough market in central London following the June 3 terror attack
People walk through Borough Market in central London following its re-opening after the June 3 terror attack
News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch, with one of his daughters, visit Borough Market, which officially re-opened today following the recent attack
A woman reacts in front of a wall of messages in Borough Market, which officially re-opened today following the recent attack, in central London
Vivenne Westwood walks the runway at the Vivenne Westwood show during the London Fashion Week Men's June 2017 collections
Millwall fan and London Bridge hero Roy Larner on 'Good Morning Britain'
Richard Arnold, Roy Larner, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on 'Good Morning Britain'
15/18 11 June 2017
England players celebrate after defeating Venezuela 1-0 to win the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea 2017 at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea
16/18 11 June 2017
England players celebrate with the trophy after the final match of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2017 between Venezuela and England at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea
17/18 11 June 2017
Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee celebrates winning the Elite Men Columbia Threadneedle World Triathlon Leeds
Danny Lawson/PA Wire
18/18 11 June 2017
Two men drink beer outside the Southwark Tavern which reopened for business today next to an entrance to Borough Market which remains closed in London
However, efforts to censor can often backfire. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, for example, has used the Israeli government’s attacks to secure high-profile backing for the right to boycott from legal scholars and European diplomats, among others.
Interestingly, the Prime Minister announced the adoption of the new definition of anti-Semitism at a meeting with the Conservative Friends of Israel, where she described Israel as a state that “guarantees the rights of people of all religions, races and sexualities”.
Such a claim is met with scorn by the Palestinians, many NGOs championing human rights, and Israeli activists, who are familiar with historical mass expulsions, institutionalised discrimination, and a half-century long military regime of colonisation and displacement.
It is precisely because awareness of those facts is growing that the Israeli government and its friends and allies are desperate to smear and shush – even if it means compromising the fight against genuine anti-Semitism with muddled definitions.Reuse content