On the IHRA definition - New Israel Fund Australia

On the IHRA definition

Scott Morrison announced last week that his government would be adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. Predictably, the response has become deeply politicised. 

Already we have seen a Jewish community activist call to use the definition to deny Palestinians a platform at the ABC, adding to the countless examples where lawmakers and activists have sought to quash criticism of Israel by dressing it up as antisemitism.

Coupled with the analysis of the definition’s author that it has become “weaponised” by right-wing Jews, these examples highlight our fear that the definition will be primarily used in Australia to target critics of Israeli government policies rather than cases of antisemitism that threaten the safety of Jews everywhere.

One of the ways the definition is misused is through its ‘contemporary examples’. While it notes that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. 

In practice this “double standard” language has paved the way for some people to label virtually all criticism of Israel as prima facie antisemitic. This approach is based on the simplistic argument that focusing criticism on Israel, when other nations are guilty of similarly bad behaviour, can only reflect animus against Jews.

Combating antisemitism is no simple exercise. Tools like the IHRA working definition can be useful – especially when applied in conjunction with others such as the Jerusalem Declaration and Nexus document produced by scholars who are specialists on antisemitism and have clarified and enhanced the definition and examples. NIF argues that the IHRA definition should be seen as a reference point, not the final word on antisemitism. 

The government and Jewish community leaders are urging the use of IHRA on university campuses and in civil society. Whether it is done as law, policy or guidelines, our fear – already borne out overseas – is that it will be used to silence critics of Israel and thus threaten freedom of expression and academic freedom. It will also devalue charges of antisemitism if they become perceived as politically motivated.

The criticism of NIF that we’ve seen over the past week reinforces the need for respectful discussion of complex issues and views within our community. The Australian Jewish community will come of age when it acknowledges that there are many ways to love and support Israel. NIF’s commitment to justice and equality for all Israelis, ending the occupation and working towards a two-state solution should not represent a threat to the community; rather it should be welcomed as an integral part of a community characterised by a healthy pluralism.

Next month we are hosting an event with the IHRA definition’s lead author, Ken Stern, as well as with our advisory council member Mark Baker and Sydney University student Nell Cohen, to tease out these issues. I hope you can join us.

You may also be interested in these useful resources to learn more about the issue:

We hope that, unlike the finger pointing and demonising we have seen in response so far, we can inject some much needed nuance and perspective into the community’s discussion about the government’s announcement and the way it is to be effected.