anti-racism, not the IHRA

published with Fred Albert, Dominion Post 25/2/20

Mayor Foster, don’t do this.

If you follow the issue of racism or the protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, you will know the International Holocaust Memorial Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism.  It has lit fires of protest across Europe, Canada and the USA.  The problem lies not in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism but in a set of examples which have been used to conflate criticism of Israel with a hatred of Jews.  Anti-Zionism has been called anti-Semitism.

Given this document’s global trail of controversy, we were stunned to see a motion on the Wellington City Council’s agenda for Wednesday, February 26 – this week ­– to adopt the IHRA document for our city. The meeting papers cite a request made by the Wellington Regional Jewish Council.  We are not aware of any opportunity for public input in the lead-up to this item 2.1 of General Business. 

Not in our names, thank you.  We urge our council not to take this misguided step, and certainly not without hearing from constituents. How could the WCC opt to bypass the public, when this document is the object of fury elsewhere?

We would like to compile some of the scholarly and popular petitions, count the hundreds of thousands of members of organizations that protest any legislative use of this document.  We would like to cite the document’s own author, Kenneth Stern on the document’s political effect.  He cautioned the US Congress that “giving the [IHRA] definition legal status would be ‘unconstitutional and unwise.’”  He writes that the document’s use in law can demonize valid political speech, by rendering criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine anti-Semitic. 

The IHRA definition does nothing new to combat racism.  Its new effect is to regulate the speech of people like ourselves: law-abiding non-Zionists who call for the unexceptional application of law and human rights in Israel / Palestine; Jews and non-Jews alike.

The IHRA document is a political instrument.  It also fails as an anti-racism instrument.

We write as two members of the Wellington synagogue that was recently defaced by Nazi symbols.  We care deeply about responding to racism, but we and all New Zealanders are already covered by the 1993 Human Rights Act.  New papers are not what we need.  Neither the vandal in Wellington nor the shooter in Christchurch care about new definitions on paper.

We need a different, lived response to support our existing human rights legislation. We need to discuss and respond to three magnitudes of hate:  the intimidation of ugly graffiti on a place of worship, the hate-driven murders of 51 Muslims in their mosque, and the rise of racism in institutions and states in our time.

Hatreds and resentful identity politics have their own histories, but now they have joined forces under the toxic rubric of white supremacy. We need to respond to that together. If the Wellington City Council intended to reassure Jews by adopting a new definition of anti-Semitism, they were offering a misguided comfort.  We cannot hive off one hate and legislate it away, seeking an ethnic safety behind my synagogue gate or your mosque doorway.  No gates for us, please. There is no separate safety.

A real response must be a joined-up, anti-racist Never Again that makes us responsible to and for each other.  Hatred and violence must be confronted and turned away by a broad, loving, uncompromising embrace of justice and mutual protection.  We are each other’s best hope.

Let that be our agenda item.  Put the politics of the IHRA away.

Marilyn Garson and Fred Albert

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