We embrace the Jerusalem Declaration on antisemitism as an authoritative statement to bring to our work.
“Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).”
The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism was published today, with the definition above. Its signatories are 200 eminent scholars of Jewish and interreligious studies, law and government, arts and philosophy. They laboured for more than a year to write a document that can authoritatively guide us away from the morass of the IHRA working definition (IHRA). By enabling broad, often baseless accusations of antisemitism, the IHRA has been used to chill political speech and harm many reputations.
The Jerusalem Declaration is built upon the foundations of free political speech and the need to combat racial hatred including antisemitism. Rather than imagining that antisemitism will benefit from isolation, the Declaration’s preamble writes that “while antisemitism has certain distinctive features, the fight against it is inseparable from the overall fight against all forms of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender discrimination.”
Following its preamble and its one-line definition, the Jerusalem Declaration describes the speech that is and is not prima facie antisemitic, addressing the “widely-felt need for clarity on the limits of legitimate political speech and action concerning Zionism, Israel, and Palestine.”
Its examples counter the IHRA’s overreach. Recall that the IHRA was only a working document, widely critiqued for its contradictions and vagueness. It was not written with any special religious or academic imprimateur. Its primary author has protested that it was never intended for the governmental uses to which it has been put. Notwithstanding that, it been wielded in an absolute, intimidating way. It has been used to render Palestinian stories and anti-occupation protest preemptively antisemitic. Absurdly, in the name of protecting Jews, masses of dissenting Jews have been accused of Jew-hatred.
Even here in New Zealand, where the IHRA definition has no official standing, we have become accustomed to hearing routine and unaccountable accusations of antisemitism. In addition to reputational harm, the name-calling has distracted us from issues – even as it has made those issues harder and more dangerous to discuss.
Something is clearly and profoundly wrong. Antisemitism is real but not every disagreement, not every protest is rooted in the hatred of Jews. We are losing the language to distinguish between debate and racism.
The Jerusalem Declaration intervenes, just when we need an emergency brake. It represents an extraordinary, senior scholarly agreement. It is purpose-built, intended to be easily understood and used. It enables constructive speech and action.
The Declaration’s gravitas is especially valuable to Aotearoa-NZ right now. Efforts have been made to convince our governing authorities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. IHRA advocates have urged our government to believe that the IHRA definition is needed to protect our Jewish community. Now there is a alternative definition to place on the table. Let’s put them side by side and ask which is protecting what.
The Hebrew name of Alternative Jewish Voices is Sh’ma Koleinu – hear our voice. When they are lobbied ‘on behalf of the Jewish community,’ government needs to realize how diverse and how divided the Jewish community is on the matter of Zionism. We reject it as an ethnic nationalism. Government needs to hear our voice, and the voices of others.
We are grateful for the Jerusalem Declaration’s authoritative, concrete intervention. We will use it. We urge others to read it, to reflect on their own speech and continue speaking firmly and constructively against racism and injustice.
We want to set realistic expectations. The Jerusalem Declaration is not an activist manifesto or a silver bullet. It is not – indeed, no document could be – the end of the debate. It can end an ugly moment, and return us all to the work at hand: ending the injustice in Palestine / Israel, and combating all forms of racism with allies.
The critique written by the Palestinian BDS National Committee supports the Jerusalem Declaration, but includes some worthy reservations. There will also be others for whom it also does not go far enough.
We acknowledge those limitations. Still we think that the Declaration’s considered, mainstream language is broadly beneficial. It is a document that we can use now. Our advocacy has suffered from the lack of such an instrument in the past. We have been able to refuse the IHRA, but until now, we had nothing better to bring to the table.
We embrace the Jerusalem Declaration as a powerful instrument to bring to our unfinished work for justice in Palestine / Israel, and our work against racism.
Passover, the Jewish festival of liberation begins this weekend. It reminds us that we will only be free when we are all free. What good is my freedom when so many around me are still in chains?
Alternative Jewish Voices of New Zealand