The entropy of the IHRA: the Holocaust, Palestine and that definition

Zentropy image: SciTech Daily

We are witnessing an unintended consequence of the IHRA’s political definition of antisemitism. Intending to silence Israel’s critics, the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) has instead made them stakeholders in an uncomfortable set of issues.

Jewish religious and academic scholars disagree whether the Holocaust belongs within or beyond our usual historical categories. This far-reaching question pre-dates the IHRA. Marilyn Garson recalls studying it with post-Holocaust philosopher Emil Fackenheim nearly forty years ago at the University of Toronto.

Some people believe that the Holocaust is sui generis, in a category of its own. Some regard it as the culmination of a fixed, eternal antisemitism; a hatred unlike other racial hatreds. Those beliefs may be deeply held.

Problems arise when that exceptionalism extends to Israel. Jacqueline Rose has described the ‘disgrace’ of making the Holocaust’s ‘barely assimilable trauma’ into the ‘premise’ of Israel’s state programme.[1]

The Holocaust cannot justify or redeem Israel’s ongoing Nakba against the Palestinian people. If we let that happen in the name of one people’s cataclysm, we become complicit in a second national cataclysm.

The IHRA’s programme seeks to establish a separate Holocaust curriculum and antisemitism regime—one best understood by visiting Israel. That sealed historical narrative would be protected by the IHRA’s own definition of ‘antisemitism’.

While we, AJV, oppose the IHRA’s exceptional approach to the Holocaust and racism, we respect other views—until they deploy the Holocaust to serve Zionist politics. Then we respect them less.

  • A separate Holocaust education

The Holocaust was unique: a modern, industrialised, European genocide.

The category of genocide assumed that this very worst crime would always be predicated on the existence of an Other to target, dehumanise, blame, dispossess and murder. In Cambodia in the 1970s, there was no Other. The Khmer Rouge manufactured an Other and conducted a genocide so familial that scholars eventually called it auto-genocide. Cambodia’s genocide was unique.

Genocide is a category, not a carbon copy. It does not diminish the Holocaust or the Cambodian or other genocides to place them in a category. On the contrary, it holds them within relevant human history and requires us to confront our human choice and responsibility. It contextualises the programme and the crimes of genocide among other categories of crimes against nations: crimes of war, slavery, apartheid, colonisation. In our view, contextualising the Holocaust is more helpful than sequestering it.

  • A separate antisemitism

We believe that the study of the Holocaust is not enough to shape a compelling and well-grounded response to the antisemitism we see around us today. The Holocaust cannot do that job alone.

The antisemitism of the Holocaust was Christian and European. 21st century antisemitism is better understood within the set of contemporary hatreds. Antisemitism is a core component of the fascist, far Right and White supremacist world view. Every hatred in that toxic bundle has its own history but at the moment, hatreds travel in packs. Antisemitism must not be a separate Jewish issue.

We want to equip Jewish children to confront antisemitism. A vital strand of their equipment will be the mutual respect and reciprocal obligations they acquire by embracing human equality. When that Jewish child stands up, we want her to know that the Maori tamaiti on her right, and the Muslim child on her left will be right there with her, as she is for them.

That requires more than the study of history. Antiracist education must be a current event, our shared mahi.

  • Exceptional Israel as a response

Western guilt aided the UN votes to partition Palestine, establish Israel, and turn a blind eye to international law—all at the expense of the Palestinian nation. Palestinians bore no responsibility for the Holocaust, nor did they agree to hand over their land as compensation for European crimes.

The Holocaust was a factor in Israel’s establishment, but Israel is far more than a response. It is, according to the world’s leading human rights voices, an apartheid state.

As an example of our national commitment to Holocaust education, New Zealand’s IHRA application describes the Holocaust Centre’s biannual junkets for teachers to study the Holocaust in Israel. The Holocaust did not happen in Israel.

Let the Holocaust Centre bring teachers to Europe to learn about the Holocaust where it happened. Let them learn how communities adopt racist, genocidal ideology and descend into the lowest kind of madness. That is a European lesson.

To bring New Zealanders to Israel (and not, of course, to any place of Palestinian history or present-day reality) is to feed them a revisionist history and make them complicit in an apartheid present. It is the cruelest irony to enlist the Holocaust in the erasure of another nation.

  • That definition

The IHRA protects Israel’s exceptional license with the dreaded IHRA definition of antisemitism, which calls anti-Zionist protest and Palestinian identity ‘antisemitic’.

Nonsense. What is antisemitism? Antisemitism is the hatred of Jews or Jewishness. Anti-Zionism which upholds the absolute equality and rights of Palestinians, is not about the religion of the occupier. Palestinians would resist if their occupiers were Martian, and those who love human equality would stand beside them. The IHRA definition calls such protest ‘antisemitic’ in order to silence Israel’s critics—Palestinians and their allies, advocates of human rights, and non-Zionist Jews.

However, we are witnessing an unintended effect of the IHRA definition.

The IHRA definition makes the Holocaust do the ideological work of defending Israel by enabling ‘IHRA-style-antisemitism’ charges. The IHRA organisation uses its name to brand ‘antisemitism’ with the moral authority of the word ‘Holocaust’. Now, by accusing many more people of ‘IHRA antisemitism’, the definition has involved them in the whole set of IHRA issues.

Suddenly, people who have no inherent interest in Holocaust education and no special knowledge of antisemitism do have a stake in policies which support the IHRA definition. The IHRA definition intended to silence Israel’s critics. Instead, by targeting them and lumping them together with real antisemites, the IHRA has made them all into stakeholders.

Much of the early response to the IHRA initiative has been the avoidable, unpleasant result of the IHRA’s choice to advance such a failed definition as its calling card.

We wish it had not happened without consultation. The IHRA politicises everything it touches. Our observer status has dragged us all into a new, already very uncomfortable phase.

Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa

[1] See Jacqueline Rose, Holocaust Premises: Political Implications of the Traumatic Frame in The Jacqueline Rose Reader, pg 332-340.

5 thoughts on “The entropy of the IHRA: the Holocaust, Palestine and that definition”

  1. Please do not ignore the fact that the majority of (colonial) Zionists are Christian. Some 95 million US Christian Zionists / Evangelicals want all of ancient Zion colonised by Jews – including that part long-occupied by Palestnians and their semitic forefathers (including even Jewish Children of Israel before the formalisation of Judaism after exile in Babylon forbade intermarriage). There are many who fervently believe that this will lead to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But they are so wrong. (Jewish Zionists certainly think so but are happy to accept US public and charitable dollars that directly and indirectly go to fund the occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from swathes of their homeland in order to make way for illegal, Zionist-only colonies and associated infrastructure.


  2. You mix up antisemitism and holocaust. The holocaust was one manifestation of antisemitism. The most abhorrent, but not the only one. The IHRA definition of antisemitism intends to cover all its ugly faces.


    1. The IHRA definition intends to silence protest. Not everyone who disagrees with you is an antisemite. That is the wrong use of the word, and we lose the real category of meaning when it is used to include valid forms of political protest.


      1. Mentalizing (guessing intentions) is not debatable. The debatate is whether or not demonising, singling out Israel and Zionism is antisemitic. For what I could see, IHRA does a pretty good job in emphasising the difference between criticism and demonisation of Israel. Everyone genuinly interested can study IHRA’s documents and make up their minds.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: