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On June 24 2022, with no public discussion, Aotearoa joined the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), ostensibly to combat Holocaust ignorance or denial, and antisemitism. We applaud the aims, but the IHRA organisation does not combat antisemitism. It silences criticism of Israel by defining anti-Zionism as antisemitism.
New Zealand’s observer status does not mean that we have accepted the notorious IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRAWD). It certainly elevates the risk that the IHRAWD definition could be introduced to Aotearoa as a matter of foreign policy, without public consultation. We have described the IHRA organisation and our risks here.
This note informs actions that will help keep the IHRAWD out of Aotearoa. The IHRAWD’s use elsewhere shows us how harmful it is. Its impacts are broad, and resistance to it can mobilise new partnerships.
Here we offer a problem description and actions.
- We distinguish between three IHRAWD-related issues.
- We explain how the IHRAWD capitalises on old fears to carry out new politics.
- We critique the definition – which is not a definition.
- We explain the strategy of introducing the IHRAWD as an instrument of international racial governance. This strategy appeals to the neoliberal configuration of Zionism in Aotearoa.
- We outline a programme of action: how not to be defined by the IHRAWD. We need to roll back the IHRAWD’s stealthy encroachment and prevent its adoption in Aotearoa, while we work together to combat real racism.
Distinguishing the issues
To understand the IHRAWD, it is necessary to distinguish antisemitism, the political project of the IHRAWD, and the method of its introduction. Each of those has distinct implications.
The IHRAWD claims to address antisemitism, but it does not reflect and it does not respond to the antisemitism that we see: the racism built into the White supremacist / far Right worldview. The IHRAWD definition tries to sever antisemitism from, and undermine, the antiracist work in Aotearoa. Its use already makes it harder to work together.
Regardless of its stated purpose, in practice the Israel-centred IHRAWD has chiefly been used to stigmatise speech critical of Israel or the Zionist coopting of Jewish identity. This political project targets Palestinians and their allies, non- or anti-Zionist Jews, and more recently human rights supporters.
The strategy of the IHRAWD tries to prevent protest speech by capturing the machinery of regulation. It pre-empts a matter of local public policy by importing a non-negotiable international standard of racial governance. This strategy can be replicated by anyone with enough influence and access. The strategy of the IHRAWD in Aotearoa is therefore important to our national protection of political, protest or dissenting speech. It also belongs on the agenda of those who advocate for an independent, progressive foreign policy.
The Issues Are Older Than The Definition
New Zealanders respond indignantly when Zionist organisations call their Palestine advocacy antisemitic. How did these accusations come about? The IHRAWD has politicised deeply-felt, real issues. We can only name the issues here, and we have listed references for a deeper understanding at the end of our note.
Although antisemitism is very old, scholars and believers have never agreed on its nature: is antisemitism is cyclical, eternal, exceptional?
Some Jews believe that antisemitism is eternal and unchanging. They conclude that Israel was destined to inherit the world’s antisemtism, no matter what Israel’s leaders did. This belief does not engage with the substance of protest against Israeli actions. Such protest merely constitutes a ‘new antisemitism’ (We will keep the scare quotes because we regard this as a scare tactic that should not be normalised).
Zionism or Jewish nationalism is more recent, but what is its nature? It was a minority vision until the Holocaust. Now nationalism is trumpeted as the epitome, and the only acceptable mode of Judaism. Zionism is asserting a monopoly over Jewish identity – a cooptation that has bitterly divided Jewish communities around the world. Zionism reduces pluralist Judaism to Jews’ loyalty to a territorial administration. That is a racist reduction redolent of antisemitic tropes.
Those who believe that the Israeli state is the culmination of the Jewish religion claim that any challenge to Israel necessarily threatens Jews and Jewish life here at home. In Aotearoa this so-called ‘new antisemitic’ threat underlies the New Zealand Jewish Council’s disempowering messages that Jews are the most endangered group in Aotearoa.
To be clear, the Jewish community is threatened by the growth of White / Right racism, which we should combat alongside our antiracist allies. We are not threatened by protest which upholds Palestinians’ rights. Presenting that protest as a ‘new antisemitic’ threat is dishonest, and it cuts the Jewish community off from empowering antiracist solidarity.
The ‘new antisemitism’ shifts the focus from historic Christian and European antisemitism to the Middle East. The international standard-bearers of the ‘new antisemitic’ threat are Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians in particular. In this worldview, Palestinian resistance to settler colonialism and Israel’s conflicts with its Arab neighbours are driven by racial, implacable hostility. This worldview finds a home in the Islamophobic West and in Hindutva. It explains states’ exceptional indulgence of Israel’s oppression as a matter of domestic security. It calls the prospect of solutions naïve.
The IHRAWD definition enabled these pre-existing beliefs to coalesce around an international governance of antisemitism by providing a single, rigidly defined response. By joining the IHRA organisation as an observer state, Aotearoa has entered that arena of international racial governance. MFAT’s act brought us into one more sphere where we will be pressured to follow the colonial leaders, rather than devising policy that suits our decolonising identity and aspirations.
Given the divisive nature of these issues, we are astounded that MFAT acted without one word of public discussion. Racism belongs within the spheres of human rights, race relations, and hate speech. It is not a foreign affair.
The IHRAWD seeks to win by regulation a furious contest within the Jewish community, and another between the Jewish community and our neighbours. The neoliberal coalition advancing the IHRAWD has placed the Jewish community in a bind between the intolerance of Aotearoa’s Zionist coalition and our natural place among the antiracists. The IHRAWD imagines Jews and Muslims in eternal opposition. It inhibits our solidarity, even as we see that the White / Right in Aotearoa is taking aim at both of our communities. It would be especially harmful to import this definition to Aotearoa right now.
The IHRAWD Is Not A Definition
The Oxford dictionaries say that a definition is a statement of exact meaning.
The IHRAWD opens with a sentence too vague and plastic to be the basis of decisions: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” A certain perception which may be … this is a conditional in search of some content.
The IHRAWD continues with eleven examples of speech, seven of which focus on Israel rather than Jews or Judaism. Not one of these examples was adopted by the IHRA’s own decision-making body – not one – yet the proponents of the IHRAWD insist that they must be adopted in their entirety into IHRAWD governance.
The IHRAWD does not define antisemitism, does not draw on our experience of it and does not enable the work of combating it. The IHRAWD breaks with scholarship to muddy our shared understanding and response to antisemitism as a form of racism.
Critique of the IHRAWD arguments
It does not make anyone an antisemite to oppose Jewish nationalism, Palestinian oppression, or to uphold human rights. By saying that we oppose the raison d’etre of the IHRAWD. In this section, we challenge some of the supporting claims made by proponents of the IHRAWD.
- Zionism is Judaism, and Israel is the ultimate expression of Jewishness.
Zionism is Jewish nationalism and it has become an article of faith for some Jews. Judaism has been a plural noun and a diverse religious / ethnic identity for two thousand years. It is more diverse today than ever. We utterly reject the Zionist cooptation of our religion, and its presumed monopoly to define Jewish practice or identity.
Attaching an intolerant Zionist project like the IHRAWD to Holocaust memory instrumentalises that memory for political purposes.
- Antisemitism is unique and eternal, and requires a response that is separate from other forms of racism.
Every hatred has a history of suffering. Antisemitism is an ancient hate; however, the belief in an eternal, fixed antisemitism gives us an inadequate reading of history. Jews always have been – and today we remain – more than victims. A fixed view of antisemitism impedes Jewish recognition that we have also always been actors. Today White Jews are also the beneficiaries of racialised structures. The IHRAWD impedes the genuine Jewish antiracism that brings us into solidarity with others.
Despite its claims that antisemitism is eternal, the IHRAWD’s focus on Israel enables accusations that have no basis in historic antisemitic beliefs
For example, the NZ Jewish Council’s 2021 survey of antisemitism used the IHRAWD rather than any prevailing definition of racism. They say that 63% of New Zealanders hold antisemitic attitudes, although no more than 21% agreed with any anti-Jewish trope (a figure that is still disconcertingly high). The IHRAWD inflated their findings by adding those who support the world’s leading human rights organisations, and those who believe that democracy grants every adult the right to vote for the government that exercises authority over their lives. Theirs are manifestly not antisemitic beliefs.
The IHRAWD breaks from scholarship to misstate antisemitism, and draws attention to anti-Zionism rather the racism that we see being disseminated by the White / Right. Its use generates alarm and confusion over the prevalence and source of antisemitism.
Concern has been expressed overseas that the IHRAWD creates the policy tick box of the moment. Other longstanding inequities may be deprived of resources.
- Israel has inherited the antisemitism previously expressed toward Jewish people. It is antisemitic to de-legitimise Israel or deny the Jewish people their right to exist in a Jewish state.
Proponents of the IHRAWD extend the rights of Jews to Israel while denying Palestinians’ rights to Palestine. Both the extension and the denial are wrong.
States do not have human rights. Humans do. Yugoslavia had no inherent right to exist in its erstwhile form. Rather, the people living in that territory had individual and collective rights.
States – or more accurately their regimes of government – earn their legitimacy. Letigitimacy derives from the consent of all those who are governed, and from the fulfilment of international obligations. No state has a right to imagine, legislate and enforce a way of life that is predicated upon permanently excluding categories of its citizens. Israel’s government de-legitimises itself by these actions.
One need not have a particular view of Jewish peoplehood to refute this claim. The great majority of anti-Israel protest observes that no people, in no state, have a right to do what Israel is doing: occupation, dispossession, violent oppression, blockade, apartheid. None of those objections is based upon the religious identity of the occupier or the occupied.
States also have obligations, some of which are codified into international law and conventions. Israel flaunts its obligations. The actions of successive Israeli governments create compelling reasons for people and other states to protest.
Opposing Israel’s actions is not inherently antisemitic.
- Israel is the object of disproportionate, antisemitic censure by the United Nations and human rights advocates.
Israel is conducting the longest and most flagrantly illegal occupation in modern history. It has been repeatedly found to govern through a regime of apartheid, which is a crime against humanity. That attracts censure.
We see a different exceptionalism: no other state has been the subject of so much censure and so little action by other states to uphold the law of states and the human rights of Palestinians.
- Israel-protest has become a Left-approved outlet to express antisemitism.
There is some truth in this, just as it is true that Zionists stand too close to Hindutva and to the White Zionism that celebrates Israel’s ethnic power. We all have fellow travellers who are drawn to Palestine / Israel for unhealthy or hateful reasons.
The IHRAWD is precisely the wrong tool to respond to this problem.
The IHRAWD sets the bar for antisemitism so absurdly low that it becomes more difficult to call out real antisemitism. If 63% of New Zealanders are being called antisemitic, then real antisemites can happily hide in the crowd and protest that they are merely anti-Zionist.
The IHRAWD robs us of the shared understanding that we need to identify and respond to real antisemitism.
- Anti-Zionism is antisemitism – end of story.
The IHRAWD turns disussion of Palestine into a discussion of antisemitism. The IHRAWD centres the Jewish community, while occupation is a lived Palestinian experience. It prevents any political grasp of the settler colonial project, and it precludes discussion of a just future.
The IHRAWD calls expressions of Palestinian identity, rights and aspirations antisemitic because they correctly challenge the occupier’s claims to exclusive rights (such as the rights reserved for Jews in Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law or its Law of Return). The IHRAWD silences the Islamophobia and dehumanisation that deny Palestinans’ most basic equality.
Method of the IHRAWD
A definition of racism – in this case, antisemitism – should be historically informed and responsive to local experience. The IHRAWD is neither. Neither its norms nor its project address the real antisemitism around us.
Why was this controversial step taken without public notice, without any mention of the roles of the Commissioners of Human Rights and Race Relations? This bypass threatens to make racism one more instance of Aotearoa following the colonial crowd onto the wrong side of history, rather than formulating a progressive local policy based on our experience and aspirations.
Who is bypassing the public stake in this issue – who are the proponents of the IHRAWD? In this country, Zionism is an item on the neoliberal agenda of domestic politics. It interweaves Jewish and Christian Zionism with the leadership of our most conservative neoliberal political entities including the Free Speech Union, Taxpayers’ Union, and Property Investors’ Association. These are groups who undermine our mutual responsibility and social cohesion.
We repeat our call for formal assurance that antisemtism will remain a matter of Aotearoa’s public policy within the spheres of our Commissioners of Human Rights and Race Relations. Let us concentrate on the real antisemitism.
How not to be defined
The IHRAWD has not been adopted in Aotearoa. Neither is it a fait accompli: we need to roll back its stealthy use and to prevent its introduction. The threat of the IHRAWD creates opportunities for new partnerships and shared action to oppose racism, colonialism and the rise of the White / Right. Partnerships will bring the weight of numbers to bear against the adoption of the IHRAWD in Aotearoa.
First, we must roll back the encroachment of the IHRAWD into our public discourse. That means refusing to respond to accusations within the terms of the IHRAWD. Reject the terms. Explain why you decline to be defined. Make the IHRAWD an issue, as it should be.
Second, the IHRAWD must not derail our focus on the two very real issues of the racism we see around us, and the full individual and collective political rights of Palestinians. The divisiveness of the IHRAWD is best countered by acting with defiant solidarity. Muslims and Jews must not be divided when we see racist ideologies that target both of our communities. More than ever, this should be a time to tell stories of the real, lived Muslim and Palestinian experience. Theirs are the first voices that the IHRAWD would silence.
Third, it’s important to respond to the IHRAWD as an initiative of the neoliberal Christian / Jewish coalition in Aotearoa. This is not merely a Jewish or Palestinian issue. It is one that undermines our politics and our policy autonomy.
The IHRAWD will be kept out by a coalition of groups who place its prevention on their agendas: anticolonial and antiracist activists including Tangata Whenua, supporters of human rights, those who value the protection of speech, and those who seek an independent progressive foreign policy. We can counter the IHRAWD’s broad impacts by forming a broad opposition.
Alternative Jewish Voices will be offering additional resources and initiatives in the coming weeks. We are also happy to bring this korero to others. If you would like to discuss these issues further, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa
If you want to read more –
Jewish Voice For Peace on antisemitism: http://onantisemitism.com/
Antony Lerman, Whatever Happened to Antisemitism? Pluto Books.
Research paper from an Oxford University researcher, How the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism is Being Misrepresented. Or, Al Jazeera’s summary, IHRA ‘Misrepresents’ Own Definition.
The series of reports by S Michael Lynk, recently retired as UN Special Rapporteur, outline the illegality of Israeli governments’ actions and our obligation to respond.
Why is the IHRAWD so wrong:
Brian Klug, senior research fellow and a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University: the IHRA definition fails on its own terms. https://ajvnz.files.wordpress.com/2020/12/b-klug-transcript-3-oct-2020.pdf
Short video from Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) in Canada
Petitions by 300 Jewish studies scholars, another by Talmudic scholars: https://www.jta.org/2019/06/20/global/300-jewish-studies-scholars-sign-letter-supporting-embattled-former-berlin-jewish-museum-director
Independent Jewish Voices, Canada on the distortion of statistics
The ‘witch hunt… against critics of Israel.’ Ha’aretz https://ajvnz.files.wordpress.com/2020/12/witch-hunt-germanyhaaretz.com-1.pdf
Resisting the IHRAWD, working in solidarity:
Jews for racial and economic justice
Independent Jewish Voices, Canada