Theater of Cruelty

We look at two definitions of anti-Semitism

NEW DECLARATION / Supporting Israel for better or worse (as through the IHRA's definition, next page) seems more important than the fight against racism. The Jerusalem Declaration is a timely alternative.


Measures against racism, including anti-Semitism, are blessed with many initiatives – and a number of definitions to help with the work. In 2018 came IHRA (The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) with a definition. They seek the support of as many governments as possible. Admittedly, affiliation should not be legally binding, but is driven forward with great force and even threats.

In Britain, the then Minister of Education went Gavin Williamson 9 October 2020, according to The Guardian, hard against the country's universities. He believed they "ignored anti-Semitism", and criticized that they would not agree to the definition of anti-Semitism drawn up by the IHRA. He threatened that this would have consequences unless something drastic had happened by Christmas 2020. Only 29 out of 133 universities had then joined IHRA's initiative, and 80 reported that they had no plans to do so. Several universities expressed that such an endorsement threatened their academic freedom and that this posed a threat to their academic reputation and thus also their financial foundation.

The City University of London had, after pressure from its academic staff, withdrawn its endorsement of the IHRA's definition, The Guardian could tell. In conversation with British academics, we also learned that even those who had agreed to the IHRA's definition had entered so many reservations that the meaning of the agreement was totally meaningless.

The HRA definition, a campaign?

What is wrong with The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of anti-Semitism? Basically, the IHRA assures that criticism of Israel is of course not anti-Semitic. But of the 11 councils that form the core of the definition document, which are called "working definitions", 7 concentrate on cases where criticism of Israel is labeled as anti-Semitic. We have reproduced them below.

Immediately, the councils therefore appear as part of a campaign for Israeli politics rather than as an attempt to strengthen work against anti-Semitism. This impression is confirmed after conversations we have had with people who have experienced being labeled as anti-Semites with reference to the IHRA's definition. Supporting Israel for better or for worse seems more important than the consideration of combating racism. There is reason to ask whether such a list of advice is destructive to the important anti-racist work the IHRA should be doing.

IHRA is Sweden's flagship

It is to Norway's credit that we, as a member of this intergovernmental organization, have not agreed to these "working definitions". It is particularly brave since the IHRA is Sweden's flagship in the "fight against anti-Semitism", and not least since failing to join them, as was the case with English universities, was seen as a sign of a lack of commitment to anti-Semitism.

It was the former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson who established the organization in 1998. Not coincidentally, this was the year when Sweden's role in helping Germany launder its Nazi gold during the last world war was revealed. Dagens Nyheter's chief and culture editor Arne Ruth [see separate case], and now a member of MODERN TIMES's editorial board, also received the Swedish Stora Journalistpriset and Gullpennen for this investigative journalism this year. Pärsson's initiative was also strengthened by a report which mapped increasing anti-Semitism in the country.

The Jerusalem Declaration

Why exactly IHRA's version should be chosen over others requires good explanations. We have not found them, quite the contrary. That these are conspicuous by their absence is also the opinion of 200 experts on Holocaust, Middle Eastern and Jewish studies who have drawn up a corrective, The Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (see pages 14–15), which was presented in the city in March 2021.

The Jerusalem Declaration points out that an obvious starting point must be that anti-Semitism is precisely one of many forms of racism. In this issue of MODERN TIMES, these are also views shared by the British Jeremy Corbyn and Israeli award-winning journalist Gideon Levy. Yes, in conversation with us they both say – independently of each other – that making discrimination against Jews something special in itself is anti-Semitic. Jews become special, something special, something strange. We know this all too well from history. Corbyn further points out that it is in broad cooperation between anti-racists all over the world that we can succeed in the fight also against anti-Semitism.

Football against racism

It is interesting that while football all over the world gathers in a broad effort under the motto "No to racism" and daily confronts racism on TV and other arenas with great success, the IHRA invited to a "Global Conference on Football's Role in Combating Antisemitism", reported the Jerusalem Post on 11 November 2021. The "global" consisted in the fact that Vienna's football team had joined the definition.

It is worth noting that when this set of 'working definitions' is to be sold to, say, football clubs, it is the introduction to the sample collection that is used, as in the communication with the FA (BBC 27.01.21), which states: " Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews […] Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

These first lines of the definition are uncontroversial formulations that we have not registered that anyone disagreed with, and which do not differentiate the IHRA's definition from most others. It is only when the 11 operationalisations, "working definitions", are introduced that it meets criticism.

When it is reported on how the acceptance of this collection of definitions is going, rather dubious language is used: "The IHRA definition of antisemitism has been adopted by 29 countries, the EU, and numerous local governments and institutions around the world, as a way to clearly define antisemitism in order to accurately monitor its prevalence.”

In 2021, the number has increased to 36 affiliated countries. But after 4 years of work, not even all of IHRA's own 35 member countries, nor Norway, have joined the collection of definitions, which should worry the organization. However, it can hardly be interpreted as anything other than that the various countries' authorities have read the text and found that it is simply not constructive in the work against anti-Semitism.

In contrast, it can be said that the IHRA weakens the mapping of anti-Semitism today and thus also the warnings against anti-Semitism. Since the threshold for what counts as anti-Semitism has been lowered by criticism of Israel being counted as anti-Semitism, it is difficult to trust surveys – with conclusions such as "strong increase in the number of cases of anti-Semitism" – and the figures presented. It is extra unfortunate. The fact that reported anti-Semitic expressions co-vary with the level of conflict in Israel/Palestine may indicate such a connection.


In conversations with many anti-racists and human rights defenders, not least Jewish, in the UN, Norway, Israel, Korea, Belgium and Great Britain, MODERN TIMES has met many people who have been unfairly labeled as anti-Semites in the past year. This practice seems to particularly target organizations and individuals who work for the rights of the Palestinians. Other ways of targeting, for example, human rights organizations among Palestinians, is to judge them as "terrorist organisations". It works, too. People who work for human rights, international solidarity and anti-racism are met with denigration and accusations of anti-Semitism. This is how they are effectively stopped. The more people who sign a pact that a criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, the colder the climate becomes.

We have met many who have fallen victim to being unjustly labeled as anti-Semites.

Here ORIENTERING we reproduce some of these stories and also the two defining documents, the IHRAs and the Jerusalem Declaration, so that you readers can make up your own mind.

It is incumbent upon everyone who works with anti-Semitism, Holocaust issues and racism to clean up a practice that not only divides the work against racism, but which is also a threat to solidarity work around Middle Eastern issues – yes, even the work against anti-Semitism.

John Y. Jones
John Y. Jones
Cand. Philol, freelance journalist affiliated with MODERN TIMES

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