What you need to know about ELSC’s report on the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism
June 22 2023

On June 6, the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) published a report assessing the impact of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism on the free speech and expression of Palestine advocates in the European Union and the UK. The report titled “Suppressing Palestinian Rights Advocacy Through the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism” detailed countless free speech violations for Palestine advocates on the local, national, university, and employment levels. 

ELSC is the first organization of movement lawyers mandated to defend and empower the Palestine solidarity movement in Europe. Among other demands, the ELSC report urged European public institutions to cease and revoke the implementation of the IHRA definition, uphold the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of political opinions, and implement strategies to fight antisemitism that do not undermine the fundamental freedoms of advocates for Palestinian rights. Below is a summary of the report’s findings. 

What is the IHRA definition of antisemitism? 

The IHRA definition, often referred to as the Working Definition for AntiSemitism (WDA), redefines antisemitism by wrongly conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. The definition is attached to 11 examples, seven of which refer to Israel. While cited as “non-legally binding,” the IHRA definition is interpreted by governments and implemented by public and private actors as if it were. In practice, this redefinition of antisemitism is used as a tool to silence, censor, and smear Palestine advocates whose political speech holds Israel accountable for its grotesque human rights violations against Palestinians. 

Does the IHRA definition actually address antisemitism? 

The ELSC report states that in the overwhelming majority of cases, allegations of antisemitism invoking the IHRA WDA are false. The definition’s implementation rather has severe chilling effects on free speech by attempting to silence criticism of Israeli government policies and practices. The IHRA WDA also curtails human rights advocacy by punishing Palestinian and Jewish advocates of the Palestine liberation movement through employment loss, university disciplinary hearings, reputational damage, and more. 

Who is being targeted by the IHRA definition?

In the documented cases, allegations of antisemitism that invoke the IHRA WDA are overwhelmingly targeted at Palestinians, Jewish people, and organizations that advocate for Palestinian rights. This suggests that the IHRA WDA is being implemented in a discriminatory manner. The European Commission has consistently ignored and dismissed the growing human rights concerns about the IHRA WDA and failed to take measures to prevent any adverse impact of it on fundamental rights. 

How was the IHRA definition created? 

There has been a concerted effort since the early 2000s of individuals and organizations aligned with the Israeli government to undermine any reproval of their violence against Palestinians. Part of this effort includes redefining antisemitism in order to thwart any form of criticism against Israel in a trend now known as ‘New Antisemitism.’ 

The IHRA definition’s origins begin at the Project on Antisemitism at Tel Aviv Univeristy, which was funded by the Mossad — Israel’s national intelligence agency — and pro-Israel advocacy groups including Community Security Trust in the UK, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, the European Jewish Congress, and B’nai B’rith International. Eventually, IHRA agreed to take on the redefined version of antisemitism. 

What are the experts saying?

Hundreds of leading scholars on antisemitism, Holocaust studies, and related fields have argued that the IHRA definition and its examples are deeply flawed. Their general consensus is that political opposition to Zionism or to the State of Israel, which does not host and represent all Jews, is not in itself an expression of animus against Jews.

I thought the IHRA definition was non-legally binding? 

Despite advertising the IHRA WDA as “non-legally binding,” the majority of EU Member States have endorsed the IHRA WDA as the authoritative instrument for addressing antisemitism, giving it soft law power. EU statements and policies through which the IHRA WDA is being applied, show that it has gained law like force and impact.

What are some examples of the harm that the IHRA definition caused in Europe?

In the UK, the government threatened institutions of higher education with discontinued funding if they fail to adopt the IHRA WDA. Consequently, the definition now forms part of internal investigations and disciplinary proceedings of antisemitism. This has overwhelmingly impacted people who have criticized the Israeli government or advocated for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, and who have been subjected to disciplinary proceedings for alleged antisemitism.

Austria followed the UK as the second European State to adopt the IHRA WDA. On February 27th 2020, Austria’s Federal Parliament (National Council) passed — by unanimous vote —the resolution “Condemnation of Antisemitism and the BDS Movement,” in which it strongly condemned all forms of antisemitism, including “Israel-related antisemitism.” 

In Germany, the Municipal Councils of Frankfurt and Munich passed anti-BDS resolutions requesting that the cities’ administrations and affiliated enterprises withhold facilities and subsidies from individuals, associations and societies supporting BDS. As in the case of Austria, the German anti-BDS resolutions express the opinion of German parliaments at the municipal, regional, and federal levels. These opinions are not legally binding, however, given that Germany’s political parties support these resolutions reiterating the IHRA WDA, they have been perceived as authoritative and are being applied as legally binding.

What needs to be done?

It is paramount for governing bodies, institutions of higher education, and places of employment to unearth real threats of antisemitism, which should be addressed with the highest level of care, with efforts to punish anyone emboldened to speak up for the rights of the Palestinian people. The practice of political establishments across Europe and North America championing democratic tenants like free speech and self-determination except for Palestine must be abandoned. It is incumbent upon all of us to uplift the voices of human rights advocates relentlessly fighting for Palestinians and holding to account a violent settler-colonial entity. 

About The Author: 

Hannah Shraim is a Palestinian American organizer, speaker and law student.

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