Anti-Semitism is racist, bigoted and should never be tolerated. Yet in arguing for the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, Australian politicians’ rationale has been thoughtless, often absurd and usually abusive of the rights of Palestinians.
Politicians and lobbyists have rushed to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. But even the definition’s key architect, Kenneth Stern, says it was written as a non-legally binding document and never intended to be an all encompassing hate speech code.
Heeding Stern’s warnings, critics have warned that the document is at best imprecise and muddled, at worst impoverished and ignorant.
Israeli professor of international law and human rights Neve Gordon argues that the Israeli government needs the IHRA definition to protect it from international condemnation. In the London Review of Books he wrote: “Anti-Semitism has been weaponised to stifle free speech … and to suppress a politics of liberation.”
Writing in Pearls and Irritations, Robin Margo argued that the IHRA definition could be used to suppress criticisms of Israel and advocacy for Palestinians’ rights. Margo, an earlier anti-South African apartheid student leader, former president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and a senior counsel, writes that giving special status to the IHRA definition undermined the moral clarity of the fight against anti Semitism.
Margo takes particular exception to the notion that it is anti-Semitic to criticise Israeli policies if there is no simultaneous criticism of atrocities committed by other states. He concludes that such “whataboutism”, is intellectually and morally indefensible.
This criticism is coupled with advice that the Jerusalem Declaration on anti-Semitism, signed by 200 scholars of Jewish and Middle East studies, is clearer and far more constructive. That declaration was written because scholars perceived the IHRA document as confusing and ineffective.
But politicians and lobbyists do not appear to have time to read, debate and evaluate. Instead, we witness an ill considered rush to adopt IHRA views as a weapon to ensure that irrespective of international law, Israel can always behave with impunity.
On September 15, the Zionist Federation of Australia issued a press release stating that federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has called on the Australian government and universities to adopt the IHRA definition.
Following a meeting with the federation, Tudge achieved prominence as an IHRA convert with a taste for control. He wants the IHRA definition “cascaded down to key institutions including universities”. “Cascaded down”?
Speaking as though he represents a complete Jewish community and is an enthusiastic ally of Tudge and the government, Zionist president Jeremy Leibler said he was delighted that Tudge so strongly supported adopting the IHRA definition “as government policy and more broadly”. “As government policy”?
To cement the impression that there is no dissent, that there is consensus among major parties, the federation recalls that in November 2020, Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong also endorsed the definition. Matter closed. Who cares.
In secret meetings, politicians from major parties are feted and come away agreeing with the objectives of their hosts. A politics of ingratiation persists: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Under pressure never to be critical of Israel, the usual features of negotiations, as in considering diverse views, are not evident.
The Tudge absurdities were not confined to his hope for the IHRA definition to “cascade”. In reference to Israel’s economic management, he claimed, “We’ve learned from what Israel does. We’ve studied it deeply.” If he had scratched the surface of history, he would have learned from Israel about siege and slaughter, dispossession, home evictions, the cruelties imposed by a military occupation in every sphere of Palestinians’ lives.
In her response to the “Sydney Statement on Anti-Palestinianism”, issued on the same day as the Zionist Federation of Australia press release, the significant Palestinian leader Dr Hanan Ashrawi said: “For decades the Palestinians have been subject to horrific injustices and crimes perpetuated by an unaccountable Israel occupation … Literature has been complicit in the denial and erasure of the Palestinian people, while justifying their victimisation and Israel’s exceptionalism, exclusivity and oppression of a whole nation.”
Ashrawi added that anti-Palestinianism has been incorporated in the official policies of governments while serving as a convenient tool for the persecution of Palestinian victims.
In Ashrawi’s terms, governments should only be trusted if politicians investigated controversies by consulting widely and coming to conclusions which matched evidence. In this IHRA controversy, however, a desire to be media prominent produces the Tudge-like paradox that to appear strong you must give way to powerful lobbyists.
Just because this IHRA definition has been adopted by other countries, there is no need for Australians to be over awed by an influential lobby. “Adopted” can mean imposed, having a “cascading” of absurd views, even persecuting those who advocate a boycott of Israeli goods from settlements on stolen land.
Don’t be afraid to discuss such basic human rights issues. Be assured that advocacy of boycotts is not anti-Semitic.
In controversies about anti-Semitism, the claim that Israel should not be criticised unless comparisons are made with the prejudicial policies of other countries, could be taken seriously by evaluating the Jerusalem declaration and the timely “Sydney Statement on Anti-Palestinianism”.
That statement “refers to language and practices that direct discrimination, racism, hatred or violence against the Palestinian people”. It has been translated into eight languages and should be sitting on the desk of every federal and state politician.
If Tudge and his lobbyist friends read the Sydney statement, which is only four pages long, they could compare decades of discrimination against the Palestinian people with historical prejudice towards Jews, they could acknowledge the Palestinian Naqba tragedy of 1948 along with remembrance of utterly horrifying Holocaust.
Such contemplation could end infatuation with the IHRA definition.
Taking stands against prejudice towards any people is not helped by making absurd claims that a heavily criticised document should become government policy.