It’s Not About Antisemitism. it’s About Free Speech

Nov. 18, 2020

By AMOS GOLDBERG

On Oct. 26th, Ontario adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism through an Order in Council. 

On the face of it, what could be more appropriate than adopting a clear definition of antisemitism that helps fight this scourge? It would seem obvious that all decent people should unite in this just and essential fight.

Unfortunately, this definition – and especially the 11 examples appended to its original text – help very little, if at all, to fight antisemitism. Rather than helping to stamp out antisemitism, several of these examples actually serve to curb free speech on Israel and its policies against the Palestinians, shaping the debate over Israel-Palestine in a way that practically silences the Palestinian voice.

Let’s take a look at one example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is considered antisemitic. The first question that comes to mind is: if denying Jews the right of self-determination is antisemitic because it’s a universal right, how should we define denying the Palestinian right for self-determination? Why is denying Palestinian self-determination a legitimated political opinion and, in fact, Israel’s practical policy, while denying Jewish self-determination is considered antisemitic? The second question that comes to mind is that almost all countries on the globe are accused of being racist. Why should Israel be shielded from such legitimate allegations?

But there is more to it. The reasons almost all Palestinians, including the most devoted supporters of the two-states solution, reject Zionism is not because they are antisemites, but because they experience Zionism as oppressive and colonial. None other than the great Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the forefather of the ruling Likud party, acknowledged this already in his 1923 article “The Iron Wall.” There, he asserted that like all colonized peoples, the Palestinians reject Zionism because they oppose what they perceive – and from their perspective rightly so – as foreign invaders. Following Jabotinsky, we can say that denying Jews’ right to self-determination in Palestine as such is not antisemitic even for ardent Zionists like Jabotinsky. One can certainly reject this view but there is nothing antisemitic in it.

Insisting on the opposite practically delegitimizes, silences and criminalizes all Palestinians (and very many non-Zionist Jews) who, as Jabotinsky observed, reject Zionism for understandable (even if rejectable) reasons. Opposing Zionism is hence a legitimate view secured by the right of free speech and, in fact, a legitimate Jewish opinion.

This is only one of many examples of how the definition actually prevents free speech and an honest discussion on Israel-Palestine while disguising itself as a fight against antisemitism. In fact, the definition actually distorts the very essence of this fight. Most scholarly accounts of modern antisemitism connect it to the rise of nationalism and the emergence of the nation-state. Fighting antisemitism is about protecting a vulnerable minority against the violent homogenizing tendency of the majority society. The IHRA definition does precisely the opposite. It protects a powerful state, Israel, from criticism of its well-documented violations of the human rights of its vulnerable minority and occupants. In short, the IHRA definition has become a powerful silencing mechanism that serves only to increase the massive power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kenneth Stern, who, 15 years ago, was the lead author of the IHRA definition (for research, not legislative purposes) and is now one of its chief critics, has written: “I’m a Zionist,” but “anti-Zionists have a right to free expression.” The IHRA definition has been deployed to undermine that right, he asserts. We should be very attentive to his words and call on the Ontario legislature to take great care in how it interprets this harmful definition. 


Amos Goldberg
Amos Goldberg

Amos Goldberg is a Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent publications are Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust; and his co-edited volume with Bashir Bashir: The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History.