How Israel Manipulates the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism

As is shown by Benyamin Netanyahu’s flirtation with the far right in Europe, the Israeli government and many of its fans are not really interested in the wholly justified struggle against anti-Semitism. Their priority is to denature that struggle in order to discredit expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians: witness the debate over the definition of anti-Semitism.

Benyamin Netanyahu at the commemoration of the “Vel d’hiv” roundup, July 16, 2017.
Erez Lichefeld/YadVachem

On 6 December 2018, the Council on Justice and Home Affairs of the European Union (EU) adopted, without debate, a declaration concerning the fight against anti-Semitism and the protection of the Jewish communities of Europe. The initiative was laudable enough . . . except that article 2 of the declaration urges member-States to adopt the definition of Anti-Semitism concocted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). During the Austrian presidency of the EU, from July to December 2018, Israel and the powerful pro-Israel lobby went to work in utmost secrecy, sparing no efforts to achieve this result. What then is this “IHRA definition” that Israel and its unconditional supporters wish to impose?

In 2015, in the aftermath of the murderous Israeli offensive against the people of Gaza, massively condemned by world public opinion, the Israeli lobby revived an ideological offensive which had aborted early in the new century, aimed at promoting a definition of anti-Semitism which would include any and every criticism of Israel. This offensive was primarily aimed at the IHRA, an inter-governmental body representing 31 states, within which the pro-Israeli lobby has its relays. In May 2016 the IHRA finally adopted its “definition” of anti-Semitism:

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

Described as “non-legally binding” this definition is perfectly worthless, limited as it is to the idea that anti-Semitism is “a certain perception of Jews which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” And yet it is not as harmless as it may appear. Because the May 2016 press release continues as follows: “To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations.” Though never formally adopted by the IHRA, most of the examples in question equate criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism:

➞ “Manifestations [of anti-Semitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” though with the proviso that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” But what can “similar” mean when the realities are completely specific, or for associations devoted to defending the rights of the Palestinian people?

➞ ” Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel (. . .) than to the interests of their own nations.” Thus we would no longer have the right to say that the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF in its French abbreviation) has become an annexe of the Israeli Embassy in Paris?

➞ “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” . Israel’s new “Basic Law” limits the right of self-determination solely to the “Jewish people.” It would be forbidden to oppose this?
➞ ”applying double standards by requiring of [the State of Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” The situations are completely different, what would be the applicable criteria?

A tool for propaganda and intimidation

In short, we have a worthless but “non-legally binding” definition associated nonetheless with very questionable examples which the IHRA did not adopt. At first glance, none of this makes much sense and should not perhaps be taken seriously. This would be to neglect the fact that we are dealing not with an instrument for legal coercion but a tool for propaganda and intimidation. What matters for the unconditional supporters of Israeli policies is not to be justified in the eyes of the law but to raise doubts and fears of accusations of anti-Semitism, to set in motion endless debates, to block every initiative . . . and ruin the reputation of anyone who refuses to submit.

The example of the United Kingdom, which adopted the IHRA “definition” at the end of 2016, is proof of this. On the basis of just one governmental declaration, the lobby brought pressure to bear on as many universities, town councils and political parties as possible to adopt that definition. A number of public meetings in universities were cancelled and one professor came under totally unfounded investigation, while a leading member of the Labour Party was expelled. The British association Free Speech on Israel has selected and documented eight especially characteristic cases which occurred in 2017.

The most scandalous campaign conducted by the pro-Israel lobby in England targeted Jeremy Corbyn: faced with the unjustified accusations of anti-Semitism levelled against its leader and the pressures to adopt the IHRA “definition” along with the associated examples, the party’s Executive Committee finally caved in.

As of now, eight European countries have adopted the IHRA “definition” of anti-Semitism: Romania, Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Italy, the United Kingdom, as well as Macedonia, which does not belong to the EU. The damages, already visible in Britain, are yet to come in a number of those countries.

Strategy of impunity

This operation is not the first which the CRIF has taken on board. It was preceded by an unfinished attempt to criminalise the campaign for Boycott-Disinvestment-Sanctions (BDS). No French law forbids boycotting a country whose policies are in violation of both international law and human rights. Otherwise, the people who organised the boycott of Apartheid South Africa would have been prosecuted, which they never were at the time.

There have already been hundreds of boycott actions in France and very few have been prosecuted. One of these indictments, in Colmar, was confirmed by the Cour de cassation, the highest French jurisdiction. But this decision may well be reversed by the European Court of Human Rights. After all, Federica Mogherinia, high-ranking EU official in charge of foreign affairs and security policies, has clearly stated that The EU stands firm in protecting freedom of expression and freedom of association in line with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which is applicable on EU Member States’ territory, including with regard to BDS actions carried out on this territory.”

In these campaigns against BDS, as in those promoting the adoption of the IHRA “definition”, the objective is blindingly obvious: stifle any effort to criticise the policies of Israel. Because the fact is that Israel’s rulers remain deeply isolated. And especially, in the UN. The State of Palestine has successively gained admission to UNESCO (2011), to the UN General Assrembly (2012) and even to the International Criminal Court in 2015. Symbolically enough, when the most recent General Assembly vote on “the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people . . . including their right to an independent state” took place on 17 December 2018, there were 172 votes for and 6 against (Israel, the USA and Canada, plus the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Nauru).

And that isolation is unlikely to dwindle. The right and the far right in power in Tel Aviv have indeed launched a worrisome process of radicalisation. Taking advantage of the support provided by the Trump administration and their alliance with Saudi Arabia against Iran, they are accelerating their colonisation with an eye to imminent annexation, for which several new laws have already paved the way. In the end, if they are re-elected on next 9 April they will put paid to the so-called “two-state solution” in favour of a single state, in which the Palestinians, annexed with their land, will have no political rights and certainly not the right to vote. The Basic Law enacted by the Knesset on 19 July 2018 officially symbolised the Israeli version of Apartheid. The Basic Law of 1992 defined Israel as a” Jewish and democratic state”: the new one is titled “Nation-State of the Jewish people.” And specifies: “The right to exercise national self-determination belongs to the Jewish people alone .” In short, it rejects explicitly the Declaration of Independence which, on 15 May 1948, promised that the new state would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

The alliances which Benjamin Netanyahu is concluding with “populists” and neo-fascists, particularly in Europe, are also shocking. How to reconcile the fact that the Prime Minister of a country which so often invokes the Holocaust to justify its policies is courting political leaders who sing the praises of Nazi collaborators, like Viktor Orbán, or who claim to ban any reference to it, like Jaroslaw Kazcynski, or who scarcely make any bones about their allegiance to fascism, like Mateo Salvini.

There is no doubt but what this pushing ahead regardless can only widen the gulf between Israel and world public opinion, as witness the latest surveys in France. According to an IFOP1) poll, 57% of people surveyed had a “negative image of Israel,” 69% a “negative image of Zionism” and 71% believe that “Israel has a heavy responsibility for the lack of talks with the Palestinians.” And are we going to be told these are all anti-Semites? Under the title “An anti-Zionism that does not turn into anti-Semitism,” another poll conducted by Ipsos2 shows that the people most critical of Israeli policies are also those who express the greatest solidarity with Jews targeted by anti-Semitism.

Which is one more reason why France must resist this anti-Semitism blackmail. When we criticise the EU, we must never forget that it is the member-States which are really responsible, notably in the Council of the Union. The French representatives were perfectly well informed and equipped. The National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (NCCHR) was particularly outspoken in its annual report on racism, published in May 2018. It did not approve the adoption of the IHRA “definition” for two reasons: defining different types of racism is contrary to French judicial tradition and while vigilance is necessary one must beware of any instrumental use of the struggle against anti-Semitism.

And yet article 2 of the declaration of the Council on Justice and Home Affairs was in fact adopted. At this point, it is worth quoting it in full:

CALLS ON THE MEMBER STATES that have not done so yet to endorse the non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism employed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) as a useful guidance tool in education and training, including for law enforcement authorities in their efforts to identify and investigate anti-Semitic attacks more efficiently and effectively.

We can only admire the way this text invites member-States to train their police on the basis of texts which are outside the law. Now since the rule for the Council to adopt a declaration is one of unanimity and consensus, how could the representatives of the French government have let this pass? Could it be a consequence of the meeting between the CRIF and the Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet, a few days before the vote?

The consensus was achieved only through the removal of any reference to those notorious “examples.” Indeed, article 2 makes no reference to them. But neither does it say that these are to be excluded and certain officials of the European Commission immediately sought to profit by this loophole. In the end, the French ambassador to the EU officially stated, in a meeting of the committee of permanent representatives, that the consensus on article 2 did not include the examples. It was a useful clarification which was acknowledged by French authorities and which the Association France Palestine Solidarité made public, but it has yet to be confirmed in any official communiqué by those same French authorities. . .

The manipulation of the struggle against anti-Semitism to favour the impunity of a third country which is in daily violation of international law is a very serious matter capable of deeply undermining our democracy. Faced with this situation, the attitude of the French government is still half-hearted and does not make it possible to combat this threat seriously: in July 2017, Emmanuel Macron, in the presence of Benjamin Netanyahu, threw his weight behind that pernicious conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. He only did it once, but neither has he gone back on his assertion. More recently, the CRIF has officially requested that the French government enact legislation against the boycott and adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. The government has not responded, but neither has it officially refused. It is high time for France to declare unambiguously that it will not allow the State of Israel to interfere in its home affairs.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: French Institute of Public Opinion, polling firm.

2EDITOR’S NOTE: A global market research and a polling firm with worldwide headquarters in Paris.