Saturday, 23 November 2019

An Improved Model Definition of Antisemitism



1. The need for a clear definition of "antisemitism"
A few years back, I blogged about the savvy tactic of the Netanyahu government to accuse virtually all criticism of the Israel occupation policy as antisemitic. Since then, more complex disputes have evolved at higher levels, not least the debate and controversy around antisemitism within the Corbyn led Labour party in the UK. Also in my own country, the thorny issue of how to draw the line between legitimate (not meaning necessarily sound) criticism of decisions made by the government of Israel and judgements that deny jewish people equal rights or has taken public stage, connected to repeated reports of antisemitic harassment and hatespeech in the city of Malmö, and an harassment case regarding Jewish phycisians at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. All of these cases have actualised tricky issues on how to define the line between legitimate political criticism against acts of the Israeli government, and (ethno)racist harassment or hatespeech targetting jewish people.

The issue has become extra complicated with the rise of a new "nationalist" far-right conservative political (more easily, Fascist) movement  across Europe. Albeit targetting muslims and "migrants" has been a main theme in the political rhetorics in these circles, antisemitic themes and tropes are commonplace. This regards, of course, the now well-known cases of the Fidesz-ruled Hungary, and the PiS-ruled Poland (both countries with a long history of widespread antisemitism in the culture, no matter the regime). But also in Sweden, where antisemitic attitudes have a comparably weak hold, open hatred against Jews and open antisemitic attitudes have been a standing occurrence from the Sweden Democrats party, even its highest circles of leadership. Even political pundits linked to the more traditional conservative side of politics have been starting to flaunt obvious antisemitic tropes in their public statements. The perhaps most well-known and obvious case being the former op-ed editor, now mainly op-ed writer, of the Göteborgsposten daily, and ideaological consultant of the Moderaterna classic conservative party, Alice Teodorescu, who shortly before the Swedish general election of 2018 labelled holocaust survivors who went public with parallels between the current political development in Europe and Sweden and that in 1930's Germany as "agents of the political left", ironically proving said holocaust survivors right by using the classic trope of porttraying Jews as spokespersons and forerunners of a leftwing conspiracy.

In this landscape, it has become increasingly difficult to navigate, as the Israeli government marks any criticism as antisemitic, obvious antisemitic hatespeech, tropes and images within the Palestine movement and other critics of Israel are shrugged off as legitimate criticism of Israel, while many feel an increasing need to protest against the increasing antisemitism from the new fascism and politically conservative right. As the fight over the concept of antisemitism continues, Jews as well as all anti-racists are being caught in the middle.  At the heart of the problem is that there is no well-designed and generally approved definition of "antisemitism". In fact, I was stunned to find out, the only thing there is, is a "non legally binding working defintion" issued by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016. As no alternative determination of the concept exists, this definition has been used (though not officially adopted or approved) by the European Commission and Parliament, and adopted by the federal US government.

However, the definition has also drawn criticism for confusing the line between legitimate political criticism of the Israeli government, and hatespeech, harassment etc. targetting jews. I agree with portions of this criticism and, in addition, as a philosopher, I find the definition poorly constructed from a technical point of view. In this post I will therefore use the IHRA working defintion as a stepping stone for presenting a more accurate and better constructed defintion. The result, I will call a "Model Definition of Antisemitism", thereby signalling that I believe this suggestions to move the work of defining "antisemitism" from the "working" stage to the stage of presenting an actual prototype for use in legislation and political and moral judgement.

2. Improving the IHRA Working Definition
The IHRA definition starts off with a generic characterization of "antisemitism", and this is the part that a philosopher would call an actual definition:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
Immediately following this rather vague statement (what counts as "hatred", and what "manifestations" are implied?) comes a generic clarification, which must be sen as part of the diefinition.

Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

Thus far, the definition looks pretty ok. However, one unclarity can be found in the first two sentences of the second quote. Together, these may be read to imply that the state of Israel is "a Jewish collectivity", not only that criticising the Israeli government's actions in terms of condemnation of "jews" is antisemitic. This muddle is unfortunate. Of course, jews may be citizens of any country, and the state or government of Israel cannot be assumed to represent jews everywhere, and citizens of Israel need not be jews (so the collectivity of Israel is thereby not "Jewish", albeit a lot of israelis are jewish and Jewish culture is central to israeli life).

Additionally, these descriptions fail to make a distinction that, if ignored, often causes confusion in debates on whether or not some phenomenon or person is antisemitic. This is the distinction between, on the one hand, a person harbouring antisemitic ideas, and, on the other, some manifestation communicating, expressing and/or spreading antisemitism. For instance, when I pointed out on Twitter how Alice Teodorescu's inciting attack on holocaust survivors fitted several counts of the IHRA definition of "antisemitism", I had a storm of responses from her supporters that it was preposterous to suggest that she is antisemitic. This is, of course, is completely irrelevant when assessing her statements – a person may express antisemitism without being antisemitic. At the same time, if the antisemitism of some manifestation is pointed out but the person behind them continue to use them, this will be empirical evidence supporting the idea that this person actually endorses antisemitism.

To improve the definition in this respect, I therefore suggest the following revision:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews, or rhetorical and physical manifestations directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. This perception may be held by a person, and communicated through different types of manifestations. While criticism of the government of Israel similar to that leveled against any other government cannot be regarded as antisemitic, manifestations that has such criticism take the form of targeting Jews or Jewish people rather than political decisions and holders of political offices is antisemitic. Antisemitic manifestations frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

 Following this opening, generic characterization, the IHRA working definition then adds a list of examples of what may be included in contemporary antisemitic manifestations. In tghis quote, I have added numbers for more easy referral to items on the list, in the original the items are seprated by dots:

Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:
1. Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
2. Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
3. Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
4. Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
5. Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust. 
6. Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations. 
7. 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. 
8. Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation. 
9. Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis. 
10. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. 
11. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

It is important to note that this kind of list is, from a conceptual analytical standpoint, an entirely different animal than the proper definition given earlier. A list like this is more like an amendment, or implementation guide, and not really part of the definition itself. The list must therefore not serve to arbitrarily expand the concept, as it has already been characterised in the generic definition. Moreover, the list shoud ideally be brief, and items that could be subsumed as instances of other items should be taken off the list to avoid confusion. With these aspects in mind we may match the items on the list against the revised generic characterisation, and the other items of the list. I will start with the question if some items can be sorted under others.

Of the items, 1-4 seem perfectly legitimate. No. 5, however, while being an accurate example of typical antisemitic manifestations, it falls under the domains of items 2-4, as one of many specific examples. Likewise, item no. 6 falls under item 2 and 3. Furthermore, item no. 11 seems to be a particular instance of item 3, especially if item 3 is clarified to include states. Finally, item 10 would seem to sort under item 4. A first revision of the list in view of making it more coherent and brief, would therefore read: 

Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to: 

1. Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion

 2. Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions. 

3. Accusing Jews as indivuals or a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by another Jewish person, group, institution or state, or even for acts committed by non-Jews

4. Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).

5. 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.

6. Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation. 

7. Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis. 




We come now to the question if all the remaining items can be supported by the generic characterisation. Here, I find only one item problematic, namely no. 5. The problem with this item is that it is perfectly possible to hold the political philosophical view that no people of any kind have any right to self-determination without being antisemitic in the sense of the generic characterisation. This view is a general scepticism to the notion of the nation state as a moral (rather than practical) category. This view implies that also Jewish people lack such a right (thus falling under item no. 5), but without in any way treating Jewish people worse than any other people, or discriminate against jews. What would be antisemitic would be to afford a right of self-determination to other peoples, but not to the Jewish people. A case in point would, for example be, if the Palestinian people is afforded a right to self-determination while the Jewish people is denied such a right (conversely, affording the right to the Jewish people but not to the palestinian people would be "anti-palestinianism"). But if the item is rephrased to that effect, it will fall under item 6 (regarding double standards). Therefore, my suggestion is that also item 5 on the revised list is removed.

3. A Model Definition of "Antisemitism"
The outcome of this little exercise is, then, the following proposal for a model definition of the notion of "antisemitism". This definition provides a more coherent, brief and applicable guide for determining whether or not some phenomenon is antisemitic or not. For example, the Teodorescu statement about holocaust survivors who bear witness of the 1930's being "agents of the political left" clearly falls under item 2, and possibly also under item 4 (if historical facts regarding the Holocaust include its political precedence. many of the examples from islamist propaganda, as well as propaganda within the Labour party of the UK (such as classic antisemitic trope images that have been used for centuries for antisemitic purposes). But claims from any of these parties regarding the justification of, e.g., Israeli settler policy on occupied land, or the "shoot to kill" policy of IDF forces at the border between occupied territory and Israel proper would not be antisemitic at all. I believe this definition, unlike that of IHRA, to be fit for incorporation into actual legal statute, as well as policy declarations that guide the actions of international institutions, states, business as well as NGO's.


Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews, or rhetorical and physical manifestations directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. This perception may be held by a person, and communicated through different types of manifestations. While criticism of the government of Israel similar to that leveled against any other government cannot be regarded as antisemitic, manifestations that has such criticism take the form of targeting Jews or Jewish people rather than political decisions and holders of political offices is antisemitic. Antisemitic manifestations frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.
 
Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to: 

1. Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion

 2. Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions. 

3. Accusing Jews as indivuals or a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by another Jewish person, group, institution or state, or even for acts committed by non-Jews

4. Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).

5. Applying double standards by requiring of the state of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation. 

6. Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis. 


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