Why the IHRA Handbook on Antisemitism — Not Just Its Definition — Is Needed

March of the Living participants pass through the gates of Auschwitz in 2016. Photo: MOTL.

The year 2020 will be marked as, among other distinctions, a time of unbridled global antisemitism. The phenomenon is growing from three sources — the radical Left, the extreme Right, and Islamists — but while that doesn’t tell the full story, it does provide a spectrum that indicates how widely this particular virus has spread.

This unbridled antisemitism demonstrates why a new handbook of definitions is so important. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in conjunction with the European Commission and with the support of the recent German presidency of the EU, has published this new guide.

Based on extensive research conducted by RIAS, the German Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on antisemitism, the handbook is a first-of-its-kind best-practices guide for use in such fields as law enforcement, the judiciary, education, international bodies, funding institutions, and civil society.

The handbook connects the IHRA document to real life examples — which helps to make it a real “working” definition.

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January 27, 2021 7:45 am

Making the battle against antisemitism relevant to individual branches of government, or to educators, will help to monitor, identify, respond to, and counteract antisemitism in the open or in dark corners of society across the European continent and beyond.

In 2016, the IHRA, a consortium of countries committed to Holocaust education and remembrance, adopted a working definition of antisemitism. It was not intended to be a detailed, deep dive into the causes and manifestations of this millennia-old hatred. It was meant, rather, to speak to categories of Jew-hatred, both classic and contemporary.

Its recognition of how the existence of Israel has worked its way into the repertoire of antisemites has been vitally important in helping those fighting antisemitism to pull the veil off “legitimate criticism of Israel” from those who advocate the elimination of the Jewish state.

In this regard, the working definition states, for example, that antisemitism includes “accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.” Antisemitism is also “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.” Or, as we see almost every day somewhere in the world, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

To date, 28 countries have adopted the IHRA working definition, and the number continues to grow. Provincial, state, and local governments are doing the same, as are organizations as diverse as the Argentine Football Federation and the Global Imams Council.

More countries, state and local governments, agencies, and non-governmental organizations need to add their support and buy in.

But equally important is how the definition will be applied, and by whom. That is where the handbook comes in.

Expressions of antisemitism know no borders. The hierarchy of leadership in Iran regularly spews antisemitism, often using Nazi imagery; Israel is frequently referred to as a “cancer” that needs to be excised. Genocidal calls for Israel’s destruction are daily features in Iranian media. And Tehran is known for its “leadership” in the Holocaust denial arena.

Over the past 12 months in Europe, we witnessed a concerted campaign by the neo-Fascist Nordic Resistance Movement to intimidate Jews in their places of worship and in communal spaces. A kosher restaurant in France, the scene of countless acts of antisemitism, was vandalized with tags of “Hitler was right,” “Jews get out,” and “Free Palestine.”

In Greece, multiple cemeteries were vandalized; rabbis were attacked on the street in Berlin and Vienna; and in Germany, on the holiday of Sukkot, a synagogue was attacked in Hamburg, just days before the one-year commemoration of the Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in Halle.

And already this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that individual European Union member states can legislate against kosher ritual slaughter, or shechita. Already some countries place restrictions tantamount to a ban on the practice, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, regions of Belgium, and non-EU member Switzerland. Efforts to ban circumcision, or brit milah, have been similarly underway in Europe for some time — though without much success at this point.

Denying Jews the right to these essential acts of religious freedom, especially on European soil, where the greatest crimes against the Jewish people were perpetrated, is not just “discriminatory.” All of this places Jews in an “other” or outcast category, which is unacceptable, and can only be read as antisemitic.

And, lest some think antisemites cannot bring back classic blood libel charges against Jews from the Middle Ages, the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University reported last summer that there were widespread assertions that Israel or Jews as a whole were responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, websites charged Israel with creating the virus in order to manufacture vaccines for it, from which it would profit.

With reports indicating a continuing rise in antisemitic incidents on college campuses, an arsonist set fire to the University of Delaware’s Chabad Center just as the school year opened in the fall. Earlier this month, among those demonstrators storming the US Capitol were those wearing clothing adorned with Nazi imagery, including a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie.

Much antisemitism from the far-left focuses on Israel and Zionism, with comparisons to apartheid South Africa and condemnations of “the occupation.” From the extreme right, classic charges of control of the media and banks are rolled out in new 21st century wrappers, but their message of hate remains the same. And notwithstanding the much-welcomed rapprochement between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, many in the Arab and Islamist media — particularly, but not limited to, the Palestinian media — spin webs of antisemitic rhetoric on a daily basis. The common denominator to all of this is hatred of Jews.

In our community, there are many whose innate antennae can identify antisemitism from the proverbial 36,000 feet. But others are less likely to recognize the nuances of it when it appears. The IHRA handbook will be a vital resource for them.

The working definition and the new IHRA handbook are not a cure for history’s oldest social virus. Much more needs to be done. Holocaust denial continues to grow, as the dwindling number of survivors reach the end of their lives. Recent studies reveal an astonishing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among millennials and Generation Z’ers, which obligates us to grow Holocaust education programs in our schools and universities.

And then there is the Internet, which has had a multiplier effect, as antisemitic conspiracy theories and outright rants run rampant on our laptops and tablets. The major social media platforms must confront the role they are playing as enablers of such combustible language.

In the 21st century, combating antisemitism requires new tools and means to join the battle. The IHRA handbook is a welcome addition to the resources we need to get the job done. If it sits on the shelf, it will have been a noble, but wasted effort. We need to encourage its wide distribution, and especially advocate for its recommendations and practices to be put to good use.

B’nai B’rith CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities, and staff around the world. Learn more at www.bnaibrith.org.

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