For solidarity / against definitions

Since its adoption in 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) ‘working definition of antisemitism’, has been primarily used to censor pro-Palestinian activism and scholarship. The definition has been amply critiqued for its vague formulation of antisemitism: “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” More problematic than its vagueness and the lack of grounding in historical, political and economic context, the IHRA definition cannot be categorised as an antiracist document because, out of 11 illustrative examples, seven create a false equivalence between antisemitism and criticism of Israel. So damaging has the adoption of the IHRA definition become around the world that even Kenneth Stern who originally drafted it, has warned against universities adopting it on the grounds that it would “restrict academic freedom and punish political speech.”[1]

There is growing pressure for Australian universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Several have already done so, including Macquarie University and the University of Wollongong where the definition was quietly adopted without consultation among the university community while the ANU’s Vice Chancellor, Brian Schmidt, announced the university saw no need to adopt it in a win for Palestinians and their supporters. At a recent webinar held by the Anti Racism Collective at the University of New South Wales, I joined a panel of speakers each of whom put forward arguments against the University following suit. In my intervention I argued that, to understand the implications of the IHRA for antiracism, it is necessary to ask, what is the political context in which a definition of antisemitism is proposed? 

Today, dominant understandings of racism see it as frozen in time. The Holocaust, along with Apartheid and Jim Crow, serves as a prototype against which all experiences of racism are evaluated. This serves to take states off the hook for their past and present enactment of colonialism and genocide. The displacement of the responsibility for antisemitism onto Muslim people, Black people and anti-Zionists disavows the European, Christian roots of antisemitism. 

As I wrote in my book, Why Race Still Matters taking a public stance against antisemitism and supporting Israel – the two having been made equivalent – has come to serve as a proxy for doing antiracism. The performance of opposition to antisemitism has allowed even open racists to be able to publicly state their opposition to antisemitism, given that antisemitism has both been made exceptional and held up as the standard bearer for all racisms. In this scenario stating opposition to antisemitism stands in for being antiracist.

Antisemitic language and action has certainly grown exponentially with Covid conspiracism and the rise of the anti-trans movement as we are currently witnessing. This may seem to make the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism necessary. However, collectivising to pressure universities to protect those who face racism is entirely different from a top-down endorsement of a definition whose only utility has been the repression of those who stand up for Palestine. This is counterproductive both as a general antiracist measure, because there is no antiracism worthy of the name that opposes Palestinians, and on its own terms as a mechanism to curb antisemitism. The IHRA definition does not protect Jews who are opposed to Zionism, and indeed is regularly used against us. There is a real danger in conflating the need for education on the history and contemporary practices of racism, including antisemitism, and universities adopting a definition that can be used to sanction critics and to adjudicate on what is and is not antisemitism. 

Further, fighting racism does not require institutions to recognise the differences between the various forms it takes and providing mechanisms for dealing with each separately. This creates a hierarchy among racisms. It also leaves too much power in the hands of universities, themselves invested in the daily practices of reproducing racial-colonial rule including their collaboration with the prison and military-industrial complexes that violently reproduce colonial racial capitalism. As soon as antiracism becomes linked to an outcome that is hierarchising and punitive it mimics the actions of race as a technology of power itself. 

Today, we witness the capture by public and private institutions including universities of the terms of antiracism. Run like businesses, universities’ first responsibility is to themselves, and thus any stated commitment to antiracist principles is first and foremost an insurance policy. In this context, antiracism is domesticated and anticolonialism and internationalist solidarity further delegitimated. The risk as a consequence is that the demands of people who face racism and colonisation are diluted and rerouted into the straitjacket of diversity, equity and inclusion. A tamed antiracism is the breeding ground for the rupturing of solidarities. These solidarities are all the more necessary when universities can avail of mechanisms such as the IHRA to decide, not only how to define racism, but also which kinds of antiracism are legitimate and which are punishable.  

As activists too we must be careful about the way we formulate our conceptualisation of antisemitism and we should reject the common formulation of antisemitism as being ‘weaponised’. Whether antisemitism is real or an imaginary weapon has been fixated on in ways that are detrimental to both Jews ourselves and to the potential to build solidarities against racism and colonialism in general, and for Palestinian liberation specifically.

It is impossible to work towards solidarity if there is an underlying assumption that the racism one experiences is always already weaponised.

Those who use this terminology claim that the weaponisation of antisemitism turns the spotlight off ‘real antisemitism’, as though it were possible to distill this more authentic form from its weaponised proxy. This view misrecognizes the kind of fight that we are all in, one in which the alignment of Israel with the global far right, with the tacit endorsement of liberal racial states such as Australia, poses a threat to us all. By tethering antisemitism to anti-Zionism, the IHRA definition contributes to validating extreme right violence against negatively racialised and queer people, including Jews, and using its support for Israel as a ‘get out of jail free card’.  This is particularly egregious in Australia, whose very existence is predicated on racial-colonial rule and its disavowal. 

The debate over the adoption of the IHRA definition, or indeed that over the alternative Jerusalem Declaration against Antisemitism, proposed by liberal Zionists, is not about antisemitism or racism at all. Rather these topics are proxies through which those within institutions struggle over power. The question should not be, does antisemitism exist, or is it more or less threatening than other forms of racism. Antisemitism exists because the extent to which it is a core ideology at the heart of Euromodernity has not been confronted, just as there is a refusal to confront race in general as a political force. The very posing of such questions, from either side of the political divide, serves as a means to avoid confronting the effects of race, coloniality and racism on both local and global scales. So, we need to work against the adoption of the IHRA, but we need to urgently put forward radical alternatives to both this violent capture of antiracism, and liberal moves to splinter and rupture our common struggles.

[1] See the No to IHRA primer on the working definition of antisemitism.

Alana Lentin