A UN human rights official has criticised a definition of anti-Semitism supported by the European Union for shielding Israel from stronger international condemnation of its discriminatory policies against the Palestinians.
The issue is highly sensitive given the destruction of Europe's Jewish population in the Second World War and divisions within European countries over relations with Israel.
Francesca Albanese, UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, told The National that Brussels should have been more careful about embracing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
She said it links anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel and, in turn, this connection is widely weaponised to accuse civil society and human rights groups of anti-Semitism when they express legitimate concerns about Israeli policies based on international law.
“No one should be above scrutiny,” she said. "There is no evidence by proponents of the IHRA definition that it has actually helped reduce anti-Semitism. On the contrary, there is ample evidence of its instrumentalisation."
Nearly 40 countries, including 18 EU members, have endorsed the IHRA's non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism since 2016, its website says. The European Commission views the definition as an "essential tool" to tackle anti-Semitism and has invited other EU countries to adopt it.
In a statement to The National, the IHRA described the definition as "a practical educational and awareness-raising tool that has helped sensitise people and institutions to the existence of anti-Semitism". It said it was adopted "by consensus".
It added: "Since its adoption, the working definition has continued to gather support, acknowledgement and endorsements from numerous actors outside the organisation’s 35 member countries and 10 observer countries. These actors include international organisations, Jewish communities, sports leagues, businesses and civil society organisations from around the world."
'Stifling free speech'
But Ms Albanese highlighted a report published in October by the Independent Jewish Voices of Canada as an indication that the IHRA’s definition was stifling free speech.
The report linked attacks against pro-Palestinian academics with efforts made by pro-Israeli advocacy groups and the state of Israel to exploit the IHRA definition.
Author Kenneth Stern, who served as the lead drafter of the IHRA's definition, in 2019 warned in a Guardian opinion piece that it was being weaponised on US campuses. He said it had been created primarily for data purposes.
The European Commission should engage with Palestinian and other intellectuals, civil society and scholars who had in the past been excluded, suggested Ms Albanese.
The European Jews for a Just Peace, a group which defines itself as a federation of 12 national Jewish-Palestinian support groups in 10 countries, publicly claimed in 2020 that the European Commission had refused to accept it in its working group on anti-Semitism.
As violence in Israel and Palestinian territories on the West Bank escalates once again, Ms Albanese, an international law expert, said the EU was failing to heed Palestinians’ calls that they are victims of oppressive policies enforced by the Israeli state.
Despite the EU’s declared attachment to a two-state solution, it has done little to pressurise Israel to change course.
“Palestinians pay a catastrophic price,” said Ms Albanese.
Brussels should also have officially assessed the human rights implications of the IHRA definition before endorsing it, she said.
“This is a policy instrument with such far-reaching implications for the exercise of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of association, freedom of expression and for the protection of human rights,” she said.
"The outcome of such an assessment may have discouraged, if not prevented, the commission from endorsing it."
Ms Albanese called on the European Commission to rely on multiple resources without tying itself to a single definition of anti-Semitism.
Alternative definitions to the IHRA’s include the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA), which was published in March 2021 and has been signed by 350 scholars. It characterises anti-Semitism as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)".
Examples may include “applying the symbols, images and negative stereotypes of classical anti-Semitism to the State of Israel" but not “evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state”, the JDA says.
Special rapporteurs are unpaid independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to document breaches of international law. They report directly to the General Assembly and the UNHRC.
Israeli forces last week killed 10 Palestinians, including an elderly woman, in its deadliest raid in the West Bank in years. This was followed by a Palestinian gunman killing seven people near a synagogue in occupied East Jerusalem.
The deadly violence comes at a turbulent time for Israeli politics as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is mired with corruption charges, attempts to dilute the power of the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Palestinian leadership, which has failed to organise elections, is widely viewed by Palestinians as weak and ineffective.
An EU Commission representative had not answered questions sent by The National asking to clarify the process by which the IHRA definition was endorsed by the time this article was published.
But the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell reaffirmed the commission’s support of the definition two weeks ago in response to questions from MEPs submitted nearly a year earlier.
They had asked Mr Borrell whether a report published last February by Amnesty International was anti-Semitic “in the light of the non-legally binding International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition”.
Mr Borrell answered by referring back to the IHRA definition, which gives as an example of anti-Semitism: “Claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour."
Ms Albanese his week wrote on Twitter: “Such framing also devaluates the meaning of anti-Semitism and weakens the fight against it.”
A divisive topic
Amnesty International’s 280-page report analyses Israel’s systematic and institutionalised discrimination against Palestinians within the framework of the definition of apartheid under international law.
Israel’s “system of oppression” includes territorial fragmentation, segregation and control through the denial of equal nationality and status, and dispossession of land and property, the report says.
In a separate document published in 2021, Human Rights Watch used the word apartheid to describe Israel's discriminatory treatment of Palestinians in occupied territories.
Despite such calls, European leaders remain deeply divided. Politicians — usually from the Left — have criticised Israel for its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories.
But few have said that Israel is practising apartheid, despite prominent figures such as former UN secretary Ban-Ki Moon doing so in 2021.
“Even some politicians who privately agree that Israel is practicising apartheid feel they have little to gain by saying that publicly and fear being attacked by Israel-aligned groups," said Martin Konecny, director of Brussels-based think tank, the European Middle East Project.
"This is ironic given that a number of former Israeli prime ministers warned in the past that if Israel doesn’t end the occupation, it will turn into apartheid. But now that we are there, Europeans are afraid to say it."
In a recent example of such tensions, British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer on Wednesday criticised fellow Labour MP Kim Johnson’s description of the Israeli government as “fascist”.
During a Prime Minister’s Questions’ session, Ms Johnson said: “Since the election of the fascist Israeli government in December last year, there has been an increase in human rights violations against Palestinian civilians, including children.”
After disquiet from across the Commons, Ms Johnson added: “Can the Prime Minister tell us how he is challenging what Amnesty and other human rights organisations are referring to as an apartheid state?”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak replied of Ms Johnson: “She also failed to mention the horrific attacks on civilians inside Israel as well.”