Amnesty International has joined a coalition of civil society organizations who are calling on the United Nations not to endorse or adopt a proposed working definition of antisemitism which has been used to suppress criticism of human rights violations by the Israeli authorities. In an open letter, the 104 organizations have urged the UN to ensure that its essential efforts to combat antisemitism do not embolden or endorse policies and laws which undermine human rights.
The UN is currently developing an action plan for a “coordinated and enhanced response to antisemitism rooted in human rights.” Some UN member states have advocated for the UN to adopt, as part of this plan, the non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism proposed and adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Many experts on antisemitism and Jewish studies, as well as Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights groups, have challenged the IHRA’s definition, which has been used to stifle debate and criticism of the Israeli government’s human rights record.
If the UN adopts or endorses the IHRA definition, it will embolden governments to restrict legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies, and stifle growing calls for an end to the system of apartheid Israel imposes on Palestinians.Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Amnesty International
“Developing a comprehensive plan to tackle antisemitism around the world is of vital importance. But the UN’s adoption or endorsement of the IHRA definition would pose serious risks for Palestinians’ human rights, and for the right to freedom of expression globally. Over the years, the IHRA definition has repeatedly been instrumentalized to suppress legitimate criticism of the Israeli government’s policies by falsely labelling it antisemitic,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“If the UN adopts or endorses the IHRA definition, it will embolden governments to restrict legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies, and stifle growing calls for an end to the system of apartheid Israel imposes on Palestinians. Branding fair criticism of Israel’s human right record as antisemitic also undermines the fight against genuine antisemitism. We call on the UN to ensure that its vital efforts to combat antisemitism respect, protect and promote human rights.”
Branding legitimate criticism of Israel’s human right record as antisemitic also undermines the fight against genuine antisemitism.Heba Morayef
The IHRA’s working definition is accompanied by a list of what the IHRA describes as “contemporary examples of antisemitism”. But some of these are worded in a manner which has led to legitimate critical speech, which is fully protected by freedom of expression under international law, being labelled antisemitic. The letter highlights two of the examples:
“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”; and “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.
The letter documents how these examples have repeatedly been cited, including by governments and universities, in false allegations of antisemitism aimed at critics of the Israeli government’s policies towards Palestinians.
The coalition highlighted two alternative definitions of antisemitism which have been put forward since 2021: the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism by hundreds of scholars of antisemitism, Holocaust studies, Jewish studies and Middle East studies; and the Nexus Document by a task force affiliated with Bard College and the University of Southern California. These alternative definitions provide guidance surrounding the contours of legitimate speech and action around Israel and Palestine, and are less open to being misused to stifle debate and activism.
The open letter is addressed to the UN’s Secretary General António Guterres and Under-Secretary-General Miguel Ángel Moratinos. Mr Moratinos holds the post of High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, and in 2020 was designated as the UN’s focal point for monitoring antisemitism.
Signatories include Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; Palestinian organizations such as Al-Haq and Al-Mezan; Israeli organization such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence; and numerous global and national Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Jewish Network for Palestine.