B'Tselem, Adalah, Breaking the Silence among signatories

100 rights groups, some Israeli, lobby UN to not adopt IHRA antisemitism definition

Organizations claim formula could be abused to impact freedom of speech, prevent criticism of Israel, and block advocacy for Palestinian rights

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, March 23, 2023. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, March 23, 2023. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

Over 100 human and civil rights organizations have signed a letter urging the United Nations not to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism, warning it could impact freedom of speech and curtail criticism of Israel, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

Adoption of the IHRA definition has been a key demand by mainstream Jewish groups of governments and organizations around the world.

The letter was first sent to UN Secretary-General António Guterres on April 3 with 60 signatures and since then dozens more have added their names to it, HRW said in a statement, putting the current total at 104.

Several of the signatories are Israel- based.

“We strongly urge the UN not to endorse the IHRA definition of antisemitism,” the letter read. “We look forward to assisting the UN’s efforts to combat antisemitism in a way that respects, protects and promotes human rights.”

It claims that the IHRA definition “has often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and thus chill and sometimes suppress non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel and/or Zionism, including in the US and Europe.”

While the letter urges governments and world leaders to combat antisemitism, it warns against action that may “inadvertently embolden or endorse policies and laws that undermine fundamental human rights, including the right to speak and organize in favor of Palestinian rights and to criticize Israeli government policies.”

It highlighted two examples of contemporary antisemitism that are attached to the IHRA definition as being problematic.

The first is “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 the second is “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

The first example “opens the door to labeling as antisemitic criticisms that Israeli government policies and practices violate the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” and findings by human rights organizations “that Israeli authorities are committing the crime against humanity of apartheid against Palestinians,” the letter warned.

The second, it claimed, “opens the door to labeling as antisemitic anyone who focuses on Israeli abuses as long as worse abuses are deemed to be occurring elsewhere.”

People walk past United Nations headquarters in New York on March 3, 2023. (Daniel SLIM/AFP)

Among the original signatories were the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). More recently, Amnesty International, Americans for Peace Now, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and Israeli rights groups Breaking the Silence and Adalah joined the petition.

The letter noted that since 2021 there have been two alternative definitions available, namely the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism compiled by hundreds of scholars of antisemitism, Holocaust studies, Jewish studies and Middle East studies, and the Nexus Document formed by a group affiliated with Bard College and the University of Southern California.

According to the IHRA, 39 UN members states have adopted or endorsed its definition of antisemitism, including France, Germany, Israel, the UK, and, the US. It has also been endorsed by the European Union.

Last year, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan raised expectations that Guterres would announce adoption of the IHRA definition at a UN event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. However, Guterres made no such declaration, though he did quote the IHRA definition without mentioning it by name.

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