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UN head skirts adoption of IHRA antisemitism definition in Holocaust memorial speech

Guterres recites part of definition, but leaves out controversial section, makes no mention of official adoption; Israeli envoy insists sec general ‘effectively acknowledged’ it

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during an interview at the UN Headquarters, on January 20, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during an interview at the UN Headquarters, on January 20, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday skirted around announcing the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which has been a key demand made by mainstream Jewish groups of governments and organizations around the world.

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan had raised the expectations of those Jewish groups a day earlier when he told the Kan public broadcaster that Guterres would use his remarks at the UN event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day to announce the international forum’s adoption of the IHRA definition along with its application to all UN bodies.

But what Guterres went on to do fell short of what Erdan speculated and was a reiteration of a position the secretary general had taken before. The secretary general acknowledged “the efforts of countries that have agreed on the common definition of antisemitism.”

He then recited the IHRA definition without mentioning the name of the organization behind it: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

More notably though, Guterres left out any mention of the more controversial “examples” of the IHRA definition, including anti-Israel criticism that it says can be defined as antisemitic. Critics of the definition argue that its examples will be used to quash legitimate criticism of Israel.

“It is important to be clear about what antisemitism is. A shared understanding can serve not only the work of the United Nations, but all global efforts to uphold human rights and human dignity,” Guterres added, making no mention of a decision to officially adopt the IHRA definition.

In pre-recorded remarks presented after those of Guterres — and seemingly written with a different understanding of what the UN chief had gone on to say — Erdan said he was “pleased to hear him today adopting and applying the IHRA definition of antisemitism in the UN bodies.”

But Erdan’s office then doubled down on what appeared to have been the untimely taping of his Holocaust Remembrance Day address, issuing a statement on Thursday afternoon declaring that Guterres had “effectively recognized” the IHRA definition.

The statement highlighted Erdan’s raising of the issue in several meetings with Guterres over the past year.

“During his speech on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the UN Secretary General read the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism and noted its importance to the work of the UN, thus effectively acknowledging it,” the Israeli Mission to the UN said in a statement, adding that this meant it could be used to fight antisemitism within various UN bodies.

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