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A new definition for antisemitism?

Sarah Judith Hofmann
June 17, 2021

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defined what constitutes antisemitism. A more recent definition is now stirring controversy.

Rally in Germany in solidarity with Israel and against antisemitism in Berlin.
People demonstrating against anti-Semitism in front of the Brandenburg Gate in BerlinImage: Christian Mang/REUTERS

When one asks Amos Goldberg why a much-cited definition of antisemitism is not enough to combat hatred towards Jews, the professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem gets emotional. 

"It has become a tool to silence any criticism of Israeli politics, it has become a tool to silence free speech," he told DW. 

He was referring to the "Working Definition of Antisemitism" that was formulated in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance or IHRA — an intergovernmental body to which 34 countries belong, including Germany.

Goldberg says the issue is not so much the definition of antisemitism itself, but the examples attached to it. The IHRA definition lists 11 "contemporary examples of antisemitism," seven of which relate to Israel. 

Therefore, on March 25, 2021, Goldberg and some fellow activists released a new definition called the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism — or JDA for short. 

The preamble of the JDA reads: "Conscious of the persecution of Jews throughout history and the universal lessons of the Holocaust and viewing with alarm the reassertion of antisemitism by groups that mobilize hatred and violence in politics, society, and on the internet, we seek to provide a usable, concise, and historically-informed core definition of antisemitism with a set of guidelines." 

Goldberg stresses that the threat of antisemitism remains real.

The JDA aims not only to help identify and combat antisemitism in its current form at an early stage, but also defines when an allegation of antisemitism goes too far. 

Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Israel Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in May 2021 inspecting a rocket-hit house in Petah Tikvah, Israel.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Israel in May 2021 and inspected the destruction of an Israeli residential buildingImage: Dana Regev/DW

That's one of the reasons why Jonathan Rynhold of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv has repeatedly rejected this new definition. Speaking to DW, he said: "I think it is a step backwards. It is more interested in stressing what isn't antisemitism than helping people to understand what antisemitism is. The Jerusalem Declaration rather accommodates than challenges the new antisemitism that's more focused on Israel than on Jews per se." Rynhold sees it as only logical that seven of the eleven IHRA examples relate to Israel. 

Valid critique or antisemitism? 

For example, the IHRA definition states, among others, that it is antisemitic to deny the Jewish people their "right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor." Or in applying double standards by requiring Israel to behave in a certain manner that is not expected from or demanded of any other democratic nation.

It's a problem, says Holocaust scholar Goldberg, who criticizes the IHRA definition, citing among others, the example of the recent escalation that started in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah (in Jerusalem). 

"Palestinian families are evicted from their homes according to a state law that enables Jews to reclaim their pre-1948 property while it prohibits Arabs from doing just the same. Is it antisemitic to call such a legal system 'apartheid'? To see it as racist? To harshly protest against it? Or is it the unpleasant truth against which it is only legitimate to protest?," asks Goldberg.

Human rights organizations such as the Israeli NGO B'Tselem are being branded antisemitic, says Goldberg, based on such IHRA examples by right-wing think tanks like NGO Monitor, for using the term "apartheid regime" to describe Israel. 

"We should distinguish between harsh talk against Jewish individuals and communities who are a vulnerable minority, and harsh talk against state violence committed by a regional nuclear superpower and an illegal occupier. Harshly protesting against it — like against any other unjust and powerful state —  is not only a right but also a moral obligation," Goldberg asserts.

Boy riding bicycle by Gazan camp and the rubble of their homes in May 2021.
Destruction in Palestinian-inhabited Gaza — the consequence of escalating violence between Hamas and Israel in May 2021Image: AHMED JADALLAH/Reuters

Arguing that Israel must be held accountable for crimes, just like any other powerful state, Goldberg puntuates how countries like Germany, America and New Zealand have been called racist, while calling Israel "racist" has been deemed "antisemitic." "That's a double standard! No other country, no other people is protected by such a firewall that prevents any substantial critique!"

Rynhold counters that specifically criticizing Israeli policy is not antisemitic in itself. But if Zionism is targeted as the only national movement in the world that is illegitimate and racist, then this demonizes the state of Israel. 

He views the recent escalation between Israel and Hamas as having emboldened people with antisemitic views to take to the streets and demonstrate under the pretext of being anti-war in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of London, for example. 

"I would not call them pro-Palestinian demonstrations. I would call them anti-Israel and anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish demonstrations because what one sees with these groups is that when it's Muslims killing Muslims as in Syria, these people do not go on marches, they do not get angry. They get angry when it involves Jews and Israel." 

In Germany, too, the escalation of violence in the Middle East conflict had triggered anti-Israel demonstrations near Jewish institutions. Israeli flags were burned, and antisemitic slogans were shouted in Münster and Gelsenkirchen, for example.

The IHRA definition is already internationally recognized and is regularly used by the US State Department, among others, to make political decisions. On the other hand, the left-wing Jewish lobby organization J-Street and some US universities have now adopted the JDA. The initiators of the JDA hope that it will provide a more nuanced alternative to combat antisemitism.

The people behind the JDA

Around 300 internationally renowned scholars in the fields of Holocaust studies, Jewish studies and antisemitism research have now signed the JDA. Besides several renowned professors from Israeli universities, such as the sociologist Eva Illouz, the group includes German academics, such as the literary scholar Aleida Assmann and the antisemitism researcher Wolfgang Benz. 

Historian Wolfgang Benz.
German Holocaust scholar Wolfgang Benz is one of the JDA's signatoriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Brakemeier

Many of them have already openly bemoaned the near impossibility of having an academic and intellectual debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among others, they have criticized political decisions such as the German Parliament's May 2019 resolution on the "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" (BDS) movement.

The decision ruled that those projects in Germany that call for boycotts against Israel or that support the BDS movement may not receive financial support. Consequently, events such as the state-funded cultural Ruhrtriennale festival came under fire, at which Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe was scheduled to give the keynote address in 2020. Mbembe is considered a BDS movement supporter. The Ruhrtriennale was, however, eventually cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The JDA explicitly states that there are vastly differing views about the BDS movement, and many of its own signatories rejected it. However, it is wrong to declare it as antisemitic per se.

Fighting against various forms of racism

Demonstrators at a May 11, 2021 protest hold signs that say both: "Israel Terrorist" and "Free Palestine".
A demonstration in Munich on May 11, 2021 reflected various views Image: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA Wire/picture alliance

Political scientist Rynhold points out that the IHRA has not defined the BDS movement as antisemitic at any point. However, he says that at the core of the movement, many things draw on antisemitic tropes such as "defining Jews as uniquely evil" or saying that "they have a blood lust." 

"Only because you believe that you are not racist doesn't say you're not. If a policeman only arrests black criminals, and he passes a lie detector test, he's not consciously racist but he still acts in a racist fashion."

Goldberg does not deny that there is also antisemitism from the left and that criticism of Israel can indeed be strictly antisemitic. However, "there are many Palestinian organizations that are doing everything they can to avoid that. We should encourage their efforts," he says. 

"But the real threat to Jewish communities, institutions, and individuals all over the world and to Jewish life, and in the long run also to Israel, comes from the radical right wing. The IHRA definition distracts us from seeing this," he says.

He adds that antisemitism has its own characteristics, but it's still part of the larger struggle against bigotry, racism, and Islamophobia. 

This article was adapted from German.

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