CARJ / General / CARJ Briefing – Defining Antisemitism

CARJ Briefing – Defining Antisemitism

Recent discussions of antisemitism, mostly in and around the Labour Party, have included  a lengthy public discussion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition.  The IHRA currently has 31 members (including the UK, the USA, France, Germany etc.).  On 26 May 2016 the IHRA Plenary in Budapest adopted the following non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism:

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.

To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:
Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.  Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

The definition goes on to list actions which could, taking into account the overall context, be considered contemporary examples of antisemitism.  For the full definition and examples, see:

In the recent discussions of antisemitism, the IHRA definition has come under further scrutiny, and some questions have been raised and reservations voiced.

In October 2016, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee published a Report – Antisemitism in UKwhich discussed the IHRA definition and concluded:

We broadly accept the IHRA definition, but propose two additional clarifications to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine, without allowing antisemitism to permeate any debate. The definition should include the following statements:

  • It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.
  • It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent. (para 24)

We recommend that the IHRA definition, with our additional caveats, should be formally adopted by the UK Government, law enforcement agencies and all political parties, to assist them in determining whether or not an incident or discourse can be regarded as antisemitic.  (para 25)

In December 2016, David Feldman, Professor of history and Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, raised questions about the definition in a Guardian article (28 December 2016):

So does the IHRA definition that Britain has adopted provide the answer?  I am sceptical. Here is the definition’s key passage: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews.” This is bewilderingly imprecise.

The text also carries dangers. It trails a list of 11 examples. Seven deal with criticism of Israel. Some of the points are sensible, some are not. Crucially, there is a danger that the overall effect will place the onus on Israel’s critics to demonstrate they are not antisemitic.

In March 2017, High Tomlinson QC of Matrix Chambers was asked by a group of Jewish organisations to provide an Opinion on the Government’s decision to adopt the IHRA definition.  He concluded (in part) that:

The IHRA “non-legally binding working definition” of antisemitism is unclear and confusing and should be used with caution…..  The “examples” accompanying the IHRA Definition should be understood in the light of the definition and it should be understood that the conduct listed is only antisemitic if it manifests hatred towards Jews. (Conclusion 1 and 2)

CARJ intends to continue to monitor this debate and related discussions and to work with others – including the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE) – to understand the complexities of these issues.


CARJ Briefings are primarily intended to give readers accurate and relevant background information on current issues.  Occasionally, a position or argument may be put forward for reflection and further discussion.

CARJ, 9 Henry Rd, London N4 2LH.  020 8802 8080.  The Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) is an independent charity committed to working with others of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to bring about a more just, more equal, more cooperative society.

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