The following is a response to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism1, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA)2, and debates surrounding their adoption and use. This reflection is sourced in the contextual experience of the Middle East North Africa Peace and Reconciliation Network (PRN) team and is intended to further understanding to remove barriers to peace and reconciliation. The perspective here is not the official position of the World Evangelical Alliance but is a voice from part of the World Evangelical Alliance family that we need to hear.
The PRN Global Team believes that addressing the complex issues related to peacebuilding anywhere requires listening carefully to the variety of voices in each context, particularly our sisters and brothers in Christ. As such, we welcome and value the voice of our colleagues from around the world in this document as a necessary part of the process of reconciliation. Ignoring or dismissing the insights, experiences, and calls for dialogue from our brothers and sisters in Christ robs us of crucial global perspectives on issues relating to the global church.
Addressing Definitions to Get Beyond Barriers to Peace and Reconciliation
The following presents a rationale why, from the perspective of the Middle East North Africa PRN team, the IHRA definition of antisemitism is problematic for peacebuilding and reconciliation in our region.
It is important to note from the outset that objection to the IHRA definition has mostly come from leaders in the Middle East and North Africa region as well as Asia, though concerns from the West are more recently being raised as well.3 These objections are rooted in three main reasons:
- The process of adopting the definition without dialogue, consultation, and consensus.
- The IHRA definition itself and its restriction on freedom of speech.
- The consequences this will have on many, including our fellow Christian sisters and brothers, in the Middle East North Africa region with regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The history of the Jewish people has been undeniably marked by antisemitism. Jews have experienced persecution, discrimination, violence, and the devastating impact of the Holocaust. Our critique and recommendations are not an attempt to water down nor deny the real threat of antisemitism. Rather, we seek to express the damage the IHRA definition can have on peace and reconciliation in our region and encourage more open and honest conversation on this subject toward the goal of Evangelicals becoming a leading source of healing and reconciliation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the glory of God.
Regarding the IHRA Definition
Contributing the complexity of adopting a definition of antisemitism is the contention of Palestinian human rights organizations that the State of Israel commits the crime of apartheid over the territories it controls4. The statements of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch5 and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has also made similar conclusions6.
While others feel uncomfortable with the assertion of apartheid, it is worth studying the documents of the human rights organizations and the UN. Yet many, including Christians in the West, continue to avoid discussing this reality and situate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within a struggle between a native population and a settler colonial endeavor. But we ask, what does this have to do with the IHRA definition?
To counter criticism of Israel, the State of Israel and Zionist activists in the West have encouraged the IHRA to adopt a controversial working definition of antisemitism. Though its noble aim is to provide a guide to help identify antisemitic statements or actions, the IHRA’s definition has been deployed to stifle discussions about whether the State of Israel should be defined in ethno-religious terms and to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of Palestinians. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism notes the following problematic additions to the definition of antisemitism by the IHRA:
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
- Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor).
- Applying double standards by requiring a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.
False accusations of antisemitism have long been levelled at Palestinians and those who fight for Palestinian rights, but this expanded IHRA definition has turned the accusations into a quasi-legal weapon, forcing institutions and government bodies to censor and punish legitimate human rights advocacy. This working definition contains eleven contemporary examples of purportedly antisemitic statements or actions, seven of which refer to the state of Israel.
The examples above serve to conflate legitimate criticism of Israeli human rights abuses with antisemitism, blurring the lines between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. According to one example, it is antisemitic to label Israel a “racist endeavor” even though ethnic cleansing of Palestinians was necessary to establish the State, its catalogue of discriminatory laws, and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, that has been marred by brutality.
As a result, any Palestinian articulating their experience of life under Israeli occupation is accused as antisemitic by this IHRA definition. Palestinians become guilty simply by describing their daily experience and existence. Referring to Israel as a racist state is interpreted as a desire to deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination, yet the definition serves to negate Palestinians their own right to self-determination. The implication and assumption are that Palestinian resistance to occupation, or the cry of apartheid, isn’t motivated by a desire for justice or fairness, but by some irrational hatred of Jews. The debate continues to be defined by colonial perspectives that excludes Palestinian voices and experiences. We submit that this stands in the way of any possible peace-building and reconciled future among peoples made in the image of God.
The Jerusalem Declaration
The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), published in March 2021, serves as a mainstream alternative to the IHRA declaration. Signed by approximately two hundred academics representing disciplines including philosophy, history, politics, gender studies, Hebrew and Jewish studies, and antisemitism studies, the JDA recognizes that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are “categorically different.” The JDA rebuts the IHRA examples of antisemitism as dishonest and a form of weaponization. The declaration explicitly mentions examples of views or actions that are not antisemitic:7
- Supporting the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil and human rights, as encapsulated in international law.
- Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism or arguing for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. It is not antisemitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants “between the river and the sea,” whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.
- Evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state. This includes its institutions and founding principles. It also includes its policies and practices, domestic and abroad, such as the conduct of Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, the role Israel plays in the region, or any other way in which, as a state, it influences events in the world. It is not antisemitic to point out systematic racial discrimination. In general, the same norms of debate that apply to other states and to other conflicts over national self-determination apply in the case of Israel and Palestine. Thus, even if contentious, it is not antisemitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid.
- Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.
- Political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable to be protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and other human rights instruments. Criticism that some may see as excessive or contentious, or as reflecting a “double standard,” is not, in and of itself, antisemitic. In general, the line between antisemitic and non-antisemitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.
- The above points strengthen the fight against real and dangerous antisemitism. The Jerusalem Declaration provides a set of guidelines that heavily focus on Israel-Palestine. The guidelines state not only what antisemitism is, such as holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s conduct, but what antisemitism is not. They refute the idea that calling for an end to Israel’s apartheid regime is antisemitic along with criticism of Israel’s foundation and its racist laws and policies.
- The guidelines state that it is not, on the face of it, antisemitic to criticize or oppose Zionism as a form of nationalism or argue for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews and Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Nor is it antisemitic to support the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil, and human rights, or to provide evidence-based criticism of Israel’s institutions and founding principles.
- The Jerusalem Declaration refutes the idea that Palestinian perspectives are inherently racist and validates the lived experiences of Palestinians and their legitimate right to resist settler colonialism and apartheid. As an alternative to the IHRA definition and the insidious campaign to delegitimize Palestinian rights, the Jerusalem Declaration marks a significant improvement – and has the potential to win the support of Palestinian people and institutions.
Advancing Peace and Reconciliation
For the advancement of peace and reconciliation, which we declare a core missional task given by Jesus to his Church, we encourage the engagement of multiple perspectives and voices. In this case the voice of Palestinians who tend to be ignored and whose lives will be affected by definitions must be heard. Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh in The Arab and Jewish Questions, with Palestinian, Arab, and Jewish writers, demonstrate how in Europe Semitic people were both Jews and Arabs. In fact, it is only after the Nazi atrocities that Arabs were no longer considered Semitic. In the shadow of the Holocaust there was a Christian attempt in the West to humanize Jews and racialize them as white after years of dehumanization, but Arabs continued to symbolize the ultimate “other.” These scholars argue that there is an intimate conceptual and historical link between antisemitism and islamophobia.
Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals need to freely wrestle with terms like antisemitism, islamophobia, apartheid, and settler colonialism. Definitions that limit the freedom of speech and criticism of state policies do not allow for genuine and real dialogue, nor does it honour the dignity of all made in the image of God. Furthermore, biblical reconciliation centered in Jesus Christ that leads to loving, restored, and just relationships of mutual blessing and healthy and just systems requires listening, mutual lament, and truth-telling even when it is hard (ex. Amos 1-2; Matthew 16:21-13; Matthew 23; Acts 6:1-7; Acts 15; Galatians 2:11-14). Injustices need to be confronted as they are, and it is essential that the Christian Church follow the teachings of Jesus. There will not be true peace and reconciliation without confronting injustices, and we observe that the IHRA definition does not allow such a framework.
Palestinians need to follow the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said in his engagement with the “Jewish Question,” antisemitism, and the Holocaust. This is fundamental in understanding Israeli-Jewish identity and political discourse.
Israeli-Jews must deal with the “Palestinian Question,” the indigenous people of the land, the Nakba, and apartheid.
The West and Evangelical Christians need to address antisemitism, islamophobia, and its colonial past that led to the Palestinian people’s suffering.
Peace and reconciliation require the inclusion of all factors leading to the conflict as we find it today.
The Middle East North Africa PRN team raises these concerns with respect, recognizing ours is not the only voice, and as a plea for conversation and collaborative responsibility and action, particularly among our fellow Evangelical followers of Jesus. Controversial matters like this, even beyond the scope of the question of antisemitism addressed here, require the discipline of careful listening and relationship building with people in the context. Let us walk with great care and attentiveness to advance a shared desire to see Jesus magnified by our common identity and witness for the good of all people everywhere.
Respectfully presented on behalf of the Middle East North Africa PRN Team by:
Phil Wagler – PRN Global Director Salim Munayer – PRN MENA Regional Coordinator
1 See "2020 IHRA Ministerial Declaration," updated 2022, accessed October 12, 2022, www.holocaustremembrance.com/about-us/2020-ihra-ministerial-declaration.
2 See “The Jerusalem Declaration On Antisemitism,” accessed October 12, 2022, https://jerusalemdeclaration.org/
3 See “UN urged to reject antisemitism definition over ‘misuse’ to shield Israel,“ accessed May 1, 2023, www.theguardian.com/news/2023/apr/24/un-ihra-antisemitism-definition-israel-criticism
4 Al-Haq, Written Statement Submitted by Al-Haq, Law in the Service of Man, A Non-Governmental Organization in Special Consultative Status, United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Fifty-first session (New York, 7 October 2022), daccess-ods.un.org/tmp/9955805.54008484.html.
5 Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity, (London 2022).; Human Rights Watch, A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authoristies and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution (April 27, 2021). www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution.
6 "Apartheid," B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, updated 12 January 2021, accessed 12 October, 2022, www.btselem.org/topic/apartheid.
7 See The Jerusalem Declaration On Antisemitism, jerusalemdeclaration.org.
8The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond, ed. Bashi Bashir and Leila Farsakh (Colombia University Press, 2020).
9 See Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Random House, 1992).