heard yesterday

Palestinian UN rep denounces IHRA antisemitism definition, as EU antisemitism envoy presents plan to world body

Stakeholders discussed Holocaust education, IHRA working definition of antisemitism and other measures to counter the global rise in antisemitism

Loey Felipe/United Nations

Feda Abdelhady Nasser

A United Nations briefing on antisemitism became politically charged on Wednesday when a Palestinian representative to the world body criticized the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

Palestinian Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.N. Feda Abdelhady Nasser’s remarks occurred at the end of a three-hour U.N. Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) briefing on antisemitism, which featured a new proposal to tackle European antisemitism from the European Union’s coordinator on combating antisemitism, Katharina Von Schnurbein.

Abdelhady Nasser’s speech acknowledged the need to counter antisemitism, but focused on critiques of the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by 35 countries, including the U.S., and endorsed by the U.N.’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion, Ahmed Shaheed.

“It is an undeniable fact that seven of its 11 examples appended to the definition wrongly conflate criticism of Israeli policies and practices in occupied Palestine with antisemitism,” she said.

The definition’s 11 examples of antisemitism include Holocaust denial behavior and offensive stereotypes of Jews, in addition to methods of criticizing Israel. 

According to the definition, criticisms of Israel that veer into antisemitism are those that involve “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”; “applying double standards”; “using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism… to characterize Israel or Israelis”; “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”; and “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

Abdelhady Nasser did not specify which parts of the definition she opposed.

“We must caution against and oppose the political instrumentalization of the fight against antisemitism,” she added.

Abdelhady Nasser also argued that “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” and promoted the adoption of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, an alternative to IHRA’s definition.

Israel’s representative at the meeting expressed her dismay, but did not directly respond to Abelhady Nasser’s points.

“It’s very unfortunate that she chose to politicize this very important debate, and I’ll leave it at that,” said Noa Furman, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the U.N.

The briefing, chaired by UNAOC High Representative Miguel Angel Moratinos, was attended by various U.N. agency officials, including from UNESCO and the Office of the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide; representatives from Jewish organizations; several nations’ special antisemitism envoys, including the U.S.’s Deborah Lipstadt; and international dignitaries. 

The American Jewish Committee as well as its Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, along with B’nai B’rith International, World WIZO, the World Jewish Congress and the Center for Jewish Impact were all represented. 

During the briefing, Von Schnurbein unveiled a proposal to combat European antisemitism by stopping anti-Jewish hate, bolstering Jewish life in Europe and promoting Holocaust education.

“Europe has a responsibility to act with regards to its history, with regards to the fact that the Holocaust happened on our continent,” she explained, introducing her program.

The three-pronged approach, she said, is grounded in the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism.

“The definition itself says very clearly that — and this is always the crux and the elephant in the room — that criticism of Israel like that against any other country cannot be considered antisemitism,” she said. “This is part of this definition, and therefore it is no impediment to freedom of speech.”

Von Schnurbein also urged other countries to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.

“We want to use all available tools to call on our partner countries to actively combat antisemitism, while taking into account the IHRA definition as a basis for what is an antisemitic bias,” she stated.

Delineating various types of antisemitism, Von Schnurbein called some criticisms of Israel antisemitic.

“After the creation of the State of Israel, we have seen antisemitism hiding behind anti-Zionism,” she said. “All these forms [of Israel criticism] for the European Commission are equally pernicious, and it doesn’t matter from which corner of society it comes. Whether it is right-wing extremism, left-wing extremism, jihadism, or — and this is a huge problem as well — from the center of society.”

To implement her plan, Von Schnurbein offered several concrete steps, including passing the Digital Services Act, EU legislation that seeks transparency about social media algorithms so that countries can better understand how hate speech spreads. She also called for state-funded security at Jewish institutions, the implementation of 70 separate measures to improve Holocaust education and better EU reporting about antisemitic incidents.

The IHRA working definition was supported by a number of attendants, including Lipstadt, the AJC’s Rabbi Andrew Baker, the Jacob Blaustein Institute’s Felice Gaer, B’nai B’rith’s David Michaels and former U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Elan Carr.

“Use things such as the IHRA, non-legal working definition to guide you,” Lipstadt urged, a sentiment echoed by Carr, who called the definition “the global standard of defining antisemitism.

Daniel West Cohen from the Tel Aviv-based Center for Jewish Impact argued that the EU plan must go further, but was more equivocal about the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

“We commend the EU delegation for including Holocaust education in the action plan,” he said, adding, “We feel they can go even a step further and also include education about contemporary antisemitism and ways to identify it — this can be the IHRA definition, this can be other means.”

West Cohen also called upon the EU to safeguard Jewish circumcision and ritual slaughter, referencing a 2020 EU Court decision to uphold Belgium’s ban on ritual slaughter.

During the briefing, Tracey Peterson, who manages the U.N.’s Holocaust Education Outreach Programme, announced the upcoming publication of a report on Holocaust denial, to be co-published with the World Jewish Congress. She also revealed her office’s social media campaign, #ProtectTheFacts, supported by the IHRA, the European Commission and UNESCO, reached a 23.6 million people in 2022 and 50 million on the 2021 International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.

UNESCO’s Karel Fracapane separately highlighted his agency’s efforts to preserve Holocaust education, and announced the publication of a Spanish-language handbook on Holocaust education in addition to a guide on how to address conspiracy theories. Both manuals will be published later this month.

Lipstadt also expressed optimism about the body’s efforts to combat antisemitism going forward.

“We have a path now, and our job is carpe diem, to seize the moment, seize the day, and make a difference,” she said.