More than 175 American, global Jewish groups urge U.N. to endorse IHRA definition

The groups said the U.N.’s upcoming action plan ‘must acknowledge the importance of the IHRA Working Definition’ of antisemitism

Photo by LEONARDO MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images

A man walks past UN headquarters, ahead the UN Water Conference, on March 22, 2023, in New York City.

A coalition of major American and global Jewish organizations wrote to United Nations leaders on Wednesday urging them to include an endorsement of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism in the U.N.’s forthcoming action plan monitoring and responding to antisemitism.

The letter comes amid continued concerns from many Jewish groups that antisemitism is pervasive in the U.N. system, as well as a domestic push by mainstream Jewish groups in the U.S. — including several of the lead signatories to the U.N. letter — for the White House to endorse the IHRA definition in its own upcoming national antisemitism strategy.

The letter, signed by 177 global Jewish groups and 120 academics from the U.S. and elsewhere, was organized by the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, European Jewish Congress, Jewish Federations of North America and World Jewish Congress.

“Any UN Action Plan must acknowledge the importance of the IHRA Working Definition to the vast majority of Jewish individuals, organizations, and communities who are the primary targets of antisemitic hatred, discrimination, and violence; are the Action Plan’s primary intended beneficiaries; and are best placed to identify manifestations of hatred and bias directed against us,” the letter reads.

The letter notes that the IHRA definition is not legally binding and calls it “an indispensable tool to understand and fight antisemitism, and one that can be used entirely consistently with fundamental human rights standards.”

The letter acknowledges that the IHRA definition’s examples, particularly those related to criticism of Israel, have prompted concerns from “some civil society organizations,” but argue that the inclusion of such examples “is precisely what makes this tool uniquely valuable for understanding and monitoring modern day antisemitism.”

The signatories further argue that other definitions crafted in response to IHRA “do not adequately or effectively clarify this form of antisemitism and are not appropriate for inclusion in the UN Action Plan” and that “there are few if any examples of their practical use.” As such, they argue, “any references to these alternative definitions would only introduce greater confusion into the UN Action Plan and undermine our common efforts to combat antisemitism.”

They also note that the IHRA definition “explicitly affirms that criticism of Israel per se is not antisemitic” and that governments that use it “have found it entirely possible to sharply criticize Israeli policies and practices.”

The letter highlights that the IHRA definition has been widely adopted by international governments and organizations, U.S. states, local governments and various other sectors of public life. It also notes that Ahmed Shaeed, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, has also recommended the IHRA definition’s use. 

The letter’s arguments in favor of IHRA and against other definitions of antisemitism come amid similar wrangling within the U.S. over whether to include or endorse the IHRA definition in the Biden administration’s antisemitism plan.

The administration is under pressure from left-wing groups not to include IHRA, or to also include other definitions alongside it, which proponents of IHRA argue would undermine its effectiveness. Mainstream Jewish groups are urging the inclusion of the IHRA definition alone. 

Several of the organizers and signatories to the U.N. letter have provided input to the White House on its antisemitism strategy.

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