Objections to IHRA definition are misguided

Objections to IHRA definition are misguided

'In the Australian context where racism is unlawful, and universities have long had codes of behaviour, a definition doesn’t challenge societal norms, it clarifies their application.'

Photo: IHRA
Photo: IHRA

I WAS in the room in Bucharest in 2016 when the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted the Working Definition of Antisemitism. It was a momentous occasion. Australia at the time was merely an observer. We sat on the sidelines as countries like the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada advocated passionately for adoption. Australia has a strong record of combating antisemitism and not being able to step up and take a stand was frustrating.

I was also there when Australia became a full member of IHRA in 2019 and the barriers to our full participation were removed. “Congratulations! Now when are you adopting the working definition?” was the refrain we heard from many delegates. Since that time, our experts have been monitoring and reporting on the adoption and implementation in other countries, and the Australian government has been considering what adoption might mean in the Australian context.

For the past year, I have been assisting the Swedish government as a member of the expert group for the Malmo Forum. As a member of Australia’s IHRA delegation, along with our other experts, I helped to draft advice on potential commitments Australia could consider for Malmo.

In Malmo itself, I joined our Australian diplomats, providing introductions and background for them. Australia’s presence was seen as important, our engagement was well received, and our commitments when they were announced firmly cemented us as a country that is taking antisemitism seriously.

It was a privilege and an honour to be in the room when Australia formally adopted the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. I had hoped this would be the moment, but nothing was certain. This was the right place and the right time.

What many have missed in the discussion around Australia’s adoption is that this is not just about Australia. It is a foreign policy position that puts us on the same page as our allies as we combat transnational threats like white supremacy.

Domestically, there is strong support for the IHRA Working Definition from the Australian Jewish community.

The Australasian Union of Jewish Students not only adopted the definition but championed its successful adoption within the National Union of Students in 2017.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry similarly passed policy supporting the adoption of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism some time ago.

The Zionist Federation of Australia, Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, and the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia have also all supported adoption.

Our community always has a diversity of opinion, and this is no exception. A few small Jewish groups oppose the adoption of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. What frustrates me is that their objections are based on misunderstandings, or efforts to parrot what people overseas say, without considering the Australian context.

In the United States, for example, the ability to engage in hate speech, including antisemitic hate speech, is protected by the First Amendment. Efforts to impose sanctions for antisemitic hate speech break with the society’s cultural norms. One can understand why people like Kenneth Stern raised concerns about such norm breaking government intervention. In the Australian context where racism is unlawful, and universities have long had codes of behaviour, a definition doesn’t challenge societal norms, it clarifies their application.

Australia, like most countries that adopted the definition, is unlikely to create new laws. Instead, we will recommend the definition to decision makers as a tool to help them examine the facts of an incident and reach a conclusion on whether it should be classed as antisemitic. Existing policies, rules, or laws would then come into play, as they always have, but with more consistent application.

I have helped with this process myself. The Victorian Education Department’s inquiry into Brighton Secondary College used the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism as the basis for assessing a wide range of alleged incidents. With the help of the definition, some incidents were found to be antisemitic, others were found not to be antisemitic.

Jewish groups expressing concerns that the definition could limit Palestinian advocacy fall into two groups. There are those who believe all forms of racism and hate speech must be allowed, and therefore the use of antisemitism in Palestinian advocacy should be permitted. This is an extreme minority view in Australia; according to research in 2017, only 10 per cent of Australians believe people should be free to “insult” and “offend” others on the basis of race, culture or religion.

Others oppose racism, but champion the Palestinian cause so strongly that they are willing to sacrifice the human rights of Jews in the process. They seek to undermine efforts countering antisemitism out of fear that successful efforts against antisemitism will put at risk Palestinian advocates who refuse to give up the use of antisemitic rhetoric.

These Jewish advocates should in my view be embracing the IHRA working definition and using it to guide advocacy away from antisemitic rhetoric. Doing so would help the overall fight against racism, advance Palestinian advocacy, and bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians closer.

The discussion in Malmo highlighted the threat of rising global and transnational antisemitism. It stressed the challenge we will face in the future in remembering the past without our survivors.

The frustration with social media platforms and insufficient action on online harms was firmly expressed. In their conversations leaders and experts also discussed other challenges: hate targeting the LGBTIQ+ community, the harassment of women, racism against the Roma, and many other harms.

Australia must be a part of these global conversations. Adopting the same definition as so many other countries, the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, is a significant step towards this. It means our data will be comparable, our work understanding hard cases can more readily draw on international expertise and comparisons, and the interpretations from Australia can more readily inform thinking overseas.

This is something everyone should support.

Dr Andre Oboler is an expert member of the Australian government’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute.

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