SUMMARY:The question of how to best combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial has preoccupied Western scholars and politicians since at least the 1980s. The framing of Palestinians as anti-Semites because of their resistance against their displacement and expulsion is as old as Zionist settler colonialism. But in response to growing grassroots- and student support for the Palestinian call for boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel (BDS), Israeli officials and other leading right-wing Zionists resuscitated a defunct 2005 EU ‘non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism’ and turned it into a document of intimidation and criminalization of Palestinian advocacy. Although Islamophobia and New Anti-semitism scholars have since warned about the vagueness of the definition and the pro- Israeli examples given in its annex, this new definition was adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which has set the global agenda as close to 30 countries and countless municipalities and universities have adopted this definition.
On the one hand, the Canadian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs declared in 2018 (one year prior to Canada’s insertion of the definition in its Anti-Racism Strategy): “We are launching a national campaign to have government and police adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism [...] because it explicitly confirms that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” On the other hand, the Canadian NGO Independent Jewish Voices has claimed that lobby groups have “used the charge of antisemitism to attack a variety of groups supportive of Palestinian human rights, including (among others) the World Conference Against Racism, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the Green Party of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Students, the British Labour Party, and the 2016 World Social Forum.”
The four years of the Trump Administration have undermined American democracy and Palestinian self-determination at the macro- and micro-levels. While 30 states today have legislation targeting advocacy for Palestinian rights, two have passed bills redefining Anti- semitism on the basis of IHRA. In the host city of this year’s MESA meeting, Montreal, there have been intense campaigns at the municipal and borough levels to adopt the partisan IHRA definition of Anti-semitism leading faculty associations and civil society organizations to adopt NoIHRA resolutions. In Germany cultural institutions and artists, academics and writers have published open letters protesting the German state’s persecution of people who support BDS following the cancellation of Prof. A. Mbembe’s award ceremony on account of his analogies between Israel and European colonialism. At University College London, England, an Academic Board recommendation was passed to replace the IHRA definition with something more “fit for purpose in the university setting.” Last week, international Holocaust scholars, German and Jewish historians have offered a substantial alternative definition in their Jerusalem Declaration which, in turn has received nuanced and constructive criticism from the BDS movement in Palestine. We also commend the MESA Board for issuing a powerful statement rejecting the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism just yesterday. Our special session is conceived as building a long-term infrastructure of engagement with this pressing issue.