Dozens of rights groups have urged United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres not to adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, saying it has been used to suppress criticism of Israel.
In a letter published on Monday, 60 human and civil rights organisations said the UN should not use the definition in its action plan against anti-Semitism and subsequent activities.
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It went on to ask the UN to ensure that its efforts to combat anti-Semitism do not “inadvertently embolden or endorse policies” that undermine fundamental human rights, including the right to speak and organise in support of Palestinian rights.
“The IHRA definition has often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and thus chill and sometimes suppress, non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel and/or Zionism, including in the US and Europe,” the letter said.
US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Israeli rights group B’Tselem, and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) were among the signatories.
According to the IHRA’s working definition, “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The statement said the definition has been used to target professors, students and grassroots organisations that express support for Palestinian human rights.
Citing the example of the United Kingdom, where the definition was adopted nationally, the letter highlighted two instances where universities in 2017 banned several activities planned for “Israel Apartheid Week”, citing the IHRA definition.
The organisations noted that leading experts of anti-Semitism, and academics specialising in Holocaust and Jewish studies have also criticised the IHRA’s definition, “arguing that it restricts legitimate criticism of Israel and harms the fight against antisemitism”.
Instead, the groups said two definitions that have been put forward since 2021, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism and the Nexus Document, were better alternatives.
“While acknowledging that criticism of Israel can be antisemitic, these alternative definitions set out more clearly what constitutes antisemitism and provide guidance surrounding the contours of legitimate speech and action around Israel and Palestine,” they said.
The letter warned that if the UN were to endorse the IHRA definition “in any shape or form”, UN officials working on issues concerning Israel and Palestine may find themselves “unjustly accused of antisemitism based on the IHRA definition”.
“The same goes for numerous UN agencies, departments, committees, panels and/or conferences, whose work touches on issues related to Israel and Palestine, as well as for civil society actors and human rights defenders engaging with the UN system,” it added.
The letter is the latest attempt by human rights advocates to urge the UN not to adopt the IHRA definition. In November, more than 120 scholars called on the world body to reject the definition, due to its “divisive and polarising” effect.