The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism is an orientalist text

The JDA fails to produce true opposition to the core problem of the IHRA definition: the silencing and erasure of Palestine and Palestinians.

A representation of a map with the colors of the Palestinian flag reading "Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine" is placed on a fence as a Jewish settlement is seen during a protest against t
A representation of a map with the colours of the Palestinian flag reading 'Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine' is placed on a fence during a protest, in the village of Bilin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

In a 2000 interview for the Israeli daily Haaretz, journalist Ari Shavit asks Palestinian literary theorist and anti-colonial writer Edward Said whether he thinks “the idea of a Jewish state is flawed”.

In response, Said asks his own questions about the notions of “Jewishness” and “who is a Jew” in this state. Shavit abruptly stops that line of thinking, stating “But that’s an internal Jewish question. The question for you is whether the Jews are a people who have a right to a state of their own?”

Shavit’s argument asserts that the very foundation of the Jewish state as a state for Jews is a matter only for Jews to debate and critically discuss. The only point of entry into this discussion for non-Jews, like Said, is to accept the non-negotiability of that foundation: namely, that Jews have the right to their own Jewish state. What this argument omits is that this state was established on a land that was already inhabited by Palestinians. This argument, and the omission of Palestine and Palestinian life from it, precedes Shavit by decades, and 21 years later, it persists.

Today, we are in the midst of a wave of definitions of antisemitism that are determined to protect the validity of the idea of the Jewish state from any serious critique coming from anti-Zionist Jews (whose Jewishness is increasingly questioned) and non-Jews, foremost among the latter being Palestinians like Said.

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) illustrates this point. This document situates itself as the liberal replacement to the conservative International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. Like the IHRA definition, the JDA sets for itself the task of determining which kinds of anti-Zionist critiques and views constitute antisemitism and which do not. As one of its signatories, Yair Wallach, recently put it, “The JDA pays special attention to antisemitism in anti-Zionist veneer.”

As a liberal document, the JDA shows tolerance for the diversity of views and perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian question. But like all liberal documents that have been produced in the thick of a colonial or settler colonial moment, this document keeps intact the colonial contract whereby the colonial masters retain the position of privilege and supremacy in voice and status over the colonised.

The JDA is an orientalist text that fails to produce true opposition to the core problem of the IHRA definition: the silencing and erasure of Palestine and Palestinians.

I am not making a blanket statement on the signatories of the JDA and branding them as orientalists. I am saying that they all have signed an orientalist text.

Part A of the document is the only segment that is worthy of praise, though the anti-racist and anti-colonial intersectional framework could have been employed in much more depth in its formation. Putting that aside, let me focus on the Preamble and sections B and C.

An orientalist text

Said’s seminal work, Orientalism, did not become a classic only because it critiqued avowedly imperial and explicitly racist texts and authors. It gained widespread acclaim because it showed how imperialist and racist world views can also remain intact in texts that profess liberal and even anti-colonial positions.

Whereas the IHRA definition is an overtly conservative, settler colonial and racist text, the JDA casts itself as a liberal, tolerant and anti-racist document. I need not repeat the critiques of the IHRA definition here, which are plentiful. But the relatively covert orientalism of the JDA requires further explanation and critique.

Two main features of the JDA text clearly illustrate its orientalism.

The first feature concerns the positionality of the Palestinians in the document. Palestinians and the Palestinian critique of Israel appear in two main ways in the JDA.

First, near the end of the Preamble, the JDA states: “[H]ostility to Israel could be an expression of an antisemitic animus, or it could be a reaction to a human rights violation, or it could be the emotion that a Palestinian person feels on account of their experience at the hands of the State [emphases added].”

In supposed opposition to the IHRA definition’s blanket claim that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism”, the JDA tells its intended audience, the Euro-American world, that even though hostile, reactionary, and emotional, the anti-Zionism of the Palestinian can be, in some cases, tolerable. Thus, what is going to save Palestinians from the charge of antisemitism is not a fair hearing of the substance of their claims, statements, and campaigns which have always emphasised that their opposition is not to Jews but to a state that has committed acts of violence against them. Rather, what will save Palestinians is the idea that gentle hearts in the “civilised West” can appreciate that the Orient is an emotional subject whose irrational exaggerations are based on experiences of brutal eliminatory violence and therefore should be tolerated. Pardon me, I meant based on experiences “at the hands of the State.”

Second, precisely because they are so reactionary, emotional, and hostile, the document claims, the Palestinians are a source of statements and campaigns that Euro-Americans should tolerate but also remain vigilant against. This position is clear in the Preamble where it is stated, “Determining that a controversial view or action is not antisemitic implies neither that we endorse it nor that we do not.” Already Palestinian critique of the state of Israel is marred in “controversy”, whereas debates about the Jewish nature of the Jewish state are not. The JDA continues along this path.

The heading of section C states, “Israel and Palestine: examples that, on the face of it, are not antisemitic [whether or not one approves of the view or action]”. The brackets here are key. They are the warning label that appears in the document only when it is about to identify Palestinian critiques and campaigns (such as the BDS movement). No vigilance is required from Euro-Americans when Jews debate what they claim to be an internal Jewish question. But when it comes to Palestinians and their critiques, the message is to stay on guard, because these pesky Palestinians will make unsubstantiated statements as they are so emotional on account of their experiences “at the hands of the State”.

And just in case there was any remaining doubt about the out of control, emotional, and disproportionate responses of the Palestinians, guideline #15 under section C eradicates it: “Political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable … Criticism that some may see as excessive or contentious … is not, in and of itself, antisemitic. In general, the line between antisemitic and non-antisemitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.”

The coup de grâce: the JDA gets that questioning the reasonableness and lack thereof of Palestinians is appropriate, especially when they oppose “Zionism as a form of nationalism”, demand justice, ask for full equality in one state, compare Israel with other settler colonial and apartheid states, or when they advance and promote BDS, but that does not mean they are antisemitic. So, bear with and tolerate their emotional outbursts, despite their unreasonableness.

The second feature that illustrates the text’s orientalism is the framing as essentially antisemitic a core feature of the Palestinian critique of Zionism and Israel.

The JDA provides two sets of guidelines to determine what constitutes antisemitism. Section B lists five guidelines on Israel and Palestine where we find “examples that, on the face of it, are antisemitic” and section C lists five guidelines where the examples are not, on the face of it, antisemitic. And in guideline number 10 under section B, the JDA declares the following as antisemitic: “Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality.”

What are the boundaries of the State of Israel when it is a state that is engaged in an ongoing project of annexation that has no end in sight? At whose expense is this “flourishing” taking place? The Zionist project advances a zero-sum worldview: either Jews or non-Jews will be sovereign in the land of historic Palestine, there is no compromise. So how is this “principle of equality” to be secured in a context where the Israeli state must maintain Jewish sovereignty for a Jewish majority at all costs? Are Palestinians supposed to accept that the right of Jews in the State of Israel ought to take precedence over their own sovereign rights? According to the JDA, Palestinians are not allowed to answer these questions or any other questions about the Jewish right to a Jewish state by saying “not at my expense”.

Rhetorical sophistication aside, there is very little substantive difference between this guideline and the IHRA definition’s claim that arguing that Israel is a racist endeavour constitutes antisemitism. This probably explains why the JDA is so timid in its declared opposition to the IHRA definition, where instead of unequivocally opposing its adoption, it states, “Institutions that have already adopted the IHRA Definition can use our text as a tool for interpreting it.” And based on guideline number 10, I have full faith that such an interpretation is not only possible but also acceptable to the authors and promoters of the IHRA definition.

The colonial contract is merely repackaged in the JDA: should any Palestinian question the validity of the idea of a Jewish State for a Jewish majority [on the land of historic Palestine and at the expense of Palestinians], then they are at best unreasonable and at worst antisemitic. And the omission of the section in brackets seals and secures the contract, all under the rubric of liberal tolerance.

Orientalism at its best.

The Jewish and Palestinian questions intertwined

The JDA’s preamble states, “There is a widely-felt need for clarity on the limits of legitimate political speech and action concerning Zionism, Israel, and Palestine.”

The issue here is not that there are not any cases of antisemitism appearing in the veneer of anti-Zionism. These incidents certainly exist. But not only do similar deplorable and racist incidents exist against Palestinians, but Palestinians also have to contend with systemic anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism in diplomatic and allegedly peace-oriented discourses and processes, which dehumanise Palestinians and deny them their right to sovereignty.

The dehumanisation, dispossession, and erasure of Palestine and Palestinians is never properly situated in the JDA’s guidelines on the question of Palestine, Israel, and Zionism. Much like Israel’s unilateral annexation of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Declaration unilaterally determines what constitutes legitimate political speech and action without the slightest consideration of the Palestinian experience of Zionism as integral to the framing of the discussion. That is the epistemic violence of orientalist texts such as the JDA.

In the interview I cited in the beginning, Said stressed the connections between the Palestinian and Jewish experiences of exile, dispossession, and statelessness. When Zionism initiated and commenced a political project to colonise Palestine, it destroyed Palestinian society and life and created a Jewish state on top of it. The destruction of Jewish life in Europe was dealt with by destroying Palestinian life in Palestine, and thereafter, the Jewish question ceased to be an internal Jewish question and became intertwined with the Palestinian question. To properly name and tackle antisemitism means properly naming and tackling colonial modernity and the settler colonisation of Palestine. Anything short of that is bound to replicate colonial orientalist discourse and perpetuate colonial modernity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.