The letter, signed by groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, voiced strong support for the UN’s commitment to the fight against antisemitism in line with international human rights standards and raised concerns of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of the ideology.
The letter said those who use the IHRA definition and terminology tend to rely on a set of 11 contemporary examples of antisemitism, seven of which refer to the “state of Israel.”
The signatories stated that antisemitism “poses real harm to Jewish communities around the world” but the IHRA’s use of the word could “inadvertently embolden or endorse policies and laws that undermine fundamental human rights.”
The rights groups warned that if the UN adopts the IHRA definition, governments and courts could misuse it to silence criticism of the policies of the hardline Israeli cabinet, creating “a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
The letter stressed that Ken Stern, the main drafter of the IHRA definition, raised his own concerns about institutions adopting the terminology, which he said has been used as “a blunt instrument to label anyone an antisemite.”
Such terminology “opens the door” to labeling as antisemitic criticism of the Israeli policies and practices by human rights organizations that the regime’s authorities are committing various crimes against Palestinians, according to the groups.
“The UN should ensure that its vital efforts to combat antisemitism do not inadvertently embolden or endorse policies and laws that undermine fundamental human rights, including the right to speak and organize in support of Palestinian rights and to criticize Israeli policies,” the letter said.
The signatories added that the terminology could also be used to label as antisemitic documentation showing that the illegal entity’s founding involved dispossessing Palestinians.
In 2017, after the British government adapted the IHRA definition on a national level, at least two universities in the country banned activities planned for “Israel Apartheid Week”, including a talk at the University of Central Lancashire on boycotts, divestment and sanctions.
In February 2020, Israeli advocacy groups in the US attempted to disrupt a Palestinian film screening at Pitzer and Pomona College, citing “clear indicators of antisemitism under the examples listed by the IHRA.”