On Nov. 29, The Guardian published a letter titled “Palestinian rights and the IHRA definition of antisemitism.” It was signed by 122 Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals who expressed their concerns about the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. Among the signatories is Sherene Seikaly, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This letter is extremely problematic.
The signatories present seven points to attack the IHRA definition — points which they believe are instrumental in stopping “the fight against antisemitism” from “[turning] into a stratagem to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of the Palestinians, the denial of their rights and the continued occupation of their land.”
Due to limited space, I will only refute what I believe are the two most important points laid out in the letter. If you wish to read an excellent refutation of each of the seven points, I highly recommend you read the Committee For Accuracy In Middle East Reporting And Analysis’ analysis.
The Guardian letter seeks to legitimize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. It states:
The portrayal [by the IHRA working definition of antisemitism] of the BDS campaign as antisemitic is a gross distortion of what is fundamentally a legitimate non-violent means of struggle for Palestinian rights.
It is important to note that the co-founder of BDS, Omar Barghouti, has stated, “Most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian — rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian — will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” Barghouti’s statement is not an isolated incident, as a number of other prominent supporters of BDS have expressed similar views. Our world is composed of self-determining peoples, yet the leaders of BDS fight to strip the Jewish people exclusively of this right. This is a gross double standard.
Additionally, the letter attacks Zionism. It, in part, reads:
The IHRA definition’s statement that an example of antisemitism is ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’… potentially discards as antisemitic all non-Zionist visions of the future of the Israeli state…
This raises the question: What is Zionism? The mainstream definition of Zionism is the Jewish right to self-determination in the Jewish peoples’ ancestral homeland. Any approach that seeks to forgo Zionism is misguided because it fails to address several key issues. For example, the “one-state,” “binational” solution frequently touted by anti-Zionist activists overlooks the seemingly omnipresent dangers of terrorism. This threat cannot be ignored because, as part of a one-state solution, Hamas — the terrorist organization that rules the Gaza Strip — would almost certainly exercise power.
One only needs to read the Hamas charter to see how this would inevitably invite systematic persecution of Jews. Hamas leaders such as Fathi Hammad regularly spout bone-chilling hate speech such as, “There are Jews everywhere. We must attack every Jew on planet Earth! We must slaughter and kill them, with Allah’s help. We will lacerate and tear them to pieces.”
If their words are not proof enough, look at their actions. Hamas has regularly committed war crimes including, but not limited to, using human shields, indiscriminately targeting civilian centers and building “terror tunnels.”
Furthermore, Hamas is far from the only threat should a “one-state” solution come to fruition. Fatah, the main political party of the Palestinian Authority (PA), while considered to be “moderate” by many in Western media, has an extensive history of terrorism. As of 2007, the party’s armed wings have carried out over 1,500 terrorist attacks. Moreover, the PA incentivizes terrorism through policies known as “pay to slay,” which provide a stipend for those who kill or injure Israelis. Fatah spent $347 million sending money to convicted terrorists in 2017 alone.
The letter fails to poke any holes in the IHRA definition. Instead, it employs the tired arguments Jewish students on college campuses hear on a near-daily basis. The question arises — what is not antisemitic, even by the standards of the IHRA definition? In short, the answer is legitimate criticism of Israel, such as condemning certain policies, which is not only warranted but a necessity for a healthy democracy. Naturally, a line must be drawn between legitimate criticism and antisemitism. The IHRA definition accomplishes just that.
So, why is it troubling that Professor Seikaly signed this letter? Seikaly is a professor of history at UCSB. While she is entitled to her own opinions, her public support of the letter is an indication of bias against the IHRA definition of antisemitism. This must not blow up into a campus-wide bias; the IHRA definition is the best-written definition of antisemitism to date. More than two dozen UN member states agree.
Moreover, UCSB has publicly supported the IHRA definition in the past. In 2018, during the tenure of the 69th Associated Students Senate, a resolution was brought to the floor (and passed) to formally adopt the IHRA definition. In the words of the resolution, “Associated Students, University of California, Santa Barbara (ASUCSB) adopts and endorses the [IHRA’s] non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism.” The Student Senate’s website also states, “Through elected student positions and appointments we [the UCSB Student Senate] voice student concerns and express student opinion to the… UC system.” The effect of the resolution expired at the end of the 69th Senate’s term, but no legislation attempting to change or challenge the precedent has since passed.
With this in mind, to promote any definition of antisemitism other than that of the IHRA would run contrary to the majority of the student body’s opinions, as expressed by their democratically elected officials.
To regress now would be profoundly regrettable.
Originally published in the Daily Nexus.
Contributed by 2020-2021 University of California – Santa Barbara CAMERA Fellow Harrison Kerdman.