The British Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Monday that the UK is to adopt an official definition of anti-Semitism for the first time. This definition was decided upon by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and states that “anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred.” It will be taken up by public institutions such as councils and colleges, and the government is confident that this move will make it easier to prosecute those who target Jews.
The IHRA came up with the definition in May with the aim of setting “an example.” The explanation explains that “rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Helpfully, they provide some specific examples as to what would constitute anti-Semitism; from calling for the killing of Jews in the name of a radical ideology, to making demonising allegations about the power of Jews as collective – i.e. that they control the media – to Holocaust denial.
Crucially the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” counts as anti-Semitism, leading some to complain that it is suggesting that anti-Semitism ‘equals’ anti-Zionism. That’s a misreading; the IHRA specifically states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” In other words, it won’t be anti-Semitic to report on corruption amongst Israeli politicians – but it would be if it was claimed that political corruption was a singularly Israeli problem, or implied there was something peculiarly Jewish about this.
Often called “the oldest hatred,” the Jewish community has dealt with anti-Semitic abuse for two thousand years – stretching back to the blood libels and ‘Christ killer’ slurs. This new definition is unlikely to do much to stamp out current anti-Semitic commentary or activity (which is on the rise in the UK). Not least because it’s unlikely that the worst offenders will pay much attention.
Indeed, the mere adoption of new language has already been greeted as proof of some nefarious Jewish hold over politicians. ‘Jews fixing British law so they can’t be criticised’ tweeted one critic. It’s also hard to see how the new wording will empower the police to tackle this kind of commentary any more than they already can — they already use a similar definition — or in any way help to settle the ‘anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism’ debate.
Nevertheless, Monday’s announcement has been broadly welcomed by the Jewish community in the UK. According to the Board of Deputies of British Jews the move will bring clarity, while the Community Security Trust called it ‘an important step that can help the necessary work of reducing anti-Semitism.” Karen Pollock, the Holocaust Educational Trust’s chief executive said that the new definition will “leave people in no doubt when a line has been crossed.”
This announcement from a Conservative leader comes at an interesting time. Whilst the Jewish community has a long history of active support for the UK Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has severely tested this. According to a Jewish Chronicle poll taken shortly after Ken Livingstone’s controversial remarks about Hitler, support for the party had fallen to 8.5%. The furore surrounding the inquiry launched to look into anti-Semitism within the Labour party has ultimately done little to put minds at ease.
Even as Britain remains a good place to be a Jew, it’s likely the Conservative government is attempting to show that it understands the concerns of the Jewish community following recent terror attacks and the rise of the far-right in Europe. This is also evident in the Home Secretary’s recent pledge to fund security at Jewish institutions and Monday’s announcement of a ban on the neo-Nazi group National Action.
The Jewish community will now be watching to see if this new definition leads to anti-Semitic incidents being properly understood and dealt with. More generally, with the rise of the alt-right and the mainstreaming of groups like the National Front in Europe, the real test will be how the authorities respond in areas where anti-Semitism could take root – and whether they are able to prevent hate crimes from happening to begin with.