IHRA Definition At Work

IJV is documenting examples in several countries of where the IHRA definition has been used to cancel events or silence Palestine solidarity movements. Below is a complete list to our knowledge, and we will keep adding to this list as the number of examples grows. (Last update: September 3, 2020)

United States

The IHRA definition has largely been weaponized against students, professors, and on-campus activities in the US. The definition was quietly adopted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights with no notice in 2018. This was made official by Trump’s December 2019 executive order which fully adopted the definition for use in Title VI civil rights complaints on campuses. As described by Palestine Legal, The US State Department adopted a version of the definition which was substantially extremely similar, which was then replaced by the IHRA definition in early 2018. Thus references to the State Department definition can be considered as references to the IHRA definition.

US President Donald Trump holding up the executive order on anti-Semitism that he signed during a Hanukkah reception at the White House [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

Berkeley: SJP-JVP vigil

Following the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting and bombings in Gaza, the Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace chapters planned to hold a joint vigil to mourn together. The event faced backlash, including a letter to the OCR by attorney Joel Siegal which claimed that the vigil would portray Israel as a racist nation, which he noted contravened the IHRA definition of antisemitism. He also claimed it was holding Israel to a higher standard than other nations. The public mourning was cancelled in the face of this pressure.

Pomona & Pitzer Colleges

The David Horowitz Freedom Center, a group known for its anti-Muslim hate, accused the Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at the two colleges of antisemitism. The center’s letter, sent February 2020, quotes the IHRA’s controversial examples in full to claim that SJP’s support of BDS as an example of antisemitism. It lists various other examples, such as SJP’s mock apartheid wall, alongside examples of actual antisemitism which have no clear connection to SJP. The letter concludes with a vague call to ‘take action’ against the SJP chapters. It is unclear if the Center will follow up with its explicit threat to sue the colleges.

University of Michigan: Emory Douglas

In a 2018 guest lecture at the University of Michigan by former Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, he showed hundreds of photos of his art. Included were several pro-BDS works, and one claiming that both Hitler and Benjamin Netanyahu were guilty of genocide. Alexa Smith, one of over a thousand students at the lecture, used this supposed instance of antisemitism to push for the university to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which would deem the longtime anti-racist activist an antisemite. She also used the definition to claim Douglas committed hate speech. This push has been backed by a campaign in various newspapers, the ADL, and even Israeli minister Naftali Bennett.

Columbia: Jonathan Karten

The aptly named Lawfare group launched a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of Jonathan Karten against Columbia University claiming antisemitic abuse. As the group Palestine Legal details, this complaint is an attempt to silence student activists for actions such as displaying a hand painted replica of Israel’s Apartheid wall, or for supporting BDS. As a Jewish Currents article notes, it also includes a rash of other accusations which are so vague as to be unverifiable. Lawfare’s press release specifically mentions Trump’s Executive Order adopting the IHRA as making the complaint possible. 

Columbia: Jamie Kreitman

Jamie Kreitman, who completed a Masters degree at Columbia in the 1980s, has submitted a complaint against the university relying on Trump’s inclusion of the IHRA definition in Title VI cases. She claims that her complaint is based on the current climate, and that programs within the university “disseminate anti-Semitic ideas and encourage anti-Semitic actions, per the IHRA definition and examples[…]” While the details of the complaint are unavailable, she stated that issues include programming which “equates Zionism with racism[…]” and “demonizes Zionists as establishing an apartheid state in Israel[…]”

University of Arizona

On February 24th, 2020, Congressman Paul Gosar sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy Devos claiming that the University of Arizona was misusing its Title VI government funds. As the Middle East Forum notes, Gosar relied on the IHRA definition to threaten the university’s funding. In his letter, Gosar attacks Dr. Maha Nassar for several articles she wrote for Jewish papers in which she defended Students for Justice in Palestine and Marc Lamont Hill who had been the target of smears. Gosar further relies on the IHRA definition to make such ridiculous claims as “referring to Israel as ‘Palestine’ is itself anti-Semitic hate speech[…]” The University of Arizona has maintained that it rejects antisemitism and defends the right of its professors to free speech.

New York University: Adela Cojab

Drawing on Trump’s adoption of the IHRA definition Adela Cojab has launched a lawsuit against New York University claiming that the university allowed for a climate of antisemitism to exist on its campus. As reported by Washington Square News, the complaint cited a protest which took place at an Israeli Independence Day event, as well as the very existence of BDS activities on campus which Cojab describes as by nature antisemitic. As Cojab makes clear in her op-ed, this legal attack on the right to peacefully boycott Israel would not be possible without Trump’s executive order.

UCLA: Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi

After Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi participated as a guest lecturer in a class about race at UCLA, StandWithUs brought a complaint for antisemitism based on statements she reportedly made about the state of Israel. As Palestine Legal describes, Dr. Abdulhadi discussed the interrelations of Zionism, colonialism, and Islamophobia. StandWithUs maintains the comments, which did not specifically mention Jews, were antisemitic according to the IHRA definition. The Department of Education has opened the matter for investigation.

UCLA: SJP Conference

As reported by the Jewish Journal, following Trump’s executive order adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the Zachor Legal Institute received word in January 2020 that the Department of Education has opened an investigation regarding their complaint against UCLA. The complaint was for having simply hosted the 2018 national conference of Students for Justice in Palestine. Justin Feldman, the student who leads the case, based it on the organization’s opposition to zionism and unsubstantiated links between SJP and terrorist groups. In the original threat of legal action Zachor Legal based itself on the State Department’s definition of antisemitism, which is the same as the IHRA definition.

Florida State University: Ahmad Daraldik

Following Ahmad Daraldik’s 2020 election as Florida State student senate’s president, the Palestinian student faced a barage of criticism for his old social media posts. Namely, they focused on statements he had made calling Israel a racist state and for a post using antisemitic language he had made, as he explained, when he “was a [twelve year old] child in Palestine witnessing death on a daily basis.” He apologized in full for the antisemitic comment. Following his election the student senate publicly reviewed his voting record and, having found no evidence of antisemitism, kept him as president. Several Florida congressmen used this opportunity to push for the adoption of the IHRA definition, which would deem Daraldik’s comments regarding Israel as antisemitism. Daraldik has continued to resist the ongoing smear campaign to make him step down.

Rutgers University

In the fall of 2018, the Department of Education re-opened a complaint against Rutgers University which had originally been dismissed in 2014. As reported by Palestine Legal, the department used this as a chance to quietly adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The original case was based on the claim that Jewish students had been targetted for an entrance fee for an event highlighting the voices of survivors of both the Holocaust and the Nakba. The claim had been dismissed as unsubstantiated, and in re-opening it the DoE was accused of giving illegal preferential treatment to the Zionist Organization of America over hundreds of other cases.

Indiana University: Jamil Dakwar

As described by Palestine Legal, Palestinian human rights lawyer Jamil Dakwar was scheduled to talk at Indiana University when a pressure campaign was launched by the Israel Public Affairs Committee to cancel the talk. A student congress motion, which cited the state department’s definition of antisemitism, attempted to condemn Dakwar’s talk and prohibit free speech supporting the BDS movement. The motion was vetoed and the talk went ahead as scheduled.

Berkeley: Paul Hadweh

In September of 2016, Berkeley senior undergraduate student Paul Hadweh was attacked in the media for the course he was teaching called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” The attacks were led by the AMCHA initiative with a letter relying on the State Department’s definition of antisemitism, which is the same as the IHRA’s, to claim that the course was antisemitic due to its “anti-Israel bias.” Following these attacks the course was cancelled by the university citing concerns it was ‘one-sided’. As Palestine Legal made clear, this was a blatant violation of First Amendment rights. The university reinstated the course and offered a partial apology, although it did nothing to remedy the harms caused to Hadweh and the course participants.

University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass)

In April of 2019 three anonymous students launched a lawsuit against University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) in response to their hosting of an event titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights.” As Palestine Legal noted, the lawsuit relied on the IHRA definition. So did a letter, which preceded the lawsuit, by pro-Israel groups attempting to pressure the university to drop the event. As Rachel Weber, a lawyer representing the event’s sponsors said: “Ironically, the lawsuit sought to censor an event on how activists supporting Palestinian rights are censored.” The event went ahead and the lawsuit was eventually dropped.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has seen the IHRA definition passed through various channels. It has been adopted by the federal government, as well as the main political parties. Most notably the Labour Party originally adopted a modified version before adopting the full list of examples in 2018. The National Union of Students also adopted the definition in 2017. Meanwhile the government has applied pressure to local councils and universities, threatening to withhold funding from those that do not adopt the definition in full. 

The Big Ride for Palestine in London, on 27 July 2019 [Ovais Mughal]

Tower Hamlets: Big Ride for Palestine

In mid-2019 the London council of Tower Hamlets refused its space to Big Ride for Palestine, a group which fundraises money for children’s sports equipment in Gaza. As reported in The Guardian, council officials withheld information regarding their reasoning. It was discovered through freedom of information requests that officials had been fearful that the event could contravene the IHRA definition of antisemitism due to references on Big Ride for Palestine’s website to apartheid and ethnic cleansing. The emails, quoted in The Guardian article, state that council officials were scared of backlash, making this a clear example of the IHRA’s chilling effect on free speech.

University of Central Lancaster: Israeli Apartheid Week

In 2017, the University of Central Lancaster banned an upcoming event titled “Debunking Misconceptions on Palestine and the Importance of BDS”. The university directly referenced the government’s adoption of the IHRA definition in its decision, specifically claiming that the talk would not maintain a “balanced view” and thus was not “lawful”. Ben White, a journalist who had been a planned speaker at the event, wrote that the university never explained their decision.

Exeter Student Union: Malaka Shwaikh

Dr. Malaka Shwaikh, who at the time was a PhD student, was elected in February 2017 to the Exeter Student Union in the UK. The university’s Union of Jewish Students used the IHRA definition and quotes taken completely out of context to smear Shaikh, who is Palestinian, as an antisemite for comments she made about Israel. As her op-ed on the controversy makes clear, as do the rash of newspapers forced to retract and apologize for false claims they made about her, “the point of these attacks is not to determine the truth, but rather to bully those who speak up for Palestinian rights, in order to scare others away from Palestinian activism.”

National Union of Students: Ayo Olatunji

Ayo Olatunji was an executive committee member of the National Union of Students, which has adopted the IHRA definition, in 2018 when he was criticized for comments he had made on social media. The comments include calling Israel a racist state, referencing comparisons made by a Holocaust survivor between policies of the Nazis and the Israeli state, criticisms of the IHRA definition, and tweets which were misquoted and twisted to (falsely) appear as if Olatunji endorsed the Rothschild conspiracy. Although he originally refused to resign his position despite a smear campaign relying on the IHRA definition to brand him an antisemite, he resigned shortly before a vote of censure was set to take place.

National Union of Students: Zeid Truscott

While a candidate for the National Union of Students’ executive committee, Zeid Truscott faced a complaint for calling Israel a racist endeavor and an apartheid state. While a smear campaign relying on the IHRA definition claimed he was an antisemite, the complaint looked specifically at comments he made during the election campaign. As he states in his account, the investigation found he had not been antisemitic. Despite this, Truscott was made to swear to uphold the IHRA definition and, in an unclear and confusing statement made by the NUS elections officer, Truscott was disqualified for the complaint.

Labour Party: Lisa Forbes

While a Labour Party candidate for a seat in parliament, Lisa Forbes faced calls for her resignation based on two claims. The first was that she ‘liked’ a video on Facebook which included an antisemitic message in the accompanying text. She apologized for this and stated that she had not read the message in full, as reported by the Jewish News. The second claim was that she signed a letter opposing the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Mike Katz, the National Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement which led calls for her resignation, attacked her with a letter in early 2019 which emphasized that her opposition to the IHRA was the real issue: “Ms Forbes apology and statement response made it clear that she regretted endorsing material online in an ‘accidental’ manner but said nothing about the position she took last year, or indeed, currently takes on IHRA.” The letter goes on to call for her suspension, which did not take place. She lost her seat in the December 2019 parliamentary election.

Labour Party: Nikki Brennen

After being elected in the Spring of 2020 as a Labour councillor on the left-wing Momentum slate in Brighton and Hove, a photo from two years previous surfaced of Nikki Brennen at a protest against the adoption of the IHRA definition outside a local town hall. As reported by The Argus, the photo shows her holding a sign which deemed Israel a racist apartheid state, and opposed the IHRA definition. She resigned her position, reportedly after the Daily Mail claimed they would publish the photos.

Labour Party: Rebecca Long-Bailey

After losing the leadership race of the Labour party to Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked by Starmer for supposed antisemitism. Long-Bailey had retweeted a long interview of supporter and friend Maxine Peake which briefly included the claim that Israeli training of U.S. police had taught them the knee-on-neck technique which killed George Floyd. As Jewish Voice for Labour made clear, while the truth of the claim is questionable, simply because a claim is wrong does not make it antisemitic. Starmer, however, emboldened by the party’s use of IHRA, called it an antisemitic conspiracy theory and promptly sacked Long-Bailey before she could even meet to speak with him about it.

Labour Party: Kate Knight

In July of 2020 a local councillor in Brighton named Kate Knight resigned from the party after a complaint was filed accusing her of antisemitism in relation to posts she had made on Facebook. As reported by the Brighton and Hove News, the articles shared were critical left-wing perspectives of the antisemitism accusations happening within the Labour Party. Notably, most of the examples are actually Jewish publications such as Jewish Socialist and Jewish Voice for Labour. A Labour Party spokesperson is quoted in the article saying that any accusation of antisemitism “are fully investigated in line with our rules and procedures…” which includes the IHRA.

Manchester University: Marika Sherwood

After interventions by the Israeli ambassador to the UK Mark Regev and the embassy’s counsellor for civil society affairs Michael Freeman, Manchester University censored the title of a talk by Jewish Holocaust survivor Marika Sherwood. As reported by The Guardian, the event was organized by students as part of Israeli Apartheid Week under the original title “You’re Doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis Did to Me.” In an email to the university quoted in the above article, Freeman claimed the title breached the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and therefore accused the Holocaust survivor of hate speech. 

Source: Samidoun.net

Germany

Germany has seen the use of IHRA take place in-tandem with and alongside widespread anti-BDS legislation. In 2019 the Bundestag voted to define BDS as antisemitic with a motion which cited the IHRA definition. Similar motions have been passed in various cities around Germany.

Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East

As the Jewish Post reported, in mid-2019 pressure tactics along with a series of articles in their paper led the German Bank for Social Economy to investigate and ultimately shut down the account of German-Jewish pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. The head of Jewish Voice Iris Hefets stated that the bank had been unsure how to proceed when deciding whether the group’s (entirely Jewish) membership are antisemites, so they turned to the IHRA definition. In her powerful statement Hefets rejects the German institution’s authority to “decide which Jews are the real ones” and which are to be censured.

Khaled Barakat

In June of 2020 Palestinian writer and activist Khaled Barakat was subjected to a ban on speaking and the threat of a 1 year prison sentence by German police at a community event about Trump’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century’. As Samidoun describes, Germany next ordered him to be expelled from the country and banned him for four years in a document accusing him of antisemitism. While it does not directly reference the IHRA definition, the document clearly relies on the German government’s adoption of IHRA by falsely claiming that “opposing the existence of the State of Israel” and discussing the “racist project of Israel” are antisemitic acts.

Achille Mbembe

The widely respected Cameroonian post-colonial philosopher Achille Mbembe became embroiled in a conflict when he was invited as the opening speaker of the Ruhrtriennale festival. His invitation sparked accusations of antisemitism, including from Germany’s antisemitism chief Felix Klein, leading to calls for Klein’s resignation. Klein defended his attacks in an interview by claiming that he was “fulfilling my mandate as formulated in several German parliament resolutions, particularly when it comes to Israel-focused anti-Semitism.” He further justified accusations of antisemitism by pointing to Mbembe’s discussion of similarities between Israel and South African apartheid. The festival was eventually cancelled due to Coronavirus.

Munich: Anti-BDS Legislation

In December 2017 Munich’s city council outlawed BDS events from taking place in public facilities or using public funds. In 2018 BDS activist Klaus Reid attempted to challenge this in order to host a BDS event at a local museum, but a Bavarian court upheld the law. The Jewish Post, which saw the 23-page court decision, reported that the court justified its decision because the law “used modern definitions of antisemitism to establish that BDS is an antisemitic campaign, including the definition from the The [sic] International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).”

Canada

The federal government of Canada adopted the IHRA definition as a non-legally binding definition in 2019. However, attempts to have provinces and cities adopt the definition have been blocked by local campaigns. There has not been a successful push to have universities adopt the definition.

Faisal Bhabha

In June of 2020 a debate on the IHRA definition was organized by the Ryerson University’s Center for Free Expression which included human rights lawyer and professor Faisal Bhabha. Following the debate, the pro-Israel organization B’nai Brith launched a petition against Prof. Bhabha accusing him of antisemitism and calling for his removal as a professor. The petition, as described by fellow professor Jamie Cameron, was carefully worded to avoid being defamatory. Cameron further described how the petition relied on taking statements Prof. Bhabha had made about zionism, and statements about narratives of the Holocaust, out of context. Ryerson has not yielded to the smears and calls to dismiss Prof. Bhabha, who claimed “B’nai Brith have proven my point.”

University of Winnipeg: “My Jerusalem”

In February of 2018 various groups in Winnipeg, including a chapter of Independent Jewish Voices, organized an event titled “My Jerusalem” about the U.S.’s embassy move to Jerusalem. Following the event, B’nai Brith published a post claiming it was antisemitic due to anti-Israel statements made. The university apologized and, in its review, used the IHRA definition to deem the event antisemitic. B’nai Brith celebrated this apology, and claimed it “highlights the importance of universities using the IHRA[…] definition of antisemitism[…] which includes the promotion of anti-Jewish hatred under the guise of anti-Zionism.”