An international definition of antisemitism, to be formally endorsed by the Australian government, will help stop hate speech and violence, some Jewish advocacy groups say.
But others argue the broad definition could be used to shut down legitimate criticism of the state of Israel.
In a pre-recorded message from Canberra the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, told an international forum on combating antisemitism that Australia, “as a people, and as a nation”, would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
“Antisemitism has no place in Australia,” Morrison told the forum. “It has no place anywhere in the world. And we must work together, resolutely and as a global community to reject any word or any act that supports antisemitism towards individuals, towards communities or religious facilities.”
Morrison said the Holocaust “serves as a perpetual and brutal reminder of exclusion, of racism, of systematic political hatred and evil itself”.
The IHRA – an intergovernmental body of 34 member countries, including Australia – defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. 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.”
The definition is not legally binding, and will not be enshrined in Australian law, but is used by law enforcement agencies around the world to train police to identify antisemitism. Proponents also advocate for its use to help social media companies better understand and moderate antisemitism on their platforms.
The IHRA says: “Manifestations [of antisemitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The definition is also supported by 11 examples of antisemitism designed as an educational resource, including: denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example, by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour; applying standards of behaviour to Israel not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; and holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
The executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, Dr Colin Rubenstein, said the AIJIC welcomed Australia’s formal endorsement of the definition.
“It is deeply regrettable and unfortunate that Jewish people around the world, including in Australia, continue to face antisemitism,” Rubenstein said.
“We need to use all tools available to teach Australians about the dangers of antisemitism and to stop hate speech before it turns into violence – as we have seen happen recently, especially in Europe and the United States.”
The Zionist Federation of Australia said antisemitism was increasing around the world, and the key to its reduction was education.
“The IHRA working definition provides the central plank to this educational endeavour,” said ZFA’s president, Jeremy Leibler. “Antisemitism should have no place in our society. It should be defined, identified and rejected.”
Leibler argued that the definition’s adoption should not be merely symbolic.
But other Jewish organisations and Palestinian advocacy groups have raised serious concerns about the use of the definition in silencing legitimate debate, pointing out that the definition’s lead drafter, Kenneth Stern, had raised concerns that the definition was being used to police speech.
In an article published in the Guardian two years ago, titled: “I drafted the definition of antisemitism. Right Wing Jews are weaponizing it”, Stern argued the definition was never intended to silence speech but to better identify and monitor antisemitism “over time and across borders”.
Liam Getreu, the executive director of New Israel Fund Australia, said the organisation was concerned about the codification of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and did not support the government’s decision.
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“Fighting antisemitism must remain a high priority. It is equally important to differentiate between the very real threat of hatred and violence towards Jews and legitimate criticism of the actions of the Israeli government.
Getreu said the IHRA working definition was increasingly being used to conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israel.
“We’ve already seen how the Trump administration and others have weaponised the IHRA definition of antisemitism to target those who harbour no hatred towards Jews. Doing so has made it more difficult to identify and confront genuine instances of antisemitism.”
The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network argued the IHRA definition “muddies the water between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism”.
“It has been used to shut down legitimate advocacy for Palestine in other places in the world, and we must not allow this to happen in Australia,” said Bishop George Browning, Apan’s president.
“Adopting particular definitions of any sort of racism is unnecessary, and in this case dangerous.”