Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Why "anti-semitism"?

I believe that people should be judged as individuals. So in deciding who should get a job or pay a fine we should look at RELEVANT individual circumstances. And I think this should apply to how we as individuals treat other individuals.

So I am opposed to prejudice and discrimination against and harassment of any person or group on the basis of their actual or supposed racial, national, religious or sexual character. I am certainly opposed to such things when the victims are Jews, though not more so than when they are Pakistanis or Atheists or gays.

When the victims are Jews we refer to the objectionable behaviour as anti-semitism (even though Jews are not the only Semites). And when the victims are Muslims we may talk of Islamophobia (even though phobia means fear not harrassment). The terms homophobia and transphobia are also used. These terms form a useful shorthand so homophobia means, roughly, "prejudice and discrimination against and harassment of homosexuals because of their homosexuality".

But there are two dangers here. The first danger is that the term becomes a sign of a special status. So the fact that the UK government has adopted a definition of anti-semitism but not a definition of homophobia is bound to suggest that it is worse than homophobia - even if no-one says so explicitly.

The second danger is that the term is used to suppress legitimate debate. For instance:
  • Some people who support the government of Israel claim that criticism of Israel is anti-semitic.
  • Some Muslims claim that criticisms of Islamic theology, or law, or of the behaviour of Muslims or Muslim states are all examples of Islamophobia.
Yet all these criticisms are legitimate examples of free speech unless, of course, they encourage hatred or violence.

So if we are to use these terms to discuss the tension between the rights to free speech and freedom from harassment we need precise definitions and a clear acceptance of both rights. Without that terms like anti-semitism will be used to rouse emotion rather than to clarify thought.

Defining anti-semitism
And so I turn to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and its definition of anti-semitism, which a number of local electors have asked me to accept:
“Antisemitism is 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.”
In my view its ridiculously vague. What is the meaning of "a certain perception"? You, and I, can only guess. And why say that it "may" be expressed as hatred? If hatred isn't an essential element of anti-semitism then what elements are essential? Again, we can only guess. No wonder the IHRA calls it "non-legally binding”.

And I'm confirmed in this view by the opinion of barrister Hugh Tomlinson QC (sent to me by Free Speech on Israel) who says:
  • "The use of language is unusual and therefore potentially confusing. 
  • The phrase “a certain perception” is vague and unclear 
  • The use of the word “may” is also confusing [and] does not work as a definition. 
  • The apparent confining of antisemitism to an attitude which is “expressed” as a hatred of Jews
    seems too narrow and .... does not ... include discriminatory social and institutional practices.
  • These problems [mean] that there is likely to be ... a potential chilling effect on public bodies which ... may seek to sanction or prohibit any conduct which has been labelled by
    third parties as antisemitic."
So Tomlinson's examination the IHRA definition shows that far from clarifying our thinking it actually adds obscurity. I'm sure the IHRA has access to lawyers, so it could have produced a useful definition if it had wanted.

So why didn't it?

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