Palestinian rights and the IHRA definition of antisemitism

Updated: Jan 15

14 December 2020


This letter originally appeared on the Guardian website on 29 November 2020

We, the undersigned Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals are hereby stating our views regarding the definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and the way this definition has been applied, interpreted and deployed in several countries of Europe and North America.


In recent years, the fight against antisemitism has been increasingly instrumentalised by the Israeli government and its supporters in an effort to delegitimise the Palestinian cause and silence defenders of Palestinian rights. Diverting the necessary struggle against antisemitism to serve such an agenda threatens to debase this struggle and hence to discredit and weaken it.


Antisemitism must be debunked and combated. Regardless of pretence, no expression of hatred for Jews as Jews should be tolerated anywhere in the world. Antisemitism manifests itself in sweeping generalisations and stereotypes about Jews, regarding power and money in particular, along with conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial. We regard as legitimate and necessary the fight against such attitudes. We also believe that the lessons of the Holocaust as well as those of other genocides of modern times must be part of the education of new generations against all forms of racial prejudice and hatred.


The fight against antisemitism must, however, be approached in a principled manner, lest it defeat its purpose. Through “examples” that it provides, the IHRA definition conflates Judaism with Zionism in assuming that all Jews are Zionists, and that the state of Israel in its current reality embodies the self-determination of all Jews. We profoundly disagree with this. The fight against antisemitism should not be turned into a stratagem to delegitimise the fight against the oppression of the Palestinians, the denial of their rights and the continued occupation of their land. We regard the following principles as crucial in that regard:

  1. The fight against antisemitism must be deployed within the frame of international law and human rights. It should be part and parcel of the fight against all forms of racism and xenophobia, including Islamophobia, and anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism. The aim of this struggle is to guarantee freedom and emancipation for all oppressed groups. It is deeply distorted when geared towards the defence of an oppressive and predatory state.

  2. There is a huge difference between a condition where Jews are singled out, oppressed and suppressed as a minority by antisemitic regimes or groups, and a condition where the self-determination of a Jewish population in Palestine/Israel has been implemented in the form of an ethnic exclusivist and territorially expansionist state. As it currently exists, the state of Israel is based on uprooting the vast majority of the natives – what Palestinians and Arabs refer to as the Nakba – and on subjugating those natives who still live on the territory of historical Palestine as either second-class citizens or people under occupation, denying them their right to self-determination.

  3. The IHRA definition of antisemitism and the related legal measures adopted in several countries have been deployed mostly against leftwing and human rights groups supporting Palestinian rights and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, sidelining the very real threat to Jews coming from rightwing white nationalist movements in Europe and the US. The portrayal of the BDS campaign as antisemitic is a gross distortion of what is fundamentally a legitimate non-violent means of struggle for Palestinian rights.

  4. 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” is quite odd. It does not bother to recognise that under international law, the current state of Israel has been an occupying power for over half a century, as recognised by the governments of countries where the IHRA definition is being upheld. It does not bother to consider whether this right includes the right to create a Jewish majority by way of ethnic cleansing and whether it should be balanced against the rights of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, the IHRA definition potentially discards as antisemitic all non-Zionist visions of the future of the Israeli state, such as the advocacy of a binational state or a secular democratic one that represents all its citizens equally. Genuine support for the principle of a people’s right to self-determination cannot exclude the Palestinian nation, nor any other.

  5. We believe that no right to self-determination should include the right to uproot another people and prevent them from returning to their land, or any other means of securing a demographic majority within the state. The demand by Palestinians for their right of return to the land from which they themselves, their parents and grandparents were expelled cannot be construed as antisemitic. The fact that such a demand creates anxieties among Israelis does not prove that it is unjust, nor that it is antisemitic. It is a right recognised by international law as represented in United Nations general assembly resolution 194 of 1948.

  6. To level the charge of antisemitism against anyone who regards the existing state of Israel as racist, notwithstanding the actual institutional and constitutional discrimination upon which it is based, amounts to granting Israel absolute impunity. Israel can thus deport its Palestinian citizens, or revoke their citizenship or deny them the right to vote, and still be immune from the accusation of racism. The IHRA definition and the way it has been deployed prohibit any discussion of the Israeli state as based on ethno-religious discrimination. It thus contravenes elementary justice and basic norms of human rights and international law.

  7. We believe that justice requires the full support of Palestinians’ right to self-determination, including the demand to end the internationally acknowledged occupation of their territories and the statelessness and deprivation of Palestinian refugees. The suppression of Palestinian rights in the IHRA definition betrays an attitude upholding Jewish privilege in Palestine instead of Jewish rights, and Jewish supremacy over Palestinians instead of Jewish safety. We believe that human values and rights are indivisible and that the fight against antisemitism should go hand in hand with the struggle on behalf of all oppressed peoples and groups for dignity, equality and emancipation.

Samir Abdallah Filmmaker, Paris, France Nadia Abu El-Haj Ann Olin Whitney Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University, USA Lila Abu-Lughod Joseph L Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science, Columbia University, USA Bashir Abu-Manneh Reader in Postcolonial Literature, University of Kent, UK Gilbert Achcar Professor of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London, UK Nadia Leila Aissaoui Sociologist and Writer on feminist issues, Paris, France Mamdouh Aker Board of Trustees, Birzeit University, Palestine Mohamed Alyahyai Writer and novelist, Oman Suad Amiry Writer and Architect, Ramallah, Palestine Sinan Antoon Associate Professor, New York University, Iraq-US Talal Asad Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Graduate Center, CUNY, USA Hanan Ashrawi Former Professor of Comparative Literature, Birzeit University, Palestine Aziz Al-Azmeh University Professor Emeritus, Central European University, Vienna, Austria Abdullah Baabood Academic and Researcher in Gulf studies, Oman Nadia Al-Bagdadi Professor of History, Central European University, Vienna Sam Bahour Writer, Al-Bireh/Ramallah, Palestine Zainab Bahrani Edith Porada Professor of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, USA Rana Barakat Assistant Professor of History, Birzeit University, Palestine Bashir Bashir Associate Professor of Political Theory, Open University of Israel, Raanana, State of Israel Taysir Batniji Artist-Painter, Gaza, Palestine and Paris, France Tahar Ben Jelloun Writer, Paris, France Mohammed Bennis Poet, Mohammedia, Morocco Mohammed Berrada Writer and Literary Critic, Rabat, Morocco Omar Berrada Writer and Curator, New York, USA Amahl Bishara Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Tufts University, USA Anouar Brahem Musician and Composer, Tunisia Salem Brahimi Filmaker, Algeria-France Aboubakr Chraïbi Professor, Arabic Studies Department, INALCO, Paris, France Selma Dabbagh Writer, London, UK Izzat Darwazeh Professor of Communications Engineering, University College London, UK Marwan Darweish Associate Professor, Coventry University, UK Beshara Doumani Mahmoud Darwish Professor of Palestinian Studies and of History, Brown University, USA Haidar Eid Associate Professor of English Literature, Al-Aqsa University, Gaza, Palestine Ziad Elmarsafy Professor of Comparative Literature, King’s College London, UK Noura Erakat Assistant Professor, Africana Studies and Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, USA Samera Esmeir Associate Professor of Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley, USA Khaled Fahmy FBA, Professor of Modern Arabic Studies, University of Cambridge, UK Ali Fakhrou Academic and writer, Bahrain Randa Farah Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Western University, Canada Leila Farsakh Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA Khaled Furani Associate Professor of Sociology & Anthropology, Tel-Aviv University, State of Israel Burhan Ghalioun Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Sorbonne 3, Paris, France Asad Ghanem Professor of Political science, Haifa University, State of Israel Honaida Ghanim General Director of the Palestinian forum for Israeli Studies Madar, Ramallah, Palestine George Giacaman Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, Birzeit University, Palestine Rita Giacaman Professor, Institute of Community and Public Health, Birzeit University, Palestine Amel Grami Professor of Gender Studies, Tunisian University, Tunis Subhi Hadidi Literary Critic, Syria-France Ghassan Hage Professor of Anthropology and Social theory, University of Melbourne, Australia Samira Haj Emeritus Professor of History, CSI/Graduate Center, CUNY, USA Yassin Al-Haj Saleh Writer, Syria Dyala Hamzah Associate Professor of Arab History, Université de Montréal, Canada Rema Hammami Associate Professor of Anthropology, Birzeit University, Palestine Sari Hanafi Professor of Sociology, American University of Beirut, Lebanon Adam Hanieh Reader in Development Studies, SOAS, University of London, UK Kadhim Jihad Hassan Writer and translator, Professor at INALCO-Sorbonne, Paris, France Nadia Hijab Author and human rights advocate, London, UK Jamil Hilal Writer, Ramallah, Palestine Serene Hleihleh Cultural Activist, Jordan-Palestine Bensalim Himmich Academic, novelist and writer, Morocco Khaled Hroub Professor in Residence of Middle Eastern Studies, Northwestern University, Qatar Mahmoud Hussein Writer, Paris, France Lakhdar Ibrahimi Paris School of International Affairs, Institut d’Etudes Politiques, France Annemarie Jacir Filmmaker, Palestine Islah Jad Associate Professor of Political Science, Birzeit University, Palestine Lamia Joreige Visual Artist and Filmaker, Beirut, Lebanon Amal Al-Jubouri Writer, Iraq Mudar Kassis Associate Professor of Philosophy, Birzeit University, Palestine Nabeel Kassis Former Professor of Physics and Former President, Birzeit University, Palestine Muhammad Ali Khalidi Presidential Professor of Philosophy, CUNY Graduate Center, USA Rashid Khalidi Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University, USA Michel Khleifi Filmmaker, Palestine-Belgium Elias Khoury Writer, Beirut, Lebanon Nadim Khoury Associate Professor of International Studies, Lillehammer University College, Norway Rachid Koreichi Artist-Painter, Paris, France Adila Laïdi-Hanieh Director General, The Palestinian Museum, Palestine Rabah Loucini Professor of History, Oran University, Algeria Rabab El-Mahdi Associate Professor of Political Science, The American University in Cairo, Egypt Ziad Majed Associate Professor of Middle East Studies and IR, American University of Paris, France Jumana Manna Artist, Berlin, Germany Farouk Mardam Bey Publisher, Paris, France Mai Masri Palestinian filmmaker, Lebanon Mazen Masri Senior Lecturer in Law, City University of London, UK Dina Matar Reader in Political Communication and Arab Media, SOAS, University of London, UK Hisham Matar Writer, Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, USA Khaled Mattawa Poet, William Wilhartz Professor of English Literature, University of Michigan, USA Karma Nabulsi Professor of Politics and IR, University of Oxford, UK Hassan Nafaa Emeritus Professor of Political science, Cairo University, Egypt Nadine Naber Professor, Deptartment of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA Issam Nassar Professor, Illinois State University, USA Sari Nusseibeh Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Al-Quds University, Palestine Najwa Al-Qattan Emeritus Professor of History, Loyola Marymount University, USA Omar Al-Qattan Filmmaker, Chair of The Palestinian Museum & the A.M.Qattan Foundation, UK Nadim N Rouhana Professor of International Affairs, The Fletcher School, Tufts University, USA Ahmad Sa’adi Professor, Haifa, State of Israel Rasha Salti Independent Curator, Writer, Researcher of Art and Film, Germany-Lebanon Elias Sanbar Writer, Paris, France Farès Sassine Professor of Philosophy and Literary Critic, Beirut, Lebanon Sherene Seikaly Associate Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA Samah Selim Associate Professor, A, ME & SA Languages & Literatures, Rutgers University, USA Leila Shahid Writer, Beirut, Lebanon Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian Lawrence D Biele Chair in Law, Hebrew University, State of Israel Anton Shammas Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA Yara Sharif Senior Lecturer, Architecture and Cities, University of Westminster, UK Hanan Al-Shaykh Writer, London, UK Raja Shehadeh Lawyer and Writer, Ramallah, Palestine Gilbert Sinoué Writer, Paris, France Ahdaf Soueif Writer, Egypt/UK Mayssoun Sukarieh Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, King’s College London, UK Elia Suleiman Filmmaker, Palestine-France Nimer Sultany Reader in Public Law, SOAS, University of London, UK Jad Tabet Architect and Writer, Beirut, Lebanon Jihan El-Tahri Filmmaker, Egypt Salim Tamari Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Birzeit University, Palestine Wassyla Tamzali Writer, Contemporary Art Producer, Algeria Fawwaz Traboulsi Writer, Beirut Lebanon Dominique Vidal Historian and Journalist, Palestine-France Haytham El-Wardany Writer, Egypt-Germany Said Zeedani Emeritus Associate Professor of Philosophy, Al-Quds University, Palestine Rafeef Ziadah Lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East, SOAS, University of London, UK Raef Zreik Minerva Humanities Centre, Tel-Aviv University, State of Israel Elia Zureik Professor Emeritus, Queen’s University, Canada


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