A call from Jewish academics to French MPs

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Emmanuel Macron visits a Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim after an antisemitic attack in February 2019.

A group of 127 Jewish intellectuals from across the world called on French MPs not to support the resolution on combating anti-Semitism that was debated and voted on in the National Assembly on 3rd and 4th December. This text, which associates anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, is, according to them, ‘highly problematic’. We reproduce their appeal below. [Editor's note: the resolution to accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism was passed by the French National Assembly on Tuesday 3rd December, 2019.] 

On Tuesday, 3rd December, the French National Assembly is due to vote on a resolution to combat anti-Semitism tabled by Sylvain Maillard, a deputy for La République en marche. This text controversially proposes that France follow the European Parliament in adopting the definition of anti-Semitism established in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). In the words of Mr Maillard’s text, anti-Semitism includes ‘manifestations of hatred towards the state of Israel justified solely by the perception of the latter as a Jewish community’. At a dinner of the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF) on 21st February, Emmanuel Macron had expressed his support for the adoption of this non-binding definition, holding that anti-Zionism constitutes ‘one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism’.

On the 3rd December, the National Assembly will debate and vote on a proposed resolution on combating anti-Semitism. This resolution is highly problematic.

We, Jewish academics and intellectuals from Israel and elsewhere, including many specialists in anti-Semitism and the history of Judaism and the Holocaust, are raising our voices against the proposed resolution.

The rise of anti-Semitism across the world, including France, is of deep concern to us. We consider anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism and xenophobia to be a real threat that must be tackled with the utmost firmness, and urge the French government and parliament to do so.

But while strongly signalling our concern, we oppose this resolution on anti-Semitism for two main reasons, and call on the members of the National Assembly not to support it.

Firstly, the explanatory statement proposing the resolution associates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It even equates anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism by stating that ‘criticizing Israel’s very existence as a community of Jewish citizens amounts to expressing hatred towards the Jewish community as a whole’.

Before continuing our argument, we regret that the statement refers to Israel as ‘a community of Jewish citizens’. Some 20 per cent of Israel’s population are Palestinians, most of whom Muslims or Christians. The chosen designation conceals and denies their existence. We consider this approach to be very problematic, in view of your country’s commitment to a definition of French citizenship that is not based on ethnicity.

Our views on Zionism may be diverse, but we all believe, including those who consider themselves Zionists, that this amalgam is fundamentally false. For many Jews who consider themselves anti-Zionists, it is deeply offensive.

Anti-Zionism is a legitimate viewpoint in Jewish history, and it has a long tradition, including in Israel. Some Jews oppose Zionism for religious reasons, others for political or cultural reasons. Many victims of the Holocaust were anti-Zionists. The draft resolution dishonours them and offends their memory, considering them retrospectively as anti-Semites.

For Palestinians, Zionism represents dispossession, displacement, occupation and structural inequalities. It is cynical to stigmatize them as anti-Semites because they oppose Zionism. They oppose Zionism not because they hate Jews, but because they experience Zionism as an oppressive political movement. This initiative shows great insensitivity and double standards, given that Israel is denying Palestine’s right to exist and undermining its very existence.

Undoubtedly there are anti-Semites among those who oppose Zionism. But there are also many anti-Semites who support Zionism. It is therefore inappropriate and totally inaccurate to identify anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in a general sense. By confusing these two phenomena, the National Assembly would jeopardize vital efforts to combat true anti-Semitism, which is multidimensional and comes from different sectors of French society.

A problematic approach

Our second objection is that the resolution accepts the definition of anti-Semitism of the IHRA. This definition is highly problematic. The resolution claims that the definition ‘makes it possible to designate contemporary anti-Semitism as precisely as possible’. In reality, however, the definition is unclear and imprecise, and therefore not an effective instrument in the fight against anti-Semitism. On the other hand, legislation to effectively combat and prosecute anti-Semitism already exists in France.

The memorandum explaining the proposed resolution states that the IHRA definition ‘does not hold criticism of the policies of the state of Israel to be anti-Semitic’. In reality, however, several ‘contemporary examples of anti-Semitism’ are appended to the IHRA definition, intentionally associating criticism of and opposition to the policies of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism. These examples are presented and seen as an integral part of the definition.

Based on these examples and the way they are applied, it is sufficient to criticize Israel in a way that is perceived as different from criticism of other countries, to be considered anti-Semitic. This may simply mean favouring a bi-national or democratic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The same is true when Israel is blamed for its institutionalized racism. One may certainly disagree with such statements. But in any other political context these opinions would be considered legitimate and protected by freedom of expression. Thus, the resolution creates an unjustifiable double standard in favour of Israel and against the Palestinians.

The IHRA definition is already being used to stigmatize and silence criticism of the state of Israel, even on the part of human rights organizations and respected experts. This situation has been condemned by leading experts in anti-Semitism. US lawyer Kenneth Stern, one of the original drafters of the IHRA definition, has also warned against using the definition to undermine freedom of expression.

The key question is: why is all this happening? We cannot consider it to be independent of the Israeli government’s main political agenda, i.e. to entrench its occupation and annexation of Palestine and silence any criticism of this.

For years, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced any opposition to its policy as anti-Semitic. Netanyahu himself has strongly defended the assimilation of anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism, as well as the IHRA definition. This illustrates how the fight against anti-Semitism has been instrumentalized to protect the Israeli government.

It is with concern that we note that these efforts by the Israeli government are finding political support also in France. We therefore call on the National Assembly to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, but without helping the Israeli government in its occupation and annexation programme.

Instrumentalization

The proposed resolution is not a credible and effective way of achieving this. Anti-Semitism must be opposed on a universal basis, in the same way as other forms of racism and xenophobia, if the aim is to struggle against hatred. Abandoning this universalist approach would lead to increased polarization in France, which would also harm the fight against anti-Semitism.

In this context, we note that the proposed resolution is also in contradiction with the position of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH). In its 2018 report on the fight against racism, the CNCDH warned that the IHRA definition risks weakening France’s universal approach to the fight against racism, and insisted on ‘vigilance not to confuse racism with legitimate criticism of a state and its policy’.

We urge the National Assembly not to support a resolution that wrongly equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Do not support a resolution that approves IHRA’s politicized definition of anti-Semitism, especially if it does so without distancing itself from the problematic examples in the definition that concern Israel.

Initial signatories:

Professor Jean-Christophe Attias, Chair of Medieval Jewish Thought, École pratique des hautes études, Université Paris-Sciences & Lettres; Jane Caplan, Professor Emeritus of Modern European History, University of Oxford; Professor Alon Confino, Director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies, University of Massachusetts; Tamar Garb, Professor of Art History; Durning Lawrence, Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences, University College, London; Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun, Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Social Sciences, Paris-Diderot University; Professor Amos Goldberg, Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Judaism, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Professor David Harel, Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, Weizmann Institute of Sciences in Paris; Amnon Raz-Karkotzkin, Professor of Jewish History; Alice Shalvi, Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Joan Wallach Scott, Professor Emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; Professor David Shulman, Department of Asian Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Zeev Sternhell, Professor Emeritus, Léon-Blum Chair, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Further signatures are listed here