Why Britain has a new official definition of 'anti-Semitism'

The new definition is intended to provide a solid basis for recognizing and stopping anti-Semitic hate crimes.

Frank Augstein/AP
An Israel flag hangs in front of the Israeli Embassy in London, Sept. 28, 2016.

Britain has adopted a new legal definition of anti-Semitism in an attempt to curb hate crimes against Jewish people.

The news comes after a rise in reports of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain earlier this year. Many people attribute this increase in hate crimes to the aftermath of Britain's "Brexit" vote to leave the European Union, while others say the rise is the result of an increase in reporting such incidents rather than a rise in hate crimes themselves.

Either way, the British government hopes the new definition will offer a more concrete and clearer notion of anti-Semitism, to be adopted in as many circles as possible. Proponents believe that the clarified definition will prevent vagueness that may lead to anti-Semitic crimes going unreported or unacknowledged. The definition is part of an international effort to end hate crimes against Jewish people as well as combat Holocaust denial in all its forms.

The definition itself was created by the Berlin-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which its site describes as "an intergovernmental body whose purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance and research both nationally and internationally." In May, the IHRA adopted a working definition of anti-Semitism to provide a solid framework for identifying and fighting anti-Semitic hate. The definition is as follows:

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.

The IHRA hopes that this definition will one day be adopted by countries around the world. For now, Britain will be one of the first early adopters of the new, clarified definition of the term.

A statement from Downing Street said that the strong, precise definition of anti-Semitism will "ensure that culprits will not be able to get away with being antisemitic because the term is ill-defined, or because different organisations or bodies have different interpretations of it."

Britain, which is home to 270,000 Jews, saw a rise in reports of hate crimes earlier this year, which some say was likely brought on in part by anti-immigrant and pro-nativist sentiments in the wake of the Brexit referendum. The number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded by the Community Security Trust went up by 11 percent in the first half of the year.

"Working on the principle of consensus, the IHRA adopted the non-legally binding working definition on antisemitism as a sign of the great political commitment among IHRA Member Countries to combat antisemitism," the IHRA Chair, Ambassador Mihnea Constantinescu, said in a statement responding to the announcement that Britain would adopt the new interpretation of the term. "With this working definition, the organization aimed to set an example of responsible conduct for other international fora and for national governments, hoping to inspire them to adopt a legally-binding working definition themselves."

Part of the new definition helps to clarify the difference between anti-Semitic speech against the nation of Israel and normal criticism of the country. According to the IHRA, an act against the state of Israel can be considered anti-Semitic through this definition if Israel is "conceived as a Jewish collectivity" in the context of the speech or act itself. Normal political criticism of Israel, of the sort one could use against any other country, would not be considered anti-Semitic.

"I think it's important not to conflate Jewish people with Israel," Sir Eric Pickles, a conservative minister and special envoy for post-holocaust issues in Britain, according to United Press International. "That actually is the point in the definition."

While precise language and definitions has been a significant part of legal systems around the world, many people underestimate the impact of words and their connotations in everyday usage. Police in Britain already use a version of the IHRA definition to deal with anti-Semitic incidents, but councils, universities, and public bodies in Britain will be encouraged to adopt the new definition as well.

"The IHRA considers it the obligation of all governments to actively combat antisemitism in all its forms," says Ambassador Constantinescu in the statement, quoting the Stockholm Declaration, the founding document of the IHRA: "'With humanity still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils. Together we must uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it.'"

This article contains material from Reuters.

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