Academics' Open Letter Demands Facebook Rejects IHRA Definition


Fifty six international Jewish scholars who specialise in antisemitism, Jewish and Holocaust history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have written to Mark Zuckerberg and the Board of Facebook, urging the platform not to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

"Fight all forms of hate speech on Facebook" their letter says,

"But don’t do so by adopting and applying a politicized definition of antisemitism, which has been weaponized to undermine free speech, in order to shield the Israeli government and to silence Palestinian voices and their supporters"

The full text of the letter is reproduced below:

Joint letter of 56 scholars to Facebook: Don't adopt the “IHRA definition of antisemitism”

Facebook, Inc. Attn. Board of Directors 1 Hacker Way Menlo Park, CA 94025

Concerns: campaign targeting Facebook to adopt “IHRA definition of antisemitism”

7 September 2020

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg, dear Ms. Sandberg, dear Board of Directors,

We, scholars specialized in antisemitism, Jewish and Holocaust history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are writing to you with regard to Facebook’s policy and efforts to ban antisemitic content from your platform, as part of your company’s wider struggle against hate speech and bigotry.

We are deeply concerned about the rise in antisemitism around the world. Antisemitism and all other forms of racism and bigotry pose a serious threat that must be fought most forcefully. We commend Facebook’s efforts in this regard and encourage you to intensify them.

While we do so, we wish to issue a stark warning against adoption and application by Facebook of the definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). You will be well aware you are currently the target of a coordinated public pressure campaign aimed at imposing this definition on Facebook.

On 7 August 2020, 128 organizations sent you an open letter urging Facebook “to fully adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism” and to implement a hate speech policy on antisemitism with that definition “at its core”. They assert: “The full IHRA working definition of antisemitism provides Facebook an effective, neutral, and nuanced tool to protect Jewish users from hate speechand imagery that incites hate and oftentimes leads to violence.”

The IHRA definition is no “effective, neutral, and nuanced tool” – certainly not if meant to encompass the “contemporary examples of antisemitism” attached to it. And this is what the signatories of the open letter mean and envisage, when they call on you “to fully adopt” the IHRA definition.

In fact, the IHRA definition is highly problematic and controversial. The two sentences representing the definition itself are unclear and indefinite, in particular the first one: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” (emphasis added). For this reason, the definition does not and cannot offer an effective instrument to fight antisemitism. It is also not neutral nor nuanced. The aforementioned “contemporary examples of antisemitism” attached to it extend to criticism directed at the State of Israel and conflate such criticism with antisemitism. These examples are treated as an integral part of the definition.

Worse, the examples are being weaponized to attack, delegitimize and silence activists, experts, human rights defenders and civil society organizations criticizing the State of Israel and Zionism within the limits of freedom of speech. Such abuse has been condemned by leading scholars of antisemitism. Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, who drafted the IHRA definition fifteen years ago, has also denounced the definition’s use to undermine free speech.

Among the signatories of the open letter you received on 7 August are many organizations that have taken the lead in weaponizing the IHRA definition. They act in close coordination with the Israeli government, which they shield from international criticism, while it entrenches its occupation and moves towards formal annexation of Palestine.

These organizations have asked the Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs to amplify their campaign targeting Facebook, also in view of the wider campaign the Israeli government has launched to influence social media platforms – which also relies on the IHRA definition. This testifies to the political agenda behind the campaign directed at you.

We reiterate our full support for your efforts to ban antisemitic content from Facebook and urge you to intensify them. These efforts will only succeed if your related policy is rooted in integrity and universality and will be perceived by your wider community of users as credible and sincere.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism doesn’t meet these essential standards. Adopting it would be a trap for your company and users. It would be used as a benchmark against Facebook, exposing you to ongoing and increasing pressures to remove content interpreted as violating the “contemporary examples of antisemitism” attached to the IHRA definition.

Considering how the IHRA definition and its examples are being used in the public domain, this could have far-reaching implications for Facebook and for freedom of speech. Someone criticizing Israel in a way perceived as a double standard could then be accused of antisemitism under your corporate policy. Somebody embracing Antizionism and supporting a democratic one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too. Or someone blaming Israel for institutionalized racism.

One can certainly disagree with these utterances. But such opinions are legitimate and protected by freedom of speech – apart from the fact they are also held by many Jews around the world.

Suppressing such opinions doesn’t boost the fight against antisemitism, but undermines it.

The open letter by the 128 organizations you received on 7 August was triggered by statements of your Director of Content Policy Stakeholder Engagement, Mr. Peter Stern, signalling Facebook has so far resisted adopting the IHRA definition because the definition recognizes that modern manifestations of antisemitism relate to Israel. We commend you for this choice and urge you to stick to it.

Fight all forms of hate speech on Facebook. But don’t do so by adopting and applying a politicized definition of antisemitism, which has been weaponized to undermine free speech, in order to shield the Israeli government and to silence Palestinian voices and their supporters.

Signed by (institutional affiliations for identification purposes):

Prof. (emeritus) Dr. David Abraham Professor (emeritus) of Law, School of Law, University of Miami

Prof. Gilbert Achcar Professor of Development Studies and International Relations, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Albena Azmanova University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies

Prof. Bashir Bashir The Open University Israel, The Van Leer Institute Jerusalem

Prof. Peter Beinart Associate Professor of Journalism, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism; Associate Professor of Political Science, City University of New York

Prof. Lila Corwin Berman Professor of History, Temple University

Prof. Louise Bethlehem English and Cultural Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Daniel D. Blatman The Max and Rita Haber Chair in Contemporary Jewry and Holocaust Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Daniel Boyarin Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, UC Berkeley

Dr. Rony Brauman Former associate professor, Sciences Po, University of Manchester

Prof. (emeritus) Jose Brunner Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas and Buchmann Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University

Prof. Stephen Clingman Distinguished University Professor, Department of English, University of Massachusetts

Prof. Alon Confino Pen Tishkach Chair of Holocaust Studies, Professor of History and Jewish Studies University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Prof. Hasia R. Diner Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, Professor of History, New York University

Prof. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi Professor of Comparative Literature, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Marjorie N. Feld Professor of History, History and Society Division, Babson College

Prof. (emeritus) Gideon Freudenthal The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel Aviv University

Prof. (emeritus) Chaim Gans Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University

Prof. Dr. Efrat Gal-Ed Institut für Jüdische Studien, Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf

Prof. (emerita) Galia Golan Darwin Professor, The Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Dr. Honaida Ghanim General Director, Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies, MADAR

Prof. Amos Goldberg Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Linda Gordon Professor of the Humanities, Florence Kelley Professor of History, New York University

Prof. Neve Gordon School of Law, Queen Mary University of London

Prof. Atina Grossmann Professor of History, The Cooper Union, New York

Dr. Ofri Ilany Polonsky Fellow, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute

Prof. Marion Kaplan Skirball Professor of Modern Jewish History, New York University

Prof. Nadim Khoury Associate Professor, Lillehammer University College

Prof. Nitzan Lebovic Professor of History, Apter Chair of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values, Lehigh University

Dr. (emeritus) Mark Levene Department of History, University of Southampton

Prof. Laura S. Levitt Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies and Gender, Temple University Philadelphia

Prof. Deborah Dash Moore Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of History and Professor of Judaic Studies, University of Michigan

Prof. A. Dirk Moses Frank Porter Graham Distinguished Professor of Global Human Rights History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Prof. David N. Myers Professor of Jewish History, UCLA

Prof. (emeritus) Mica Nava Professor (emeritus) of Cultural Studies, University of East London

Prof. Rachel Rafael Neis Associate Professor, History Department and Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, University of Michigan

Dr. Sheryl Nestel Lecturer (ret.), Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Prof. (emeritus) Adi Ophir Tel Aviv University, Visiting Professor of the Humanities, The Cogut Institute for the Humanities and the Center for Middle East Studies, Brown University

Prof. Nurit Peled-Elhanan School of Education, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; David Yellin Academic College of Education

Mitchell Plitnick Author and president of ReThinking Foreign Policy

Prof. (emeritus) Yakov M. Rabkin Department of History, University of Montreal

Dr. David Ranan Birkbeck University of London

Prof. Robert Eli Rosen Professor of Law, School of Law, University of Miami

Dr. Judy Roth Adjunct Medical Professor, CUNY School of Medicine

Prof. Michael Rothberg 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies; Professor of English and Comparative Literature, UCLA

Prof. Catherine Rottenberg Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham

Prof. Paul L. Scham Associate Research Professor of Israel Studies, Director Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, University of Maryland

Prof. Lynne Segal Birkbeck Institute, University of London

Prof. Jeffrey S. Shoulson Professor of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, University of Connecticut

Prof. Dmitry Shumsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Director of the Cherrick Center for the Study of Zionism, the Yishuv and the State of Israel, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Lior Sternfeld Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies, Penn State University

Prof. Barry Trachtenberg Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History; Associate Professor of History, Department of History, Wake Forest University

Dr. Dr. Peter Ullrich Senior Researcher, Zentrum Technik und Gesellschaft, Technische Universität Berlin

Prof. Oren Yiftachel Department of Geography and Environmental Development, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Dr. Raef Zreik Senior Research Fellow, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute

Prof. Ran Zwigenberg Associate Professor of Asian Studies, History, and Jewish Studies, Pennsylvania State University

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