Saturday, April 13

Sorry, but the IHRA is about censorship

A few weeks back, Australia’s Head of Delegation to the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) and Ambassador to Croatia, Ambassador Richard Rodgers, shared the news of his country introducing legislation to ban Nazi symbols with the IHRA’s 35 member and 10 observer countries.  

Speaking to Australian-Jewish website ‘J-Wire’, the IHRA’s Secretary General, Dr Kathrin Meyer, said “At a time when we see neo-Nazis marching in the streets, not only in Australia but all over the world, the IHRA welcomes this concrete and important step to prevent the glorification of Nazi ideology and Holocaust distortion. We need to remember what these symbols stand for, but more, we must do all we can to counter their normalisation. Extremist ideologies may take aim at local Jewish communities and other minorities but undermine democracy and harm all of society.” 

Reading Dr Meyer’s words, I couldn’t help but recall the case of The National Socialist Party of America V. Village of Skokie (1977), in which a predominantly Jewish ACLU (many of its activists the children of survivors) defended the right of Nazis to march through a town with a high number of Holocaust survivors. As disgraceful the act of marching through such a town was, the ACLU of the time understood the dangerous precedent denying the NSPA this right could create. And yet, today we see anti-racism organisations endorsing illiberal policies with seemingly no care for the precedents they may set – precedents we should expect will eventually be weaponised against the same minorities they seek to protect. We are allowing such organisations to increasingly stake the safety of our community on the chamber-spin of force, rather than persuasion. 

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The IHRA Working definition of antisemitism — as the name suggests — is a guideline for identifying antisemitism as it manifests in a contemporary context. It is not legally binding and was viewed primarily as an educational tool by many of our local Jewish organisations who had sought to see these guidelines implemented in New Zealand. An attempt to do so through the Wellington City Council in 2020, however, was strongly opposed by veteran activist John Minto, and the anti-Israel Christchurch Central Labour MP Duncan Webb, who felt aggrieved enough to concern himself in the local body politics of a colleague’s electorate. Ironically, Webb made a free speech argument in opposition to the guidelines, despite his being a vocal supporter of the governments now-discarded hate speech laws. The guidelines were withdrawn by their sponsors, and Webb and Minto won the day. 

The hope was, and remains, that the IHRA definition would go some way to dealing with the frustration of antisemitism not being taken especially seriously in NZ, especially by our media, which has traditionally played dumb on antisemitism within current Labour coalition partner, the NZ Greens, and the far Left more generally. Despite it being brought to the attention of senior journalists such as Stuff’s Philip Matthews, Byron Clark (a call centre worker who seemed to miraculously turn terrorism expert at the click of mouse) remained a go-to for multiple media platforms on the threat of the far-Right, despite Clark having raised money expressly for PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) terror campaigns. It is hard to imagine any other minority group having to tolerate this level of gaslighting and contempt. 

And yet, from my very first encounter with the IHRA guidelines, I considered them wrongheaded and counterproductive, and as we’ve seen they have already proved incredibly divisive. Dr Kathrin Meyer’s comments confirm that the IHRA is pro-censorship, and I hold that any anti-racist campaign that leans into suppression will only hurt our community. 

One of the IHRA guideline’s original researchers has already expressed similar alarm. Kenneth Stern wrote a piece in the Guardian expressing his dismay at attempts to use the definition to silence discourse, adding that their original purpose was to help collect data on anti-Jewish sentiment. He wrote, “starting in 2010, right-wing Jewish groups took the “working definition”, which had some examples about Israel (such as holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel, and denying Jews the right to self-determination), and decided to weaponize it with title VI cases. While some allegations were about acts, mostly they complained about speakers, assigned texts and protests they said violated the definition. All these cases lost, so then these same groups asked the University of California to adopt the definition and apply it to its campuses. When that failed, they asked Congress, and when those efforts stalled, the president.”

In 2016, then UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the Conservative Government believed that, while the definition was “legally non-binding” it was nevertheless an “important tool” for criminal justice agencies and other public bodies. As Government policy, it would be for those bodies “to implement the definition and embed it within operational guidance as relevant”.

While the definition certainly allows for criticism of the Jewish state, the point of contention remains rhetoric used around Israel, and for this reason the IHRA definitions are held-up as yet another clear example of malicious Jewish influence by groups such as the Corbynite-Left. He was a martyr to (among other conniving) the IHRA. In the case of Corbyn specifically we have a clear example of how the guidelines where used as an affirmation of anti-Jewish conspiracies of undue influence and manipulation. 

The ‘community-building power of censorship’ may be one of the strangest beliefs to sweep through a political class in recent memory. It takes a total rejection of progressive values to arrive at this belief, and evidence to support the premise works is never tabled in its support. 

Dr Meyers’ justification for the swastika ban comments demonstrate how dubious the ‘pro-censorship’ reasoning is. “We must do all we can to counter their normalisation”, denies the fact that swastikas are ubiquitous in our society and have been since our defeat of European fascism, and yet have never been “normalised” in the way Meyer’s fears. Does Dr Meyer really believe there to be a chance that a swastika armband worn in public could soon stop turning heads? We can assume there would be massive carve-outs in any legislation, and that the symbols will continue to be presented in history books, art, and entertainment. Would this carve out apply to a Left-wing protester scrawling a swastika on a public monument to challenge what they consider an illiberal Right-wing policy? If no, how would arresting and prosecuting this person, as ludicrous and hyperbolic as their use of the symbol may be, profit society or the Jewish people? 

When Dr Meyers says “the IHRA welcomes this concrete and important step to prevent the glorification of Nazi ideology and Holocaust distortion”, what is meant by ‘prevent’? Sure, the new laws may be ‘concrete’ in that censorship is emphatic (which doesn’t automatically mean effective), but how does it follow that criminalising symbols will inoculate people against Holocaust denial? Her use of ‘glorification’ is most unfortunate now too, considering the proposed ban has already led to an avalanche in demand for Nazi artefacts in Australia. Anyone with a cursory understanding of censorship in practise is not going to be surprised by this. The artefacts have been imbued with a new meaning, a new allure, and a healthy black market will be in operation by the day the ban is made law. 

Dr Meyer may argue, as our own Human Rights Chief Commissioner Paul Hunt put it to me in our discussion on our then proposed hate speech laws, that censorship was just a single tool in a large toolbox with which to fight racism. But if censorship is a tool, it is the tool that undoes the work of all the other tools. Our acute political divisions today boil down to a debate between would-be censors and those who oppose them. The gender debate is not actually about transpeople at all, but censorship and forced compliance. The abortion argument that pre-dated the current gender wars was quickly, and cynically steered into the tedious terrain of who could and couldn’t speak on the issue. Today’s divisions will only start to heal when censorship is no longer central to so many political projects today. 

The Jewish people have long faced charges of holding disproportionate power – of being string-pullers and master manipulators. Cheerleading illiberal laws such as a swastika ban will only confirm that trope in many people’s minds. And on symbols, do you think people don’t exist in society who wouldn’t ban the ‘Magen David’, proudly displayed on the Israeli flag, if given a chance? As Jews, we have much more to fear by the normalisation of censorship, and its inevitable abuses, and we always will. 

The solution is to intensify our work in education, to develop more arms of our educational outreach, and to take this education into the dragon’s lair if need be. 

We need to be prepared to have difficult conversations. We need to challenge rather than suppress a Webb or Minto, with better arguments. We need to respond to a swastika seen in public with a week of education on the horrors of this putrid ideology. And we need to do all this while staying fully committed to the same liberal values that emancipated us. As Danish free speech activist Jacob Mchangama so fluently put it, people often talk about speech that radicalises, while forgetting it is speech that finally deradicalises the extremist. We can, and should, internalise the IHRA guidelines, and craft our arguments around them, but ‘implementation’ – the guidelines ‘in action’ by councils and government departments cannot but lead to censorship, and censorship cannot but lead to the emboldening of our enemies. 

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