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

| 56 scholars |

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 speech and 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