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Opinion: How clergy should confront anti-Semitism

23 June 2023

Opposing it should not mean being silent about Palestinian rights, says Salim J. Munayer


A young Palestinian man waits to pass through a checkpoint in the Israeli separation barrier near the West Bank town of Jayyous

A young Palestinian man waits to pass through a checkpoint in the Israeli separation barrier near the West Bank town of Jayyous

I WAS recently invited by a clergy group from the UK for a time of reflection. They had just spent a week touring the Holy Land; but, instead of typical pilgrimages, they visited sites in Palestine as well as Israel, listening to both experiences across the divide.

Some were shocked; some were distressed; and some had tears in their eyes as they processed the discriminatory hardships facing Palestinian people. But then the conversation changed. They began to ask, “How we are going to report this unjust situation without being accused of being anti-Semitic?”

Some of the clergy were fearful of addressing Palestinian oppression for not wanting to offend the Jewish people. But genuine love involves speaking the plain truth in love, in this instance through an open and transparent conversation about what people see and experience of Palestinian life in the land. Unwillingness to address this reality for fear of offending the Jewish people results in additional moral injury towards Palestinians and hinders authentic love for the Jewish people.

While attempting to explain their hesitation to act, the clergy mentioned the recent International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. The rise of anti-Semitism is indisputable, but the way in which this definition is applied winds a chokehold around any discussion that seeks to respond to the mistreatment of Palestinians and the Occupation of Palestinian Territories.

THOSE of us who question the IHRA definition do not dispute that racial hatred of Jews should be deplored. The IHRA defines anti-Semitism as “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 problem arises with some of the examples that the IHRA gives of how anti-Semitism might be manifested in public life — in particular: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

As a group of Palestinian and Arabic academics and journalists argued in a letter to The Guardian in 2020: “We believe that no right to self-determination should include the right to uproot another people and prevent them from returning to their land, or any other means of securing a demographic majority within the state. The demand by Palestinians for their right of return to the land from which they themselves, their parents and grandparents were expelled cannot be construed as antisemitic.”

Instead of dealing with racism towards Jewish people, this definition has been increasingly used to censor journalism, attack free academic discussions, and discipline clergy.

Accepting that the IHRA definition is problematic, a group of Jewish and non-Jewish scholars and activists gathered to form the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA), published in March 2021, in an attempt to differentiate between criticism of the Israeli State and anti-Semitism. The document provides valuable examples of views and actions critical of the State which do not necessarily equate to anti-Semitism.

Here are some.

First, support for the Palestinian demand for justice and the full granting of their political, national, civil, and human rights, as encapsulated in international law.

Second, recognition that political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable to be protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and other human-rights instruments. Criticism that some might see as excessive or contentious, or as reflecting a “double standard”, is not, in and of itself, anti-Semitic. In general, the line between anti-Semitic and non-anti-Semitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.

Third, boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions. These are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In relation to Israel, they are not, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic, the Jerusalem Declaration states.

NOW that members of this group of British clergy are home, they are faced with the formidable task of confronting their own culture and world-view, as well as their state and church endorsement of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

For this reason, it is imperative for the Church of England to reassess its approval and use of the IHRA definition and, instead, adopt an informed definition of racism towards the Jewish people disconnected from the unjust political actions of the State of Israel.

The Church of England must continue to oppose anti-Semitism. But, as importantly, the Church must also proactively address the oppression of the Palestinian people which is adversely affecting the witness of the Church in the Middle Eastern and North African region, in particular, and the world at large.

Dr Salim J. Munayer is
Founder and Senior Consultant at Musalaha, a faith-based NGO, Adjunct Professor and Lecturer at the Hebrew University, and Regional Hub Co-ordinator of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region for the Peace and Reconciliation Network (PRN) of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

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