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The Chilling Effect

Updated: Aug 12





“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights


The Israeli state is once more reigning down terror on the almost defenceless Palestinian people. Our politicians are by and large silent. Can this failure to strongly condemn Israel be attributed to the fear of being accused of antisemitism?


For a number of years politicians and the media have weaponised the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition has been used to conflate criticism of Israel with criticism of the Jewish religion or the Jewish people and hence those speaking out about the actions of Israel risk being deemed antisemitic.


The IHRA definition is:

“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.” [2?]


The above paragraph is entirely reasonable. However, the definition comes with examples of antisemitism which include:

“Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” [2]


Accepting this example means that the United Nations report that declared Israel an ‘apartheid regime and racist state’ [12], would arguably be in breach of the definition.


Scholars of antisemitism have contested the examples and they contend that the conflation of antisemitism with criticism of the Israeli government obstructs campaigns for the rights of Palestinians. For further reading see the references section [5,6,7,8,9,10]. Recently one of the original drafters of the definition Kenneth S Stern has commented that the Right Wing in the USA are weaponizing the IHRA definition to shut down free speech [11].


The examples mean that equating any action of the Israeli government with the actions of the Third Reich could be construed as antisemitism, even if the comparison is historically accurate. This protection is unique to Israel. For example, the statement ‘The Saudi Arabian government behave like Nazis’ is not considered islamophobia. Israel is the only country protected against certain kinds of criticism, via this melding of government, people and religion. This emboldens Israel to act with impunity: they already enjoy the protection of the USA, and they can also feel assured that many of the world’s politicians are afraid to speak out for fear of being branded antisemitic.


Another worrying consequence of the definition is the chilling effect it has on any genuine discussion about the holocaust or the rise of fascism. It is so frowned upon to mention any similarity between actions by today’s governments and those of the Third Reich that such discussion risks being dismissed as anything from poor taste to outright antisemitism. This is particularly concerning because fascism has not gone away, and we should be alert to and able to contextualise signs of creeping fascism wherever they appear.


The Israeli government via lobbying and influence have manipulated the virtue signallers of the world to adopt the IHRA definition and its accompanying examples, and many uphold criticism of Israel as antisemitism. And of course, amongst those virtue signallers is our own Scottish Government.


The SNP as a party has not formally adopted the definition because that would mean a vote at conference, and that vote would be unlikely to pass. However, at one of their opaque NEC meetings, the NEC adopted the definition and examples, again demonstrating the disconnect between the SNP leadership and its activists.


The UK government have been wiser and although they have adopted the definition and examples there is a caveat:

“criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic” [3]


Despite the fact the SNP have not adopted the definition, the SNP have driven out members who have been accused of antisemitism. The SNP side with the right-wing media and join in with the smears and demonisation.


The IHRA definition itself has no legal force. But parties and the media can use the definition to attack as antisemitic anyone denouncing Israel. This causes a chilling effect on freedom of expression - article 10 of the human rights act [13] - which does have legal force. A chilling effect is a consequence of speaking up that prevents someone doing so. Consequences can include loss of job or position; losing political party membership; social cancelation; or social media shaming. Allowing or encouraging an environment where such consequences silence people is a violation of the human right to freedom of expression.


The latest atrocities committed by Israel have provoked very little response from our Scottish leaders and politicians. I fear this is a consequence of the weaponizing of antisemitism for virtue signalling and political gain. MPs and MSPs that were once so passionate about Palestinian rights are now oddly silent. The chilling effect has led to condemnation being absent or muted.


The SNP’s use of the IHRA definition does not bode well for our rights when the Hate Crimes Act becomes law. This law will hold the threat of police investigation and possibly jail over anyone that speaks out on any contentious issue. The lack of separation of powers between the executive and judiciary, another violation of human rights, may have already led to the political prosecution of citizens whose voices the Scottish Government would prefer not to be heard.


Freedom of expression is the foundation of democracy. Only by making the argument can the argument be won. Freedom of expression was an absolute requirement of every civil rights movement in the world. Lose freedom of expression and all other freedoms are in peril. Freedom of expression is the first freedom for a reason.


The IHRA definition is likely an infringement of our human rights, and a tool used by the Israeli government to silence criticism of behaviour most people would agree is unacceptable. Despite the chilling effect, our politicians need to be brave enough to speak up and their parties need to back them. For if they are neutral in situations of such injustice, they and we have chosen the side of the oppressor.


References

1. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/aug/01/jeremy-corbyn-issues-apology-in-labour-antisemitism-row

2. https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/working-definition-antisemitism

3. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/home-affairs/communities/uk-governments-adoption-of-the-ihra-definition-of-antisemitism/

4. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jul/18/debate-continues-over-labours-code-on-antisemitism

5. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=767fCQAAQBAJ&pg=PA161&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

6. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/27/antisemitism-ihra-definition-jewish-writers

7. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/20/labour-code-of-conduct-not-antisemitic

8. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/28/britain-definition-antisemitism-british-jews-jewish-people

9. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v39/n09/stephen-sedley/defining-anti-semitism

10. https://web.archive.org/web/20180929191213/https://www.doughtystreet.co.uk/news/article/ihra-definition-of-antisemitism-is-not-fit-for-purpose

11. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/13/antisemitism-executive-order-trump-chilling-effect

12. UN report says Israel a ‘racist state’ and ‘apartheid regime’ (irishtimes.com)

13. Article 10: Freedom of expression | Equality and Human Rights Commission (equalityhumanrights.com)



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