The Curious Case of Kenneth Stern and his Refusal to Accept Responsibility for how the IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism Has Been Used to Chill Free Speech?
Stern’s Dissembling over the IHRA is a Result of the Contradiction Between Being a Zionist and a Diaspora Jew
Thousands of words have been spent analysing the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism [WDA], nearly all of them scathing and scornful. Yet still the WDA has been widely accepted by governments, civil society and establishment bodies. Why? Because it has become a hegemonic narrative, immune to reason but serving the interests of the ruling elites in capitalist society.
Kenneth Stern is an unlikely hero. He is the person who drafted the WDA and yet he has also spoken out strongly against its use as a weapon to silence debate on Palestine and Zionism in academia. How can we reconcile this contradiction?
I want to suggest that Stern is a classic case of cognitive dissonance, someone who holds two different philosophies or beliefs at the same time. Stern is, on the one hand, a Zionist who thinks nothing of smearing and vilifying his opponents as ‘anti-Semitic’. On the other hand he is a diaspora Jew for whom academic freedom is a value he holds in high regard.
In my Open Letter to Stern (below) I put a number of questions to him about his role in creating the WDA and the problematic nature of the definition.
It is impossible to understand why Stern thought there was a need for a new definition of anti-Semitism unless conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism was his main objective. Nothing Stern has said makes sense otherwise. Stern himself cast doubt on the whole exercise:
IHRA’s zealous supporters often say that to combat antisemitism, one has to define it. In my view, that simply isn’t true. Definitions are useful for data collectors, but it’s not as if people didn’t fight antisemitism before the definition was created over 16 years ago.
My dad fought Oswald Moseley’s fascists at the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End 85 years ago despite being told to stay at home by the Board of Deputies and the Zionists. He and thousands of others, Jewish and non-Jewish, didn’t need a definition of anti-Semitism to in order to fight it.
The American Jew who was run by Israel as a spy
Stern’s commitment to freedom of speech on campus conflicted with his support for Zionism, a Jewish supremacist ideology. Stern embodies the conflict between the interests of diaspora Jewry and a Zionism which seeks to alienate Jews from their place in society.
Despite the WDA illustration holding that ‘Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel… than to the interests of their own nations’ is anti-Semitic, it is Zionism itself which demands that Jews’ first loyalty should be to Israel. That is why ‘traitor’ is an epithet flung at anti-Zionist Jews by Zionists.
BDS according to Stern is anti-Semitic
This contradiction exploded into the open in 2013 when Israel’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Absorption conducted a survey which asked American Jews where their loyalties would lie if there was a crisis between the two countries.
When Stern and Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors penned an open letter criticising what they termed a ‘perversion of the definition’, claiming that it ‘was not drafted to label anyone an antisemite or to limit campus speech’, they met a fierce backlash by those who believed that that was exactly why it was created!
‘American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris apologised for the open letter from Stern, calling the letter “ill-advised.” after an angry reaction from Stern’s fellow Zionists.
After Stern gave testimony to Congress in November 2017 stating that ‘The definition was not drafted, and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus’, following this up with a Guardian article that accused rightwing Jews of ‘weaponizing it’, Andrew Baker, Deidre Berger and Michael Whine hit back declaring in an open letter of January 2021 that far from being the principal author of the WDA, Stern was just one amongst many.
On 10 February 2021 Stern replied to his critics asking
What would you do if, out of the blue and more than sixteen years after the fact, three former colleagues posted an open letter falsely accusing you of making up a significant professional accomplishment – in my case being the lead drafter of the “working definition of antisemitism?”
Given the use to which it has been put, one wonders how Stern can call the WDA a ‘significant professional accomplishment’. I had personal experience of this Zionist campaign when suing the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism for libel. Gideon Falter, their Chair, in paragraph 29 of his witness statement, wrote that:
‘The Claimant states that one of the numerous drafters of the predecessor to the IHRA Definition, … condemned CAA’s actions … I do not know who the supposed drafter of the EUMCXR Definition is.’
Falter was lying. He was more than aware of who Stern was as his solicitors had previously demanded from us a copy of Stern’s Congressional testimony! Stern had described as ‘egregious’ the CAA’s attempt to have a Jewish Professor, Rachel Gould, dismissed by Bristol University for having written ‘Beyond Anti-Semitism’.
The fact that the person who drafted the WDA definition has condemned the way it is being used is, of course, welcome. However that doesn’t excuse Stern’s role in creating it in the first place.
At best Stern is guilty of naivety. At worst he is guilty of duplicity. It was Stern who created a definition that labelled anti-Zionists as anti-Semites and which redefined anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. It beggars belief that Stern was unaware of what he was doing.
OPEN LETTER TO KENNETH STERN
Although Stern excepts these Orthodox Jews from the ‘antisemitism’ smear, it is clear that they are associating with ‘antisemites’!
Tuesday 21 September 2021
Dear Kenneth Stern,
Like many people I welcome the fact that you have criticised the way in which the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism [WDA] has been used to chill debate on Zionism and Palestine. However I find it difficult to accept your assertion that ‘the working definition of antisemitism’ [WDA] was never intended to silence speech’ when that seems to have been its primary objective.
Your explanation as to why the WDA was created is implausible, begging more questions than answers. According to your testimony to Congress
‘The definition was drafted to make it easier for data collectors to know what to put in their reports and what to reject. It focused their attention away from the question of whether the actor hated Jews, and focused them on whether the actor selected Jews to be victims.’
Eric Pickles, former Tory Minister and Conservative Friends of Israel Chair – Britain’s racist delegate to the IHRA
I have a number of comments to make:
1. The definition doesn’t focus attention away from motive and whether anti-Semites hate Jews. On the contrary it defines anti-Semitism as ‘a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.’ (my emphasis)
2. You said that the reason for the creation of the WDA was that the European Union Monitoring Committee [EUMC]
‘didn’t know how to deal with the problem of a Jew being attacked on the streets of Paris or anywhere else as a stand-in for an Israeli.’ 
and that it was ‘neither necessary nor helpful’ to ask whether the perpetrators ‘really hate Jews’. That is exactly what the WDA does by defining anti-Semitism in terms of a ‘certain perception’, hatred.
3. The WDA defines anti-Semitism narrowly leaving out a range of behaviours, such as hostility or dislike, which fall short of hatred. For example a parent who opposes his children marrying a Jew is not anti-Semitic according to the WDA. That is why Zionists love Steve Bannon despite him opposing his daughter going to a Jewish school because Jewish children were ‘whiny brats.’
4. In your talk “The Working Definition – A Reappraisal“ at a conference in 2010, whose sponsors included Israel’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Public Affairs and Diaspora plus the World Zionist Organisation, you explained that the origin of the WDA lay in Israel and that the idea for a common definition was ‘first articulated by Dina Porat’ in April 2004.
I recall Dina, who gets very animated when she latches on to a good idea, talking to me, to my colleague Andy Baker, and just about anyone else she could corner about the need for a definition.
5. Porat is a hardline Zionist. When Netanyahu reached an agreement with the Polish government over legislation which criminalised saying that the Polish state or people had participated in the holocaust, it was Porat who signed off on it. Even Zionist historian Yehuda Bauer branded it as ‘collaboration’ with holocaust distortion.
6. You said that the WDA was a ‘workable, non-ideological approach to task of identifying antisemitism.’ This is dishonest. The WDA was only ‘non-ideological’ to a committed Zionist.
7. You gave a list of organisations which had adopted it including courts in Lithuania and Germany, making a mockery of the claim that it was ‘non-legally binding’.
8. You said that ‘of course the definition has been a target of some who would like to protect criticisms of Israel which are antisemitic in nature’, which is wholly untrue. Unsurprisingly you gave no examples because there are no examples.
9. You also said that the problem arose because the EUMC had defined anti-Semitism in terms of Jewish stereotypes. However if anti-Semitism was defined as attacking Jews because they are Jews then that problem disappears. You also said the EUMC had constructed a ‘clunker of a definition’ which seems a good description of the definition that you drafted!
10. If your real concern was attacks on Jews because of the actions of Israel, then surely one remedy would be for Israel to stop calling itself the State of the Jewish people? Another remedy would be for groups like the Board of Deputies, which claims to be the ‘Voice of British Jews’, to stop supporting Israel’s murderous attacks on Palestinians in the name of all British Jews.
11. If Jews are attacked because of the actions of the Israeli state then there are more than adequate definitions available, such as the Oxford English Dictionary definition of anti-Semitism,‘Hostility to or prejudice against Jews’ or the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism [JDA]
‘Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).’
12. Instead you constructed a definition of anti-Semitism which is a model of obfuscation and opacity. David Feldman described it as ‘bewilderingly imprecise.’ Hugh Tomlinson QC described its language as ‘unusual and therefore potentially confusing’. Geoffrey Robertson QC stated that it was ‘not fit for purpose’
13. Stephen Sedley, the Jewish former Court of Appeal judge went further arguing that it is ‘calculatedly misleading’ and ‘fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite.’
14. The WDA says that:
“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….”
15. This raises a number of questions:
i. If anti-Semitism is a ‘certain perception’ what is that perception?
ii. Why confine anti-Semitism to perception? Who does the perceiving? Is this not an example of looking into someone’s head, which was what you said the definition was designed to avoid?
iii. If this perception ‘may be expressed as hatred towards Jews’ what else might it be expressed as? Anti-Zionism?
iv. Why define anti-Semitism as being ‘directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals’? Is everyone a victim of anti-Semitism?
16. In the WDA A Reappraisal you recalled how you questioned Beate Winkler, the Director of the EUMC, about a Montreal Jewish school which had been firebombed in reaction to an Israeli assassination. You said that this attack did not fit within the existing EUMC definition of anti-Semitism and that ‘something better needed to be crafted, something that was easy for the monitors to understand – count this, don’t count that.’
17. Could you explain why this attack, which was clearly anti-Semitic, would not have come under the OED or JDA definitions? It was an attack on Jews because they are Jews.
18. The only conclusion that can be drawn from the above is that the WDA wasn’t about the difficulty in defining attacks on Jewish schools as anti-Semitic. You don’t need 500+ words to do that. If I am wrong perhaps you would care to explain:
a. How does the WDA’s: ‘Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ help with the problem of defining an attack on a Jewish school as anti-Semitic?
b. How does labelling as anti-Semitic criticism of Israel as ‘double standards’, help when Jews in the diaspora are attacked?
c. How does defining criticism of Israel as a racist state ‘anti-Semitic’ help you call out attacks on Jews outside Israel?
d. How does rejecting the ‘right’ of the ‘Jewish people to self-determination’, which assumes that there is one single Jewish people, help you define anti-Semitism? Why is this hatred?
e. The WDA states that ‘Manifestations [of anti-Semitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.’ Historically it was anti-Semites who asserted that Jews formed a separate nation. As Herzl wrote in The Jewish State‘It might more reasonably be objected that I am giving a handle to Anti-Semitism when I say we are a people – one people.’
That was also the basis of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws.
When Donald Trump accused American Jews of being ‘very disloyal’ he wasdefining Israel as a ‘Jewish collectivity’. How is a definition of anti-Semitism, which includes the assumption that Israel is an entity to which Jews feel loyalty, helpful?
19. Another anti-Semitic illustration in the WDA is the assertion that Israel is a product of Jewish self-determination. If that is true then Jews are responsible for Israel’s actions, since Israel is the state of the Jewish people, as it claims. How can you then criticise those who hold Jews responsible for Israel’s actions? The WDA also says that ‘Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’ is anti-Semitic. A total contradiction!
20. Not only is the WDA incoherent and opaque but it’s anti-Semitic!
21. In ‘Israeli Attempts To Define Antisemitism’ (circa 2006), you wrote that whilst there is
‘less difficulty in classifying an act or expression as antisemitic when it is motivated by religious or race-based hatred. Matters get somewhat more problematic, or at least controversial, when dealing with anti-Zionism.
‘when the perceived deficiencies of the society are used to undermine its basic legitimacy… this is, in effect, antisemitism.’
22. You go on to say that ‘Trickier still, is anti-Zionism antisemitism?’ and that there are ‘two rare exceptions to contemporary anti-Zionism being antisemitism.’
23. You also say that:
‘There is a strong argument to be made that antisemitism is involved when the belief is articulated that of all the peoples on the globe (including the Palestinians), only the Jews should not have the right to self-determination in a land of their own.
There are many people e.g. the Scots, Kurds and Basques who are denied the right to self-determination. Unlike Jews they are nations. Why do you suggest that the motivation is racism? The WDA is clearly not a neutral definition of anti-Semitism for the purpose of collecting data but a politically loaded definition.
24. What has any of the above to do with hatred or hostility to Jews as Jews? What you were doing was redefining anti-Semitism for Zionist purposes.
25. IWhy you did not include a fourth category – anti-Semitic Zionism? Unlike anti-Semitic anti-Zionism you are spoilt for choice, from Tommy Robinson to Steve Bannon, Donald Trump to Richard Spencer, Viktor Orban to Arthur Balfour. Indeed it’s extremely difficult to find a prominent anti-Semite who wasn’t also a Zionist. Why did you omit this category?
According to Stern, demonstrations such as that in Afula do not mean that Israel is an apartheid state
26. Your initial draft (p.13) of the WDA in 2006 makes your agenda very clear. Your concern was not the protection of Jews but the protection of the Israeli state:
Antisemitism is hatred toward Jews because they are Jews and is directed toward the Jewish religion and Jews individually or collectively. More recently, antisemitism has been manifested in the demonization of the State of Israel. (my emphasis)
27. The 38 word WDA definition defines anti-Semitism in terms of hate, yet you argued that people could say or do things that are anti-Semitic ‘without harboring hate’. Leaving aside this obvious contradiction what is the purpose in labelling political speech ‘anti-Semitic’ if you are not suggesting hate or hostility to Jews? Which Jews is it protecting?
28. You were the American Jewish Committee’s anti-Semitism expert. The AJC is an unashamedly Zionist organisation boasting that ‘Around the world—from the hallways of the UN in New York… AJC advocates for Israel at the highest levels.’
Stern doesn’t consider excluding Israeli Arabs from ‘Jewish’ villages an example of Apartheid
29. You went on to give further examples of ‘anti-Semitism’:
In my view, the comparison between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, while perhaps less serious than that made between Israel and the Nazis, should still be considered an expression of antisemitism, just as I do not see much distinction between denial of the Holocaust and the similar anti-historical canard that rejects any significant historic Jewish link to the land of Israel
30. I realise that Shlomo Sand’s Invention of the Jewish People was only published in 2009 but the ideas behind it are not new, e.g. Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question – A Marxist Interpretation. Was Leon, who was murdered at Auschwitz, also anti-Semitic?
Is it still your view, in the light of the B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch reports, that to call Israel an apartheid state is anti-Semitic? Are B’Tselem and HRW also anti-Semitic?
31. The suggestion that denying any political or genetic link of Jews to Palestine is comparable to Holocaust denial is bizarre. It was Wilhelm Marr, the ‘father of anti-Semitism’ who argued that Jews were Semites.
The fact that Israel, like Nazi Germany, is not a state of all its inhabitants doesn’t make an apartheid state according to Stern
32. Israel is a state of its Jewish citizens not all its citizens. In the West Bank there are two sets of laws – one for Palestinians and another for Jews. That is apartheid.
According to the Jewish Electoral Institute 25% of American Jews believe Israel is an apartheid state. Are a quarter of American Jews also anti-Semitic?
33. What you are saying is that something can be anti-Semitic and also true. Historically Zionists did believe this but I am surprised that you agree with them. Jacob Klatzkin, the editor of Die Welt and the Encyclopaedia Judaica wrote that
‘If we do not admit the rightfulness of anti-Semitism we deny the rightfulness of our own nationalism… Instead of establishing societies for defence against the anti-Semites who want to reduce our rights, we should establish societies for defence against our friends, who desire to defend our rights.’
34. You claim that comparing Israel and Nazi Germany is anti-Semitic? Why? Such a comparison might be right or wrong but how does it demonstrate hatred or hostility to Jews?
According to Kenneth Stern, holocaust survivor Ze’ev Sternhell was an anti-Semite for comparing Israel to Nazi Germany
35. Ze’ev Sternhell, a child survivor of the Nazi ghetto of Przemysl, wrote in Ha’aretz of ‘In Israel, Growing Fascism and a Racism Akin to Early Nazis’. Was Sternhell an anti-Semite? Another Israeli Professor Yehuda Elkana, a child survivor of Auschwitz, wrote of how the creation of Israel was ‘the tragic and paradoxical victory of Hitler’. Was Elkana also an anti-Semite?
36. You seem to suffer from the Zionist habit of labelling all arguments you find difficult to argue against ‘anti-Semitic’.
37. You also wrote that ‘everyone is entitled to their own point of view, people are not entitled to twist the facts.’ But that is exactly what you and Porat were doing. Can anyone seriously dispute a comparison between mobs in Israel chanting ‘death to the Arabs’ and mobs in Nazi Germany shouting ‘death to the Jews’?
38. You condemned in your testimony to Congress the ‘chilling and McCarthy-like’ attempt of the misnamed Campaign Against Anti-Semitism to have a Jewish professor at Bristol University, Rachel Gould, dismissed for writing ‘Beyond Anti-Semitism’. However your attempt to dismiss this as the machinations of right-wing Zionists is disingenuous. It was the definition that you were responsible for drafting that fashioned a weapon for the CAA to use against critics of Zionism, including Jewish critics.
I therefore wish to ask whether you now accept that the WDA/IHRA Definition was fatally flawed from the outset? Do you accept, as Peter Eisenstadt wrote in a review of your recent book that ‘If you give witch hunters a manual for the discovery of witchcraft they will find witches.’ That was the problem of the WDA. Attacking free speech on Palestine/Zionism was inherent in it from the start.
I hope that you will now reject the WDA in favour of the JDA which, unlike the WDA, does focus on anti-Semitism?
I suspect that you will disagree with what I have written. I am happy to debate these issues with you. I am sure it would be an interesting debate!