The IHRA Plenary in Bucharest, 26 May 2016

Misinformation and disinformation are a significant harm to society. When used in the context of COVID-19 it leads to vaccine hesitancy, or to be blunt, to people acting in ways that put their life and those of others around them at risk. The danger of misinformation / disinformation is not new. When used to target minorities, the harms range from social exclusion through to deadly persecution.

I serve as an expert member of the Australian Government’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a body that engages in Holocaust remembrance, education, and research. Misinformation and disinformation pose a threat to all three areas of work and are a regular topic of discussion between experts and diplomats. One of IHRA’s major campaign, #ProtectTheFacts, is focused on this work.

IHRA also works on contemporary issues with a particular on-going focus on antisemitism, antigypsyism / anti-Roma discrimination, and Holocaust denial and distortion. Working definitions in each of these areas were developed by the IHRA experts from across the member countries, and were then adopted by the IHRA plenary where ambassadors or government ministers representing each member country formally take decisions. While governments take the decisions, the plenary discussion also includes representatives from United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe, and other international partners, as well as the chairs of IHRAs various expert working groups and committees.

The focus on Holocaust related misinformation / disinformation has been growing. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on January 20th 2022 which “Rejects and condemns without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part”.

In the resolution the UN General Assembly also said it was:

Expressing concern about the spread of disinformation and misinformation, particularly on social media platforms, which can be designed and implemented so as to mislead, to spread racism, intolerance, xenophobia, negative stereotyping and stigmatization, and to violate and abuse human rights,

And that it:

Urges Member States and social media companies to take active measures to combat antisemitism and Holocaust denial or distortion by means of information and communications technologies and to facilitate reporting of such content;

And:

Urges Member States to develop educational programmes that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide, and in this context commends the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance;

The IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, passed at a plenary in Bucharest, Romania, on 26 May 2016 is a vital practical tool both for tackling antisemitism and for educating about it. The Working Definition that was approved by the plenary includes:

  • A brief note from IHRA’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial recommending the definition to the plenary
  • The two sentence long “in the box” definition stating 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, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
  • The “illustrations” section which gives a little more detail on what is, and is not, to be regarded as antisemitism.
  • A bulleted list of some “contemporary examples of antisemitism” along with the caveats about the need to take into account the overall context, and that this list is merely a selection and other contemporary examples exist.
  • Three statements related to antisemitism and the law.

I was privileged to be in the room, observing on behalf of Australia, when the definition was passed. The original motion came from the experts in the Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial.[1] The issues of online antisemitism and how helpful this definition being formally adopted would be was a point I raised at the Committee.

The Chair of IHRA at the time was the late Ambassador Mihnea Constantinescu and he managed the discussion and the building of a consensus with consummate skill.[2] The IHRA Definition, though based on the EUMC definition, is not identical to it. The EUMC definition for comparison can be seen in Appendix A (pages 53 & 54) of our Measuring the Hate report and consisted of the entire text there under the heading “The Working Definition”.

What IHRA approved differs from the EUMC document, including in the following ways:

  • A box was added around the short “definition” within the definition
  • The phrase “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” was moved from a stand alone statement at the bottom of the definition into the “illustrations” section.
  • What had been two bulleted lists in the contemporary examples section were merged into one.

IHRA shared the complete text of the final document approved by the IHRA Plenary as a press statement.

The IHRA website was also updated with a page on the definition and it includes the entire text of the approved IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism as shared in the press release.

As can be seen, the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism is in fact its own document created by IHRA. As an organisation, IHRA is made up of experts, political leaders and diplomats with final decisions taken by consensus following discussion in plenary meetings where governments are represented by their Heads of Delegation who are usually ambassadors or in some cases government ministers. It is the complete document, including the examples and more, that the IHRA plenary approved and as has been stated many time, it is intended to be used in practical circumstances, not as a tool for academic debates.[3]

I have unfortunately come across misinformation / disinformation, including from a PhD student who claims it is a focus of their thesis, claiming that (1) IHRA didn’t create the definition, (2) IHRA did not approve the examples, (3) that there was no debate on its adoption, (4) that certain member countries oppose the definition. This is clearly untrue. While the definition is based on the EUMC definition, itself drafted by experts some of whom are also involved in IHRA, it is not identical to it. The differences are a result of IHRA’s deliberative process, a process which always involves discussion in both committees/working groups and plenaries. As with any deliberative process, both the substance under discussion and the positions and thinking of those involved will evolve through the process. At the end of its deliberative process, the member countries of IHRA unanimously approving the entire document as shown in the press release.

Dr Andre Oboler is CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and an expert member of the Australian Government’s Delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

[1] This is document in the press release issued by IHRA shown above.

[2] As IHRA notes in a page posted in memory of his passing, “He acted as Chair of the IHRA from March 2016 until March 2017 and was instrumental in achieving the adoption of a non-legally binding Working Definition of Antisemitism to guide the IHRA in its work.”

[3] “practical tool has been used to raise awareness of the various ways antisemitism can manifest itself, helping individuals, organizations and government bodies better identify – and address – antisemitism in their societies” – IHRA webpage on the “EU Handbook for the practical use of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism