Saturday, January 29, 2022

Sola IHRA Scriptura

A bit player in a certain Jewish drama which I otherwise will not name was the allegation that a given person had betrayed the Jewish people by suggesting that the IHRA definition of antisemitism could be improved upon. As a Nexus guy, I of course have a vested interest in not viewing IHRA as infallible (even as I also don't endorse the view that it is some sort of censorial disaster). But as a person who can read, it is very difficult for me to see how anyone could look at IHRA and think "yup, that's it. Nothing more on antisemitism needs to be said."

Yet I have noticed on more than one occasion the adoption of a decidedly un-Jewish sola scriptura attitude towards IHRA. IHRA's text is viewed as sacred and unchallengeable. This goes beyond a negative attitude towards efforts to supplant IHRA (e.g., by the JDA); any endeavor to try to interpret or improve upon it represents a threat to the Jewish community. IHRA alone can tell us all we need to know about antisemitism.

It is an interesting thing about sola scriptura that it frequently is paradoxically unconcerned with close  and careful readings of the text. The belief that the text contains all necessarily requires a fair amount of self-deception, since no text actually can contain all; hence, those who assert IHRA uber alles inevitably have to read a fair amount into, and out of, what IHRA actually says. At that point one might wonder why they bother professing that sort of commitment to IHRA -- why not admit the project of thinking about antisemitism remains live and open to further exegesis and interpretation? And the answer is that sola scriptura isn't really about the text-qua-text, it's about the text-qua-symbol. Sola scriptura texts are those which are held out as authoritative and unchallengeable, and that is the character that interpretive freedom threatens.

IHRA is, as I've said many times before, best characterized as having received a battlefield promotion to reach its current perch as the definition of antisemitism. Basically, the Jewish community, most prominently during the Labour antisemitism crisis, needed something we could point to that could be plausibly held out as authoritative; a criteria for saying "this is antisemitism" that wasn't reliant on a case-by-case "because we say so". To be clear, the reason this was a necessity was because in the relevant combat non-Jews were extremely reluctant, to say the least, to credit Jewish assertions about what was antisemitism (hence battlefield promotion). The need in question was, in essence, to say "don't believe me, believe this authoritative definition which existed independent of the current controversy." 

Obviously, pointing to a specific definition of antisemitism wouldn't eliminate contentious debates on the subject -- IHRA obviously didn't -- but it would channel them. Instead of a free-for-all battle over each and every antisemitism claim, we could reduce the debate down to two far more manageable questions: (1) do you accept the authoritative definition, and if so (2) does the controversy in question violate that definition? In this world, those who answer "no" to question one are straightforwardly marking themselves off as adversaries to Jewish communal consensus, not on an idiosyncratic case level, but on a core framing question. So the authoritative definition has a secondary virtue -- it can demarcate between those who are reasonably positioning themselves as friends to and allies of the Jewish community, and those who are adopting a confrontational or adversarial posture to it.

In terms of why it was IHRA, specifically, that became the definition, the reason really is no more complicated than the simple fact that it existed and it was available. And, under the circumstances, I don't begrudge its service. IHRA got thrown into a fire and did the best it could. But a main virtue being "it existed" does not lend itself to ideal theoretical or practical efficacy. One simply cannot read IHRA and think it comprehensively tells us that which we need to know about antisemitism. Its "core definition" is vague to the point of meaninglessness, its definitions are fine as far as they go but omit many crucial domains of antisemitism, and its essential caveat that we must "consider the context" before rendering a judgment is important but is not adorned with much in the way of telling readers what context ought point us toward one conclusion or another. All of these beg for more thoroughness and more fleshing out.

Yet one can understand, given its origin story, why many are reluctant to concede that IHRA can be improved upon. If IHRA is open to question, then IHRA's claim to be authoritative falters, and we risk falling back into the world where antisemitism claims are judged on a free-for-all basis -- and the ensuing fear that these judgments, infected as they are by general disregard for Jewish opinions, will be systematically slanted against the Jews (the proverbial "ally" who promises he will fight the "real antisemitism", but strangely seems to have never actually encountered that rara avis).

So IHRA becomes untouchable -- not as a text, but as a symbol. This has been a prevailing theme of what I've written about IHRA (and, in a somewhat different but related fashion, the JDA): they matter far less for what they say than what they mean, and that meaning has relatively little to do with a lawyerly reading of their texts. IHRA represents the ability to cleanly and confidently divide the world into allies and adversaries of the Jews; to know who one's friends and enemies are. And IHRA likewise represents an at least imagined respite from the constant bickering over antisemitism, over having to re and re-re-litigate every single issue and small point over and over again until death take us. These are not things the text can promise, but they are things the symbolism can promise -- if, again, IHRA is taken to be unchallengeable, unimprovable, and unalterable. It is, in this sense, a very jealous God indeed.

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