One of the lead author’s of IHRA’s working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion praised the passage at the United Nations General assembly of the resolution this week that “rejects and condemns without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust as an historical event, either in full or part.”
Mark Weitzman, the COO of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), speaking to Israel National News on International Holocaust Memorial Day, says that the IHRA definition of Holocaust denial and distortion is “extremely important” and particularly its adoption by the UN which is “highly symbolic and significant.”
The definition was adopted by IHRA in October 2013 at the Toronto Plenary after five years of discussions with members countries over how to deal with the problem of how to define Holocaust distortion.
Weitzman describes Holocaust distortion as: “Of saying that well, maybe not as many Jews were murdered or maybe there was no local collaborators and so it was all the German’s fault, and our country has no responsibility to accept or maybe Jews brought it on themselves. Any of those forms. It denies and tries to shift the blame away from those who were really responsible for it for all sorts of purposes.”
“There were a number of countries who had a problem with that and it took us five years of diplomatic work to get everybody on board before it was adopted,” he recalls. “That was a significant step because without that we would not have had the antisemitism definition, which is much more prominent these days.”
Can the IHRA working definition of antisemitism really change the situation on the ground?
“IHRA’s antisemitism definition is perhaps the most significant and well known aspects of IHRA’s work so far,” Weitzman says. “In one way I wish other aspects of our work involving education and research and remembrance and so on would get equal prominence. But the definition seems to have fit a certain need at a certain time.”
He notes the fact that it has been adopted by over 35 countries individually since 2016, along with thousands of municipalities, universities, churches, sports leagues and imam’s groups.
“It has shown that it really speaks to an issue, which is that it became the first practical hands on definition. It’s not an academic definition,” he says. “IHRA is an attempt to look at current realities of antisemitism, to figure out a way to identify them, and to then allow people to take whatever steps are necessary of appropriate under the circumstances to act.”
The definition also includes 11 examples of antisemitism, including a number devoted to anti-Israel actions, which is a relatively new form of antisemitism when viewed through the long history of antisemitism.
The definition becomes a method for practical use “where it comes in is as a tool to measure whether something is or isn’t antisemitic,” he explained.
“For certain people, you really needed a framework or a metric to be able to fit antisemitism in so that [governments] can then take the proper actions against them,” he said.
“But from IHRA’s perspective, our definition is not legally binding. We’re not in a position to tell anybody that you have to change your law codes,” he added.
As the COO of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, Weitzman says his organization’s mission today is not just strictly about monetary restitutions.
“It is much more than money. Money is certainly a significant part of it, especially for those survivors who are living in poverty or have physical and psychological and emotional needs. Where every penny can certainly help them. And they deserve it. It was their money, their property that was stolen from them that we’re looking to be used to help them today.”
He explains that “it is something tangible that links the present to the past, and there are no other pieces of concrete reality that will do that.”
They are dealing with a number of current issues.
“There are certain countries that we are still negotiating with in different ways,” Weitzman says. “Right now the parliament in Latvia has passed two readings of a bill that would allow for restitution of property and the third and final reading is scheduled for other future. We have negotiations with a couple of other countries.”
While he cannot speak to specific negotiations that are not currently public knowledge, he says that their “ultimate goal” is still to “get what we can get for the survivors, for the community” while they are continuing to “encourage and foster education and remembrance about the Holocaust.”
On that front, they have started a viral campaign, including on TikTok called "My property story – speak about justice.”
“We see how potent TikTok is and we see people who are reaching hundreds of thousands of listeners,” he says. “So we’ve embarked on a TikTok campaign showing grandparents, parents and children who are using the medium to discuss the stories, the impact that it had. We’ve had people in English and in Hebrew making TikTok videos to get the story out there.”
He adds: “Most people think of in terms of survivors telling the emotion part or the historical part of the story. The linkage between what is still present – the property, the building, the land – doesn’t necessarily come to mind. One of the things we want to do is to help educate a new generation that the work is not done yet, that there is a lot of significant efforts that can be made and we are making them. But it’s in their name as well and we want people to know that.”