On college campuses, who should define antisemitism? Any member of the student body, or the targets of the world’s oldest hatred themselves? At City, University of London (UCL), students seem to have made up their minds.
In response to a large surge in antisemitism, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) decided to combat this disturbing trend by formally defining the hatred that fuels it. The IHRA working definition of antisemitism represents a non-legally binding international consensus, and is meant to help recognize and counter antisemitism on a national level.
As of now, dozens of countries and numerous universities have adopted the working definition which states (in part) 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.
While respecting what is likely the most widely-endorsed definition of Jew-hatred should not be controversial, many university students have actively voted to reject it.
In the UK, the CUL Student Union voted to reject the IHRA definition, despite Jewish groups’ pleading for its acceptance. In response to the vote, CUL’s Jewish Society released a statement affirming that “The Jewish community should be allowed to define for themselves what antisemitism is. These actions make us feel that the SU is neglecting its Jewish students and failing in its responsibility to support all students.”
The main argument of those who oppose the definition is that it will infringe on their freedom of speech regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to these activists, the IHRA definition will stifle the freedom of anti-Israel activists to criticize Israeli policy and provide Israel with cover to violate international law.
Clearly, many of these activists have not read the IHRA definition. If they did, they would know that criticizing Israel (itself a democracy where debate and criticism thrive) as they would criticize any other country is explicitly permitted by the definition.
That being said, according to IHRA, denying Israel’s right to exist and holding it to standards not demanded of any other country is antisemitic.
In late March, not too far from CUL, the University of Essex Student Union renewed its support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israel; called on the university to continue boycotting Israeli products; and encouraged other academic institutions to do the same. The student union falsely labeled Israel an apartheid state, and made the dubious assertion that BDS opposes antisemitism.
Of course, Israel bears absolutely no resemblance to an apartheid state, and arguing so undermines the evils of true apartheid. Israel’s millions of Arab citizens have full rights, and serve on the Supreme Court, in the Knesset, and in every function of private and government life. Despite being the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, Israel is routinely tagged with a label that is not even applied to the world’s worst systematic oppressors of racial and ethnic minorities, including China, Sudan, and Sri Lanka.
In fact, Israel’s Declaration of Independence emphatically declares that the country “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” In Israel’s parliament, Arab parties currently hold a collective 10 seats, and the Islamist Ra’am party is perceived by many to be one of the “kingmakers” who could decide the make-up of the next government. Is this the behavior of an apartheid state? Certainly not.
Furthermore, boycotting Israel would not only hurt Jewish Israelis, but also Arab Israelis, and even Palestinians, 130,000 of whom are employed in Israel. Destroying the economic opportunities of Israeli Arabs and potentially those of Palestinians will not advance peace.
Lobbing baseless allegations that perpetuate a hatred of the only Jewish state merely underscores why the IHRA definition is necessary. If activists believe that they cannot protest policy without disseminating prejudice towards a specific population, then perhaps they should reevaluate their priorities, intentions, and tactics.
Although the definition does not ensure compliance, it is a welcome tool in the imperative task of rooting out Jew-hatred.
For example, in February 2019, the University of Essex invoked IHRA when it suspended Dr. Maaruf Ali for publishing social media posts featuring Holocaust denial, conspiracy theories about Zionists, and opposition to the creation of a Jewish society at the university. The invocation of IHRA at Essex illustrates why the CUL Student Union should adopt IHRA. It is the starting point in combating hate against Jewish students.
With that said, the case of Essex also proves that adopting the definition is not the end of the battle. Once adopted, universities must implement the definition to combat antisemitism, including when masked falsely as only hatred towards Israel. Universities can’t just speak the right words, but also must take actions to protect the rights and safety of Jewish students on UK campuses.
Sandra Marcushamer is pursuing a B.A. in Government, Strategy, and Diplomacy at the IDC Herzliya, where she is a fellow in the prestigious Argov Leadership Program. She is also a CAMERA on Campus fellow and the co-president of Israel Young Pugwash.
A slightly different version of this article was featured in The Algemeiner.