Progressive societies on UK university campuses often pride themselves on championing inclusivity and justice for all ethnic minorities. However, there is undoubtedly a different agenda when it comes to Jews and defining antisemitism.
What arguably embodies this issue is the ‘debate’ over the IHRA definition of antisemitism, namely the opposition it has received across UK university campuses in spite of its widespread support amongst UK’s Jewish constituents. The definition itself is a non-legally binding 38-word statement on what antisemitism is, accompanied by eleven illustrative examples of antisemitism – seven of which relate to Israel. The IHRA definition of antisemitism was first adopted by the UK government in December 2016 and gradually did UK universities embrace this definition across 2019-2020.
Often, such opposition can be reduced to a series of strawman arguments decrying censorship and imposing limits to the freedoms of Palestinian students on campus. This is not about ‘free speech’ or ‘Palestinian rights’, but a rejection of a Jewish definition of antisemitism that rightly classifies the actions of PalSocs and other self-proclaimed progressive societies as antisemitic.
Rather concerningly, when Jews affirm that anti-Zionism is antisemitism – as done by the IHRA definition of antisemitism – anti-Zionists will often object to this on the grounds that: ‘Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism’, ‘Some Jews don’t support Israel’, or even reject anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism as it ‘infringes upon my freedom of speech’.
This final argument in particular forms the basis of university student objections to the IHRA definition of antisemitism. As a result, it is increasingly concerning to me that how we define our own prejudice is weaponised, and in attempting to express what we consider to be antisemitic, our voice is being taken away.
To illustrate this, amongst the innumerable examples across UK university campuses, take University College London (UCL). Both the UCL Students’ Union and the UCU have made several attempts to scrap the definition (without the consent of the UCL Jewish Society or UCL’s Jewish community). Still, most concerning has been the actions of the UCL Palestine Society (Students for Justice in Palestine Society).
The UCL Palestine Society has a record of inviting antisemitic, staunch anti-Zionist speakers onto campus and even interfering (with violence) to our hosting of pro-Israel speakers. A disturbing example of this where they hosted an external speaker in November 2017 who told the audience that ‘Zionists should be treated like Nazis’, or in 2020 when Susan Abulhawa spoke of rejecting dialogue, co-existence, and the very existence of a Jewish, ‘Zionist’state, or also when the Students’ Union promoted a Palestine Society event, ‘Am I an Anti-Semite’, hosting staunch anti-Zionist Jewish historian, Ilhan Pappe. These propagandist events demonising Israel went ahead without challenge, yet when the UCL Friends of Israel Society hosted ex-IDF, LGBTQ+, Israeli advocate, Hen Mazzig, in 2016, it was met with ‘violent’ pro-Palestine protest and resistance, to which the police were called. Is the double standard on university campuses such as UCL not blatant enough?
Moreover, the Students for Justice in Palestine Society have effectively been able to bash the IHRA for ‘silencing’ students, and all the while, continue to levy gross criticism at Israel. Far beyond the realms of any logical, rational criticism of the Jewish State, they have affirmed ridiculous and unfounded claims such as “Zionists have justified their political ambitions on colonialist principles of superiority in culture and knowledge“; “Zionism is a settler-colonial movement”; referred to the Sheikh Jarrah (Shimon HaTzadik) property dispute as part of the “ongoing Nakba”, and so forth.
Is this really valid criticism they are so fearful of being silenced of?
The IHRA definition of antisemitism does not restrict freedom of speech. In actuality, it acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”, and since, as it states, it is a non-legally binding definition, it is merely a guideline to human decency, not a legal attempt to infringe upon free speech in any capacity. In addition to this, never in the definition does it mention Palestinians.
Again, the only thing it says is that delegitimising, demonising, and subjecting double standards to the world’s only Jewish state, which shelters over 170,000 Holocaust survivors and millions of Mizrahi refugees – who were forcefully cleansed in the MENA in the early 50s – is antisemitic. Nowhere in the definition does it say that criticising Israel is antisemitic. The definition merely states that denying the world’s only Jewish state’s right to exist and applying double standards to the state is antisemitism. Promoting the IHRA definition does not jeopardise the lives or liberty of anyone – opposing and demonising it does.
So, does it matter whether we have the definition implemented on UK campuses or not? Yes, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the IHRA definition is significantly more effective than its predecessor: the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism (JDA).
The JDA, though popular amongst academics, has many flaws, such as permitting the demonisation of the Jewish State, legitimising the rejection of Jewish nationalism amongst all other nationalism movements, and endorsing boycott movements against Israel. Arguably what made the JDA so popular in universities is that ‘the JDA is simply a political response of academics to external populist pressure’. However, I strongly advocate for a definition of antisemitism that protects the interests of Jews – its subjects – rather than appeasing the masses of those who are not personally affected by antisemitism. In similar respects, some academics have argued in opposition to the IHRA on the grounds that the 2010 Equality Act renders it inessential, and with that, the 2010 Equality Act is the preferable guideline as opposed to IHRA. However, the 2010 Act is not a substitute for the IHRA definition; both are necessary. In brief, ‘the Act itself offers no guidance as to what constitutes antisemitism, so it is necessary to look for guidance outside it’. The highly context-sensitive IHRA definition is thus indispensable: the Act and the IHRA are not mutually exclusive to one another, despite what academics at institutions such as UCL have advocated.
To me as a Jewish student, there are two further and equally significant reasons why I care so much about the IHRA and it remaining adopted by UK universities: it is reassuring to know you are attending an institution where the interests of its Jewish students are considered and respected; secondly, as a more general concern, Jews should be treated no different to any other ethnic minority: in 2022 it goes without saying that Jews should have the liberty to define their own prejudice without others attempting to silence us.
Both our UCL Jewish Society and Israel Society do not disclose the locations of our events for security reasons stemming from the aggressive actions of pro-Palestinian protestors, but the Palestine Society does not face this dilemma, nor do they face protest or violence on our part.
So, is the IHRA really silencing ‘valid’ criticism of Israel on campus? I would argue we are simply ensuring protection and security for our Jewish students.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in The Algemeiner.
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