Photo: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons
At the close of last term, QMUL and QMSU announced their intention to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. Drafted in 2018, the definition creates a legal framework by which antisemitism can be challenged, and represents an important step in ensuring the safety of Jewish students on campus and beyond. It outlines antisemitism as: “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.” It then gives a list of examples showcasing modern-day manifestations of antisemitism, and how to differentiate it from legitimate criticism of the state of Israel.
A commonplace criticism of the IHRA definition is that it stifles free speech regarding Israel. However, the definition clearly states that criticising the actions of the state of Israel is not antisemitic. Expert legal analyses such as that of David Wolfson QC have concluded that the definition does not block legitimate criticism of Israel, but rather differentiates between criticism of the government and an irrational hatred of all Jewish people. Furthermore, the adoption was not found to conflict with the “QMUL Freedom of Speech Policy”.
But why does antisemitism require a working definition at all? Or, as a column in The Guardian phrased it, why do Jews require “safeguards that no other religious or racial group in the organisation, Labour Party, have?” Aside from the fact that IHRA also has a definition of Anti-Roma racism, the IHRA definition of antisemitism is not at all mutually exclusive with other definitions of different forms of racism – it just happens to be the one most widely discussed in the media and in political circles – likely because it is so disputed.
IHRA is needed for a simple reason. Namely, the person in pain will go to visit the doctor. Like many other minorities, Jews have faced much discrimination. In recent years, the Labour Party in particular – a movement that claims to champion the rights of minorities – has been the centre of antisemitism allegations, in direct breach of the Equality Act (2010), as was revealed in October’s EHRC report. Moreover, as much of the antisemitic rhetoric within the party was dressed up as criticism of Israel, it proved more difficult to hold to account. Yet, the connection between anti-Israel rhetoric and antisemitism is demonstrable. Antisemitic incidents in Europe routinely spike during periods of conflict in Israel, and the rhetoric of those using the façade of political criticism to sugar-coat their antisemitism contributes to this toxic atmosphere.
Recently, in an open letter published in The Guardian, a group of prominent lawyers decried the political nature of the working definition, pointing to the multitude of references to Israel. But for years, antisemites have dressed up racist abuse as pro-Palestinian activism, and the whole purpose of the definition is to unblur the blurry line between these two extremes. Antisemitism is a political doctrine, not just an emotion. It is a theory designed to associate all perceived evil with the Jews, primarily through the propagation of negative stereotypes and conspiracy theories. Every aspect of this worldview is antisemitic, not just the emotional state of a believer, and these views have been the root cause of much of the persecution faced by Jews over the millennia. Therefore, the definition must be much broader than just specifying it as hatred.
Surely, there is no greater insult to the struggle for Palestinian rights than the employment of their geopolitical struggle as a façade to spew antisemitism. Basic human nature dictates that when a problem is exposed, it should be dealt with immediately. This is evident in the current momentum in the Black Lives Matter campaign. Similarly, we are now at a key moment in British politics. The Labour Party has vowed to undertake change for the better under its new leadership, and meanwhile, the current government has claimed that universities who do not adhere to the IHRA definition could face sanctions. We should seize the opportunity to make lasting change for the better.
A slightly different version of this article was originally published in The Print.
Contributed by 2020-2021 Queen Mary University of London CAMERA Fellow Benjamin Kramer.