By forcing universities to adopt the problematic IHRA definition, the government aims to criminalise the Palestine solidarity movement and roll back civil liberties
In October, British Education Secretary Gavin Williamson ordered universities in the country to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s working definition of antisemitism. They are to do so by Christmas or face government sanctions.
It is worth remembering that when the Tories passed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in 2015, it mobilised funding bodies to implement Prevent in schools, universities and across the charity sector. Opposition from campaigners, students and academics about this assault on freedom of speech, civil liberties and academic freedom fell on deaf ears.
The comparison might seem surprising, yet the parallels are striking. Indeed, the adoption of the IHRA definition will do little in the fight against antisemitism – in fact, it will likely harm the ability of anti-racist campaigners to fight back effectively – while instead targeting Palestine activists and delegitimising opposition to Zionism.
Limiting criticism of Israel
The IHRA’s non-legally binding working definition – this exact status is often forgotten, yet it shines an important light on its nature – is extremely vague, describing antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”. Its danger lies in the 11 accompanying examples, such as “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” or “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.
This is an extraordinary definition of antisemitism, attempting to impose specific limits on the discussion of Zionism and Israel’s crimes in Palestine. For the millions of Palestinians expelled during the creation of Israel in 1948, besieged in Gaza or under military occupation in the West Bank, or for those who live within Israel’s borders and are targeted by more than 65 discriminatory laws, the idea that Israel is a democratic nation is, at best, laughable.
In an academic context, the imposition of a definition that describes these facts about the history of Zionism in Palestine as antisemitic is a direct assault on the academic freedom of those working on these issues, as well as on the civil rights of all those campaigning for solidarity with the Palestinian people.
While Israel is further institutionalising its structural racism and the second-class status of its Palestinian citizens through measures such as the 2018 nation-state law, the IHRA’s working definition is attempting to silence international criticism.
The IHRA definition has been widely condemned, with 122 Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals recently publishing an open letter noting that it undermines both the struggle against antisemitism and the right of Palestinians to name their oppression and fight against it. Even the original author of the working definition, Kenneth Stern, has made similar arguments about how the definition has been weaponised.
This past July, Professor Rebecca Ruth Gold published an excellent overview of the debate surrounding the IHRA definition. She cites the opinion of an eminent jurist who believes that universities who apply the definition to censor speech critical of Israel “may find themselves in breach of UK and EU laws pertaining to academic freedom”.
Given all of the above, it should not come as a surprise that the definition has also been criticised for being an ineffective tool in the struggle against antisemitism. David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, wrote in 2016 that the definition was “bewilderingly imprecise” and failed to link antisemitism with other forms of racism. He recently reiterated his criticisms, saying the government should not impose a “faulty definition” on universities.
In fact, the definition does much to disarm the struggle against antisemitism in any institution where it would be used. It fails to identify structural factors that impose and reproduce it, focusing instead on interpersonal relations. This ignores the centrality of identifying and challenging both structural and institutional power in the struggle against racism.
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