By Caitlin Cassidy
Push by parliamentary MPs to take up IHRA interpretation has been criticised as an ‘outright attack on academic freedom’
Australian universities are split on whether to adopt a controversial definition of antisemitism following a push from parliamentary MPs that has been criticised as an “outright attack on academic freedom”.
On 25 January the University of Melbourne became the first institution to publicly announce it would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism as part of its broader “anti-racism commitment”, leading to backlash from the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network who said it had been denied repeated requests for consultation.
The University of Melbourne’s move came after the Parliamentary Friends of IHRA sent an open letter to vice-chancellors in November, urging them to formally adopt the IHRA definition and requesting a response by the end of January.
The IHRA has faced global backlash among Palestinian and Arab scholars who argue its definition of antisemitism, which includes “targeting the state of Israel”, could be used to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel and stifle freedom of expression, citing the banning of events supporting Palestinian rights on campuses after the definition was adopted by universities in the UK.
The Parliamentary Friends of IHRA is headed by the MPs Josh Burns, Allegra Spender and Julian Leeser, and members include the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, and former ministers Alan Tudge and Paul Fletcher.
The group’s letter said universities weren’t being asked “to restrict academic freedom of speech” but rather “make it clear, in word and deed, that antisemitism and Holocaust denial are false and pernicious ideologies and are not acceptable to your university”.
But the president of the National Tertiary Education Union Sydney branch, Nick Riemer, said the Parliamentary Friends of the IHRA had launched an “outright attack on academic freedom”.
“[The IHRA] will prevent universities doing what they’re meant to do … critically analyse the contemporary world without concern for lobbies,” he said. “A powerful political lobby is trying to stifle the course of free debate in universities.
Guardian Australia can reveal Macquarie University and the University of Wollongong had already changed their policies to include the IHRA statement before the letter.
A source who wished to remain anonymous told Guardian Australia there had been no consultation with academics at Macquarie University before the definition was included into its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion policy over the summer of 2021. Macquarie University was approached for comment.
The University of Wollongong said it adopted the definition in April and said it would have no impact on “academic freedom and freedom of speech”. “Instead, it is a reference for our community members to help understand what may constitute antisemitism,” the university said.
The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network said it was “disturbed” by the lack of transparency.
“Universities that have adopted the definition have not consulted with community groups or stakeholders,” said its president, Nasser Mashni. “Some universities have engaged with us on this issue, but others have either refused to acknowledge our correspondence, or misled us.”
Other universities were split on their response, with some considering the definition and others appearing to rule out a change.
The University of Sydney said it was “carefully considering” the definition and had not made any decisions.
A spokesperson for the Australian National University said it was “aware” of the IHRA definition and was “giving it due consideration”, while the University of Adelaide said “discussion on this matter will continue”.
A University of New South Wales spokesperson said it recognised the definition raised “complex legal and other issues”.
A spokesperson for Griffith University said it recognised antisemitism as a serious form of discrimination but wouldn’t be adopting the definition.
A spokesperson for James Cook University said it already had policies in place and that suitably addressed “the balance between free speech and vilification”, while the University of Queensland said its overarching policy “clearly states” the expectations of the community to prevent discrimination.
Parliamentary Friends of IHRA has also been critiqued by Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Australia for potentially violating rules which specify Parliamentary friends groups must be “apolitical”.
In a letter of complaint on 22 November, BDSA said of 11 examples in the IHRA working definition illustrating antisemitism in practice, seven related to Israel and political debate around it.
The Zionist Federation of Australia said the group was a “reflection of the importance both sides of politics places on the fight against rising antisemitism”.
“We look forward to working hand-in-hand … as we continue to advocate the adoption of the IHRA by businesses and institutions across Australia,” it said.