Deadly word games: universities and defining antisemitism

Feb 2, 2023


“Far from a necessary instrument in the fight against antisemitism, the IHRA definition is a hammer to crush Palestine advocacy, and has been the subject of intense debate internationally for several years,” writes Nick Riemer.

By Nick Riemer

In a few weeks, Vice-Chancellors will be discussing a request by a group of federal politicians to endorse the latest weapon in Zionists’ longstanding bid to suppress criticism of Israeli apartheid on campus—the highly controversial definition of antisemitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

The VCs were asked to endorse the definition in December by a new group, the Australian Parliamentary Friends of the IHRA. Their decision will constitute a watershed moment for universities’ already somewhat threatened credibility as centres of independent analysis and truth-telling. Far from a necessary instrument in the fight against antisemitism, the IHRA definition is a hammer to crush Palestine advocacy, and has been the subject of intense debate internationally for several years.

There is now a very significant body of evidence about the political instrumentalisation of the IHRA definition to suppress criticism of Israel around the world. Amidst the panoply of critiques, including from Jewish and Palestinian groups and even from the definition’s original author, we can thank Independent Jewish Voices Canada for the most comprehensive analysis yet produced. A report from October last year, Unveiling the Chilly Climate: The Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada, concludes that the IHRA definition ‘represents an unprecedented attempt to frame criticism of the State of Israel or of the political ideology of Zionism as ‘antisemitism’. It notes that

Despite claims that the definition and its examples are not ‘legally binding,’ alleged contraventions of the IHRA have underpinned many of the cases and attacks launched against advocates for Palestinian human rights. Such cases are numerous in the U.S., the UK, and Germany and also have appeared in Canada, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Finland, and Australia.

In Australia, the question of the definition’s adoption has come to a head at a moment where what is at stake in backing Israel and its apartheid policies is more than usually clear. As payoff for supporting his ongoing premiership, Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu has delivered effective control over Palestinians in the West Bank into the hands of fanatical Jewish-supremacists, previously regarded as too extreme even in Israel’s radicalised political culture.

With Israel’s treatment of Palestinians now a spin-off of Netanyahu’s stay-out-of-gaol schemes, the settlement movement and the security forces that support it have greater scope than ever to destroy Palestinian lives. 2022 was one of the deadliest years for West Bank Palestinians in nearly two decades, and this year thirty-five Palestinians were murdered in January alone. The new national security minister, fascist ideologue Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the minister responsible for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, Bezalel Smotrich, have given the most extreme elements of Israeli society a deadly new licence. When VCs discuss adopting the IHRA, they need to understand that these are the political forces they will be gratifying.

If the IHRA definition merely set out to combat antisemitism, no one would be objecting to it—least of all the Palestine solidarity movement, which has repeatedly declared its unconditional opposition to all forms of racism, antisemitism among them, and includes many prominent Jewish activists and supporters.

It is not, in fact, the IHRA definition as such—namely ‘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’—that has such dangerous implications for Palestinians, their supporters, and academic freedom in general, but the examples the IHRA has appended to illustrate it.

As has been repeatedly noted, these examples treat a range of unexceptional criticisms of Israel as antisemitic. If the IHRA’s interpretation of antisemitism is accepted, ‘claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’ becomes antisemitic, even though Israel’s very existence, like Australia’s, is predicated on the mass dispossession of Indigenous people. Similarly, the IHRA definition formalizes one of Zionists’ central accusations against critics: the idea that they make criticisms of Israel that they do not make of other states. Under the IHRA definition this becomes antisemitic too, since critics supposedly demand of Israel ‘a behavior not … demanded of any other democratic nation.’

These examples could not, of course, be more vague, and they allow a wide margin of manoeuvre in their application: if a Zionist wants to dismiss political criticism of Israel as simple antisemitism, the IHRA definition will make it possible for them to do so. It’s striking that the IHRA allow the charge of antisemitism to apply to criticism of Israel regardless of any of the actual facts of that country’s practices towards Palestinians: no matter the details of Israel’s escalating apartheid—how many illegal settlements it authorizes, how many Palestinians it dispossesses, illegally imprisons or guns down—criticising Israel as a racist endeavour, or singling it out for criticism, isn’t, on the IHRA definition, political criticism, but hatred of Jews.

No doubt sensitive to the unjustifiability of this position, the definition takes care to specify that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’ But the entire thrust of Zionists’ arguments against their critics, for many years, has precisely been that Israel’s critics do hold it to a different standard to other states, and are therefore antisemitic. These arguments are either false or irrelevant, as many Palestinian and other critics have explained, and as I’ve explored at some length in my recent book Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine. Universities, Intellectualism and Liberation. Israel simply isn’t comparable to New Zealand, Venezuela, or Japan: alone of these countries, it is an apartheid state, as confirmed by a large variety of Palestinian, Israeli and international authorities. It deserves particular criticism as such.

Confected accusations of antisemitism have long been used as a tool to discredit advocates for justice and human rights for Palestinians. In Australia, Jake Lynch is one of the most prominent targets of—thankfully unsuccessful—Zionist repression. Now the IHRA definition, which has been uncritically adopted or endorsed by a wide range of governments, organisations and universities, gives this repression an additional legitimacy.

Last year, Sheffield Hallam University in the UK used the IHRA to suspend Shahd Abusalama, a Palestinian lecturer, because of her advocacy for Palestinian rights. In the US, George Washington University’s Lara Sheehi, a coauthor of Psychoanalysis under Occupation. Practising Resistance in Palestine, is now being targeted for antisemitism on the grounds codified by the IHRA. In Australia, the University of Melbourne has pre-empted the national Vice-Chancellors’ meeting by adopting the IHRA definition, as Macquarie University had already quietly done a year ago. The ALP also adopted the definition in 2020. When will our purges start in earnest?

Vice-Chancellors should carefully consider the consequences of adopting the IHRA definition and its examples. The definition is so capacious, its construal of antisemitism so unreasonably broad, that endorsing it will have a consequence that has hardly been discussed: it will suddenly leave VCs with large numbers of ‘antisemites’ among their employees.

First among these newly-declared antisemites will be union members. In 2021, following Israel’s devastating war on Gaza, hundreds of NTEU members in union branches around the country, including at Sydney and UNSW, passed resolutions condemning Israel’s actions and offering differing degrees of support to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement—the Palestinian-led, civil-society campaign for Palestine justice. They were followed by the national union last year. BDS is an Israel-specific campaign, and so inherently falls foul of the charge of singling out Israel. Are all the university staff who voted for these resolutions immediately to be declared antisemitic?

What about the numerous academics—experts in Middle East Studies, International Relations, International Law, and other disciplines—who have asserted the—for the IHRA, antisemitic—proposition that Israel, as a settler-colonial state that practises apartheid is, precisely, a ‘racist endeavour’? And the countless others who may not have directly stated as much, but who would assent to the proposition if asked to do so? My colleague Ben Saul, Challis Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney, defended the Sydney Festival boycott in 2022, has opposed the listing of the political branch of Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and often comments unfavourably about Israeli conduct, including in The Conversation, which is funded by universities. Is he now to be certified as a card-carrying antisemite?

How many of their own staff members can Vice-Chancellors afford to count as antisemitic? Is Kenneth Roth, the Jewish former head of Human Rights Watch, under whose leadership the organisation produced one of the many detailed indictments of Israeli apartheid and anti-Palestinian racism, antisemitic? Roth has just been awarded a fellowship at Harvard to write up his work, despite an initially successful censorship attempt from the Israel-lobby. Would an Australian university declare him a racist? What about scholars of settler-colonialism, genocide studies, whiteness studies, racism, Middle Eastern history, global literature, or any number of other disciplines, who, in the course of their academic work, frequently find themselves adopting positions that are critical of Israel without also criticising other states? What about academics like me, who explicitly advocate for the institutional academic boycott of Israel, and who engage in both scholarship and polemic on the topic?

In those places, like the UK, where the IHRA has been widely adopted, there has not been any large-scale purge of Israel-critical academics. Zionists would, no doubt, like UK universities to achieve the scale of expulsions recently effected in UK Labour. Even given university administrators’ fondness for sacking staff, any overt, large-scale campaign against anti-Zionists seems unlikely in Australia at the moment. Regardless, the IHRA definition is likely to trigger widespread self-censorship—exactly as it must be intended to—and provides an instant excuse for sacking the most high-profile advocates for Palestinian rights—Palestinians first and foremost.

Purge or not, the principle remains: if they sign up, Australian Vice-Chancellors will have to admit that, on the very definition they have just accepted, quite large numbers of their staff are to be officially regarded as antisemites. This is not only untrue: it’s also extremely destructive for the fight against real antisemitism, which must not be instrumentalised for the purposes of narrow political advantage by the same political actors who stand on the side of an apartheid state.

Were the definition and its examples adopted, VCs would be faced with an awkward choice: either initiate disciplinary proceedings against all the staff members revealed as antisemitic by the IHRA, or, by failing to do so, tacitly admit that antisemitism will be tolerated on campus—another disastrous and unconscionable consequence for anyone who thinks anti-racism actually matters.

It is not so long ago that Australian universities adopted the French free speech code. As I argued at the time, the code was enthusiastically adopted by universities because it legitimised administrators’ discretion to control campus speech however they wished. It was, nevertheless, presented as the concretisation of a genuine commitment on the part of Vice-Chancellors to universities as sites for real debate. That was a mere four years ago. Adopting the IHRA would make a mockery of that decision.

IHRA proponents argue for their definition on the grounds that Jewish people must be the ones to decide what is and isn’t antisemitic. That principle is arguable, but it certainly doesn’t allow Israel lobbyists to mandate whatever understanding of antisemitism happens to suit their current political purposes—in this case, discrediting Palestine advocates. And it completely ignores that the IHRA doesn’t even speak for all Jews, as the rival Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism makes clear. In all this debate, it is Palestinians who are systematically ignored. The IHRA is a tool to suppress advocates of justice and human rights for Palestinians. But how many Vice-Chancellors have made any serious efforts to involve Palestinians themselves in the discussion? There are staff of Palestinian background at many, even perhaps at most, Australian universities. Have they been even consulted? The University of Melbourne withheld from APAN, the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, that it was intending to adopt the IHRA, and refused to meet with them.

One would like to believe that Australian Vice-Chancellors would not look favourably on the request to adopt the IHRA defintion, which comes from a small minority of members of a parliament that is still starving higher education of government support. The universities of Aberdeen and Toronto—both serious research institutions—have rejected the IHRA. Even the US Department of Education has pointedly failed to adopt it. As I argue in my book, you can criticise the policies of Costa Rica, where Catholicism is a state religion, without being anti-Catholic or anti-Latino, just as criticism of Iran isn’t Islamophobic or anti-Shia, and criticism of Cambodia isn’t anti-Buddhist or anti-Asian. For the same reason, objecting to Israel’s intense and escalating anti-Palestinianism is not anti-Jewish racism.

It remains to be seen just how open to reason on this elementary point Australian Vice-Chancellors will be—or how far they are prepared to bolster the stocks of an extremist, apartheid state by joining in the IHRA’s deadly word games.

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