By Caitlin Cassidy
International code adopted as part of ‘anti-racism commitment’ could be used to shut down genuine criticism of the state of Israel, critics warn
The University of Melbourne has become the first tertiary institution in Australia to adopt a controversial international definition of antisemitism, in a move critics say could be used to shut down legitimate criticism of the state of Israel.
On Wednesday, the university announced it would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as part of its broader “anti-racism commitment”.
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 United Kingdom.
A University of Melbourne spokesperson said it had implemented the IHRA definition in “direct response” to recent conversations with many Jewish students and staff and would use it as an “important educative tool”.
They said it came with a commitment to develop a definition of Islamophobia in consultation with Muslim students and staff, “taking proper account of other external expert thinking in the process”.
The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network first requested a formal meeting with the university to discuss the development of its anti-racism framework in May.
In August, it reached out again, to “respectively reiterate” a request to meet with university leadership after the student union, the UMSU, revived a motion calling on the university to divest, boycott and cut ties from “Israeli institutions, researchers and academics who support the Israeli oppression of Palestine”.
The motion was first passed in April and withdrawn a month later over threat of legal action.
“We would also counsel the university against adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism or issuing any criticism of UMSU’s resolution and actions,” then president George Browning said in the letter.
An initial response from the acting vice-chancellor, Nicola Phillips, sent on 19 September, said the university was “working on a definition of racism that speaks to our context” as the foundation for its action plan, led by the academic community.
In December, APAN sent another letter, reiterating the IHRA definition caused “significant harm” to academic freedom and was being “increasingly weaponised against pro-Palestinian initiatives and to silence Palestinian voices”.
“We remain steadfast in our opinion that it is essential that we share with you the varied and unique experiences of racism that Palestinians and their supporters face in their university lives,” he said.
“We have previously offered to meet and brief you, as we strongly believe this will enable you to ensure that these experiences are taken into consideration.”
Phillips did not address the request for a meeting.
Ghassan Hage, a former professor at the University of Melbourne, was among 122 Palestinian and Arab figures to sign an open letter in 2020 expressing concerns the IHRA’s broad definition was being deployed to “shut down defenders of Palestinian rights”.
The Melbourne University spokesperson said on Wednesday the institution would encompass “diverse perspectives and frameworks” into its policies and remained in dialogue with students and staff on the matter.
“We, like all universities, must continue to welcome and enable vigorous political debate and difference of view based on rigorous academic investigation.”
The Australian government gave bipartisan support to adopt the IHRA working definition in 2021. Since then, a number of states have adopted or endorsed it.
The Zionist Federation of Australia president, Jeremy Leibler, said the university’s move was an example of “real leadership” and a “strong step forward” in the fight against antisemitism.
The Australasian Union of Jewish Students said the IHRA was “created to remember what can happen if hate and discrimination are not called out”.
“In order to ensure that antisemitism and all forms of discrimination have no place on our campuses, we must be able to define it by amplifying the voices of those who experience it,” it said in a statement.