In light of the rejection of adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism as official Students’ Union Policy at the recent All-Student General Assembly, Daniel Lubin argues why it should never have been debated by the General Assembly in the first place.
When the British government announced in 2016 that it was adopting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism it stated its intention was to ‘ensure that culprits will not be able to get away with being anti-Semitic because the term is ill-defined, or because different organisations or bodies have different interpretations of it.’
A similar statement was made at the Students’ Union UCL General Assembly on Monday 21st by a speaker in favour of the motion for the Union to adopt the definition: ‘Antisemitism can only be forcefully and effectively addressed once the problem has been clearly defined in a comprehensive and universal fashion’. The motion was defeated by a vote of over 70%.
It is ironic that the purpose of adopting the IHRA working definition is to establish a universal definition of antisemitism. The very fact that it has sparked such debate within and outside of Jewish communities shows that it is incapable of achieving this goal.
The examples of what constitutes antisemitism as given by the IHRA are worryingly ambiguous. At the heart of the row, for instance, is that claiming ‘the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour’ denies Jewish people the right to self-determination and is therefore anti-Semitic. It has been controversial since it has been considered to threaten freedom to legitimately criticise Israel. While the meaning of ‘endeavour’ in this context isn’t totally clear, it seems to refer to the Zionist endeavour to create the State of Israel in the early twentieth century. However, it has also been interpreted as referring to contemporary endeavours to maintain the occupation or conduct the annexation of the West Bank. It could even reference the treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The ambiguity of the term ‘endeavour’ allows all accusations of racism levelled against Israel to be considered antisemitic, legitimately or illegitimately.
A further example given is that ‘applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation’ constitutes antisemitism. The fact is Israel is not like any other democratic nation. Other nations have not continued a supposedly temporary occupation for over fifty years. Other nations’ identities are not precariously dependent on their populations’ demographic makeup. Other nations’ days of independence are not one and the same as another people’s day of catastrophe. It is very difficult to treat Israel like any other nation. But even given this, Israel is certainly not living up to the expectations of other democracies, namely in failing to respect international laws regarding human rights.
Given these uncertainties the IHRA presents, I regret that it has become the universal definition of antisemitism. It is absolutely Jews’ prerogative to define our own oppression, as it is for any other marginalised population. Anyone who says differently does a disservice to efforts of anti-racism. But I don’t know who gave the IHRA the authority to speak on behalf of all Jews, or why.
I resent too that the motion to pass the IHRA working definition of antisemitism was brought to the Students’ Union UCL General Assembly. We saw the war that was waged over the definition throughout much of 2018 – the General Assembly motion merely brought it to a new battleground. Given much of the student body would ardently refuse to threaten its ability to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and would therefore oppose the definition, it was doomed to fail. The student body was put in a position where either it adopt a problematic definition of antisemitism, or reject it and create an environment where Jews feel less safe on campus.
This is not to demean Jewish feelings of unsafety on campus – they are real. It is entirely in the Jewish community’s right to urge non-Jewish institutions to adopt measures to make its constituents feel safer. But the motion to pass the IHRA definition was not the solution, and it only creates a false correlation that a rejection of the definition signifies a lack of regard for Jewish safety.
Inevitably, there will be people who do not take Jewish concerns seriously – many are on the left and it is against them that this definition has been deployed. There are those who will think that the UCL students who proposed the recent motion were using their minority status for political gain, to hinder efforts of the Palestinian cause.
There are indeed Jews who misappropriate the term ‘antisemitism’ for political gain and damage the struggle against anti-Jewish oppression – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to name but one. But given the rise of antisemitism in the UK, particularly on university campuses, or even the rise of anti-Israel sentiment that can tend towards or be interpreted as antisemitism, UCL Jewish students’ concerns must be treated as seriously as those of any other minority. To assume instead that they are all little Bibi Netanyahus would be antisemitic. Judging by a Jewish student’s testimony of Monday’s assembly recently published in the Jewish Chronicle, it would seem that some parties opposed to the motion did not treat Jewish students’ feelings of threat with respectful or appropriate seriousness.
The writer of this testimony goes on to rightly state that it is her prerogative as a Jew to define antisemitism as she pleases. I would respond by saying that the Student Union UCL’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism would deny me the opportunity to do just this. The writer says that she should not be forced to choose what definition of antisemitism to use, but this would be precisely the circumstance any Jew who is uncomfortable with the IHRA definition would find themselves in were it adopted. The IHRA definition has become default, its validity assumed rather than interrogated. We should be considering the appropriateness and effectiveness of the IHRA definition as much as we should be actively seeking other more apt ones.
Indicative of the futility of the IHRA project is the forty-plus page document released in 2017 by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), ‘Understanding Antisemitism’. The publication details the nuances of antisemitism as compared to other forms of racism, the intersections of antisemitism with other forms of oppression, and the role of issues such as the Holocaust and Israel/Palestine in antisemitic discourse and Jewish identity. Perhaps energy should be spent propagating understanding of antisemitism rather than enshrining codes that only raise more questions than they answer.
To try to bracket such a phenomenon as antisemitism under a single definition is absurd. To think that any attempt to do so would be unanimously accepted by all Jews is equally so. The IHRA definition not only threatens to curb pro-Palestinian discourse, but also misrepresents many Jews. While the General Assembly motion undoubtedly came from a place of valid fear as to the security of the Jewish community, its effect was inevitably to further entrench division. To reject the IHRA definition of antisemitism is not to disregard the phenomenon of antisemitism altogether. For many Jews and non-Jews, it is the refusal to have one anti-racist endeavour jeopardise their commitment to another. For many Jews, it is the refusal to have the terms of their oppression misrepresented.