UCL Students Reject IHRA definition of Antisemitism

UCL Students Reject IHRA definition of Antisemitism

At the General Assembly on Monday 21st January the motion for the Union to adopt the definition was defeated by over 70%.

On Monday 21st January at the General Assembly debate the UCL student body voted against a motion that would have seen the Union adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’. The motion was defeated by over 70% of attendees, following a heated debate that became increasingly focused upon the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The proposal, tabled by second year History, Politics and Economics student Tiger Solomons-Tibi, also advocated the creation of a ‘Jewish History Month’ to “expand antisemitism awareness”, the election of a Jewish representative on the BAME students board, and an obligation from the Union to “stop antisemitic external speakers holding events”.

The IHRA’s definition – which the intergovernmental network describes as a series of clarifying guidelines used by countries and organisations in their efforts to combat anti-Jewish prejudice – has sparked international controversy in recent years due to what its critics see as a conflation between antisemitism and criticism of the State of Israel.

Examples of antisemitism under the ‘Working Definition’ include Holocaust denial, the “calling for or aiding the killing or harming of Jews”, and the “making of dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Jews”. According to the IHRA, claims that the “State of Israel is a racist endeavour”, comparisons between Israeli policy and that of Nazi Germany, and “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” are also considered to be antisemitic.

At the General Assembly, debate between those for and against the proposal was largely conducted along these lines. There was widespread consensus that Jewish students should be protected against discrimination, yet opposition speakers outlined concerns over the definition’s implications on free speech at UCL.

Solomons-Tibi introduced the motion by reading out the definition in full before drawing attention to a recent spike in antisemitic incidents across both the UK and at UCL and citing the need for Jewish students to “feel safe” on campus. Another proposition speaker criticised the “sad state of affairs that our university does not have a working definition of antisemitism”. He argued that UCL’s Jewish community has felt “alienated and attacked” by events such as the Friends of Palestine’s November 2017 conference that invited the prominent Israeli-American Anti-Zionist activist Miko Peled to speak on campus. Peled had previously referred to Jews on Twitter as “dirty, sleazing people” and drawn comparisons between Zionists and Nazis. The speaker stated that “Antisemitic speakers attract negative press for our university… The IHRA definition is supported by the UK government, the Conservative Party and the Labour party – let UCL not be the odd one out when it comes to standing against racism”.

In an impassioned plea, Max Traegar, History and Politics student and Debate Society Vice President argued: “The question which we are presented with tonight is quite simple, are we going to listen to a small, endangered minority who are asking for something which is part of their self-definition as an ethnic group to be accepted by their peers in their institution which they are part of?

“I am aware that there are parts of the resolution, especially parts to do with Israel, that people find problematic, but Jewish people like me, we’re not asking you to love the Israeli government, we’re not asking you to stop criticising it, because we’re not going to stop doing that either. We’re asking you to accept something that we self-define as prejudice against ourselves.

He continued: “Antisemitism can only be forcefully and effectively addressed once the problem has been clearly defined in a comprehensive and universal fashion, which it isn’t currently at UCL.Antisemitism cannot be defined subjectively by independent organisations and governments or UCL or the Students’ Union. It is not up to non-Jews to define antisemitism for Jewish people.

“There is an undeniable wave of antisemitism that has rippled over the world in the last few years, with particularly record levels in countries like ours, where Jews have deep-seated roots and have long been integrated in public life and society. Without a definition, hateful acts against Jews are relegated to a murky corner where antisemitism remains open to interpretation with potentially tragic effects”.

One opposition speaker, a second year medic who mentioned her involvement in pro-Palestine activism, stated that she wholeheartedly” accepts “almost every single term of the definition that was read out” by Tiger, and rejects “racism against Jews”. However, she added that “what hasn’t been mentioned by the proposition are the few examples within this definition that do infringe on freedom of speech. Voting for this motion unfortunately may remove the platform that we provide for certain speakers to raise awareness for human rights issues, and block our valid and internationally acclaimed criticism of the State of Israel.

“Guidance from the House of Commons shows that the definition is not legally binding, which shows that its primary purpose is to shut down pressure groups on campus, otherwise there would be no need for our union to accept this.”She drew attention to the the Home Office Select Committee’s statement that the definition “could encroach on freedom of speech”.

Another opposition speaker criticised the “pattern of vagueness” he perceived within the IHRA guidelines, saying: “Accusations of antisemitism based on vagueness can lead to baseless slander, such as the slander targeted at some guest speakers last year” He argued that the definition “conflates denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination with legitimate criticism of Israel”.

Speaking against the motion, Women’s Officer Abeni Olayinka Adeyemi, argued that sabbatical officers had campaigned “fiercely” against anti-Jewish discrimination, committing UCL to conducting a review into the history of Eugenics research at this university, a major conduit of Nazi antisemitism. Abeni suggested that the codification of the contentious definition was not needed, as “students who report discrimination against them are already supported through advice centre with all options including the option of going down the disciplinary route if they wish to do so. The UCL Centre for the Study of Race and Racism that is due to set up next year has also resolved to carry out research and teachings on the history of antisemitism, with a Jewish representative to be on the advisory board.”

212 students voted against the proposal, 78 voted to approve it and 9 abstained.

Image Credit: Hans Hu