The Guardian • Issue #2040

Anti-anti-Semitism, or attacking dissent?

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2040

Queen’s College, University of Melbourne. Photo: Donaldytong (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the last week of January this year, the University of Melbourne adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. It is the second Australian university to do so, after Wollongong. This might seem like the responsible thing to do: anti-Semitism definitely exists, and it should be opposed. However, the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism is not as straightforward and authoritative as it might seem. Of the 11 examples of anti-Semitism given by the IHRA definition, seven are about criticism of Israel, leading Jewish critics of the definition to argue that it being used to “shut down legitimate debate on Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and to harass and silence critics.”

Readers who take an interest in British politics might remember the absolute hounding Jeremy Corbyn received when he was leader of the British Labour Party over his hesitation on the IHRA definition.

But don’t take our word for it. You could take the word of the 40 Jewish groups who joined Jewish Voice for Peace in opposing equating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel, and produced the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which outlines what anti-Semitism is without being designed to stifle criticism of Israel, its actions, and some of its supporters.

The following is a letter from a Melbourne comrade and Melbourne University graduate to their old university.

To: Vice Chancellor

I’m a Melbourne University alumni. I’m writing to register my disappointment that the university has decided to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This definition has been used to stifle free speech at universities in the UK, and is an open invitation to interest groups who seek not so much to combat anti-Semitism as to close down legitimate debate.

Three sections of the IHRA definition are particularly problematic:

“Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

There are definitely Australians who prioritise what they see as the interests of Israel over the interests of their own country, and it should not be forbidden to describe this.

“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

The “e.g.” here is particularly worrying, implying as it does that someone seeking to close down legitimate criticism of Israel is free to be inventive about which criticisms do or don’t “deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” also that “Jewish people” are the same as the State of Israel – demonstrably not the case, as proved by the existence of Jewish people who are citizens of other countries, and the existence of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish. This line also invites people to conflate criticisms of racist policies or actions by the Israeli state with claiming that Israel’s existence is racist.

“Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

If the Israeli government has a policy or a practice that is similar to policies or practices of the Nazis, it should not be illegal to point that out. If someone compares contemporary Israeli policy to the Nazis and is wrong, the response in a university which genuinely valued free speech would be to explain why the comparison is wrong, not to close it down.

Adopting this definition amounts to caving to a particular interest group in an attempt to keep them quiet and to stave off criticism. It will not achieve either aim. The university is quite capable of adopting a definition of anti-Semitism which allows for free discussion.

I will not be donating to any Melbourne University fundraising appeals while the IHRA definition is Melbourne University policy.


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