Nadhim Zahawi: Universities adopting IHRA is ‘essential, not a box-ticking exercise’

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Nadhim Zahawi: Universities adopting IHRA is ‘essential, not a box-ticking exercise’

Education Secretary told HET event with Yehuda Bauer that higher education institutions backing the international definition of antisemitism is 'not optional'

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Nadhim Zahawi and Yehuda Bauer
Nadhim Zahawi and Yehuda Bauer

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has declared that he regards the adoption by universities of the IHRA definition of antisemitism as “essential, not optional. This is not a box-ticking exercise. It’s a vital tool in tackling antisemitism, because it sends a signal that the university takes these issues really seriously. It is a way of nailing your colours to the mast for all to see, telling everyone, students, staff, that antisemitism has no place anywhere… I am not going to ease up until we see everyone fall into line on this”.

Mr Zahawi made his passionate opening remarks at this year’s Lord Merlyn-Rees annual lecture, under the auspices of the Holocaust Educational Trust. More than 700 people worldwide heard him speak in the most personal way of his own experiences before he and his family came to Britain.

Explaining why he often says his visit to Auschwitz last year changed his life, he said: “I know what it feels like to be a young Kurdish boy, terrified by a dictator who has corrupted the state for their own ends. I know what it feels like to be a child in a family that is forced to run away in fear, under cover of darkness; and [that I was forced to leave] rather than go to the same school I had always been to, and grown up with the same friends I’d always had. I know what it feels like when the people you looked to, to safeguard you, turn away from you”.

The Zahawi family were lucky, he said, because they had been able to enter Britain and make a life for themselves. But that was all the more reason, he said, to continue re-telling the lessons of the Holocaust. “The dangers have not passed. Too many of those evils still exist today. I’ve heard first-hand of the abuse Jewish friends have faced in the streets, in restaurants and cafes. We know that Jewish students are victims of antisemitism on campus; and we hear the despicable way that too many people attack the state of Israel and its citizens”.

The Secretary of State nodded to his previous political brief as the man responsible for the vaccination roll-out, when he declared that “education is the only vaccination against antisemitism”, and pledged continued government support for the Jewish community because he did not believe Jews should be fighting antisemitism on its own.

Keynote speaker Professor Yehuda Bauer, one of the world’s leading Holocaust scholars and an architect of the IHRA declaration, went even further in his address. Antisemitism, he said, had had the most profound effect on global non-Jewish society, leading to the deaths of millions in the Second World War, directly because of Hitler’s intentions. Thus, he said, “antisemitism is a non-Jewish problem, and it is in the interests of non-Jewish society to fight the scourge which endangers the very society in which we live”.

Professor Bauer, now 95 and a former director of Holocaust studies at Yad Vashem, had a pugnacious message for non-Jewish society. “Attack antisemitism, don’t defend the Jews. Attack the antisemites on social media, identify them, state where their money comes from… We should not defend the Jews, we should attack the antisemites as the basic answer to the situation”.

Yehuda Bauer

He believed that governments which understood the situation were in fact threatened by antisemitism.

Later in his remarks Professor Bauer drew a distinction between Holocaust denial — which he said had been “sent into the shadows” with the victory of Deborah Lipstadt over David Irving — and Holocaust “distortion”, which he said manifested itself today in the wearing of yellow stars by anti-vax campaigners.

The event was chaired by Karen Pollock, chief executive of HET.

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