OPINION: Jewish students deserve a better definition of anti-Semitism

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OPINION: Jewish students deserve a better definition of anti-Semitism

Joanna Phillips on why many Jewish students demand a nuanced debate on Israel and Zionism to reflect a plurality of views found among British Jews.

Demonstrators disrupting an event with Israeli speaker at UCL campus.
Demonstrators disrupting an event with Israeli speaker at UCL campus.

For just over four months, the UK government has been using a definition of anti-Semitism which is not fit for purpose, and which has been manipulated to dangerously curb open dialogue on Israel.

Nowhere are the failings of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism more apparent than when it has been applied to universities.

Myself and other students believe Jewish students deserve a better definition, so we have put forward an amendment at NUS National Conference to introduce an alternative based on our experiences.

The people who wrote the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism never intended for it to be adopted at institutional levels and within universities. It was instead a tool for data collectors, to provide a Europe-wide frame of reference.

Joanna Phillips is a politics student at Bath

Kenneth Stern, author of the European Monitoring Centre’s (EUMC) definition of anti-Semitism on which the IHRA definition is based, went as far as to write to the US House of Representatives urging them not to adopt this definition for American campuses. Jewish students need a tailored definition, written with the realities of modern universities in mind, not one designed for researchers.

Stern was prompted to write his letter after seeing the waves of censorship the definition unleashed within American campuses. The IHRA definition fails to properly distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and hatred of Jews disguised as anti-Zionism.

The examples of anti-Semitism it gives, such as “requiring…behaviour [of Israel] not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” are vague and open to an interpretation that severely limits criticism of Israel.

In particular, BDS has been singled out as a policy which contravenes the IHRA guidelines. This has consequences; in February the University of Central Lancaster (UCLan) cancelled an event titled “Debunking misconceptions on Palestine and the importance of BDS”, on the ludicrous grounds the event was anti-Semitic.

The UCLan administration did not come to the decision to cancel the event alone. Standwithus urged their supporters to contact the university with complaints, and applauded the cancellation.

Meanwhile, the Vice President of the Board of Deputies encouraged several university vice chancellors to amend or cancel Israeli Apartheid Week events, citing antisemitism concerns.

This is the same Board of Deputies who, following a protest at a UCL Friends of Israel event, stated “attempting to close down free speech is completely unacceptable”. Jewish community leaders are using the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism to push an agenda which includes shutting down events that encourage BDS.

BDS is of course a sensitive topic for many Jewish students. However, there is an important difference between discomfort and discrimination. I respect the right of any student to protest BDS policy, but this debate should be held using facts and ideology, not reduced to accusations of racism.

Banning any event which promotes BDS is not only disastrous for free academic debate, it is also dangerous for Jewish students. It sends the message that to support Palestinians, or to be in favour of BDS, you will inevitably be regarded as an anti-Semite.

There are unfortunately times when Palestinian activism crosses a line and verges into anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories and Holocaust trivialisation.

If Palestinian activists view accusations of anti-Semitism as an inevitability, rather than something that can and should be eliminated from the movement, this behaviour will only worsen. Jewish organisations more than ever need to be engaged in substantial dialogue with their Palestinian counterparts, yet the IHRA definition is a major stumbling block to this.

The Board of Deputies seems to operate under the presumption that the Jewish community uniformly oppose boycotts of Israel when defining BDS as anti-Semitic. This simply isn’t the case. 41% of British Jews under 30 would be prepared to support sanctions against Israel to encourage peace, and 25% of Jewish students feel ‘comfortable’ or ‘very comfortable’ with BDS at their universities.

The “Bridges for Boycotts” initiative by Jewish student group Jewdents features a number of Jewish students who are in favour of boycotting Israel.

My generation of Jewish students are demanding a nuanced and inclusive debate on Israel and Zionism which reflects the plurality of views found in our community. We want a definition of anti-Semitism which encourages this debate, not one which leads to dissenting voices being silenced in our name.

This year at NUS National Conference, myself and other students have submitted a motion amendment, 412a, outlining an alternative definition of anti-Semitism. The proposed amendment can be found here.

Our definition draws upon the work of scholar Brian Klug, definitions of anti-Semitism found at various UK Student Unions and other examples provided by Jewish students. It is a comprehensive definition which clearly outlines instances of unacceptable behaviour without conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

While no definition will ever be perfect, this is certainly an improvement on the IHRA one we currently have. Jewish students deserve a definition that protects free speech, prevents anti-Semitic hatred and tropes on campus, while still allowing – if not outright encouraging – a greater informed dialogue with all students on all of these issues.

At NUS Conference I’ll be speaking for an amendment which does just that.

• Joanna is a politics student at Bath, and a member of Jewdents, a radical Jewish student group.”

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