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Does being anti-Israel mean you’re anti-Semitic? Discuss

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Five Australian universities have adopted anti-Semitism guidelines, a move that is disturbing Jewish and Holocaust scholars.

Last week, Monash University became the fifth Australian university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of “anti-Semitism” (following Melbourne, Macquarie, Wollongong and Sunshine Coast universities).

It’s been a quiet progression without much fanfare, but it’s the consequence of extremely heavy lobbying.

In Canberra, the multipartisan Parliamentary Friends of the IHRA launched last year, and its first order of business was to write to universities “urging them to adopt the IHRA working definition”.

If nothing else, the fact politicians are demanding universities take an action directly related to academic freedom should trip everyone’s antennae. What’s going on?

Melbourne Uni’s new anti-Semitism guidelines are an attack on free thought

Politics is what’s going on, as is the case any time universities are being monstered by political entities, large or small. What happens on campus never stays on campus; for all their corporatisation, universities remain major cultural forces in every country. For the same reason that the Chinese Communist Party is so fascinated by what gets taught at Australian universities about China, powerful interests care deeply about how “Jewish” concerns are handled.

But let’s get specific. Anti-Semitism is a problem because of what it caused (the Holocaust) and because it has made a comeback. As a species, it’d be nice if we took it more seriously this time around.

The IHRA definition is an attempt to address not just the most brutal iterations of anti-Semitism (overt hatred of Jewish people) but its more subtle manifestations as well, on the basis that’s where it always begins: with distortions and blood-libel, whatever emerges as the contemporary equivalent to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The basic IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is unremarkable, but it adds “contemporary examples” to illustrate — and there’s where the problem comes.

The definition first emerged in 2005, created as a “working definition” for the purpose of data collection. It laid fallow until 2016, when the IHRA picked it up and adopted it as its “non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism”. Then the lobbying began.

Interestingly, lead drafter of the definition Kenneth Stern has argued strongly that it is being misused and is antithetical to academic freedom. He testified to the US Congress that it “was never intended as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus”.

Stern’s worries are widely shared. In November 2022, 128 scholars who all specialise in anti-Semitism, Holocaust studies or modern Jewish history published an open letter opposing the adoption of the definition. They called it “vague and incoherent”, arguing that it “has been generating confusion about what constitutes anti-Semitism”.

In January, 70 Australian academics did much the same, going public to argue that “Australian universities should not be relying on a partisan definition as a means of determining what is proscribed political speech. The independence of universities and their commitments to free thought and speech, research and teaching should be paramount.”

What are they so worried about? The devil is in the detail: the examples the IHRA definition provides. Some are unexceptional, but consider this stated example “of anti-Semitism in public life”:

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.

Or this:

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

Both these propositions hold a totemic significance for the pro-Israel movement globally. Many people, not just Jews, would vehemently argue that you cannot call Israel racist or compare anything it does to the Nazis, because that’s sticking a hot knife in an open wound and is simply intolerable. Because of the Holocaust.

Fair enough. It’s a legitimate point of view. I happen to hold an analogous personal view on a related question as to the use of the word “genocide”, which I believe needs to be wielded more sparingly than it tends to be, lest we misunderstand by inappropriate equation just how unique the Holocaust was.

However, my personal view is contestable, and so are these others. Not everyone agrees that you can’t point to one of the current actions of the Israeli government in the West Bank and call it racist; or even, if that’s your opinion, compare it to Nazism.

The IHRA definition says no, you can’t say those things, ever, because doing so is by definition anti-Semitic. Again, arguable point, but only arguable. When it comes to definitions, when those definitions are being encoded in policy (which is usually a precursor to their being enshrined in law) as proscriptions on what one may say, precision is paramount. If it’s not unarguable (putting aside bad-faith arguments), the definition is an overreach.

The point made by the 128 Jewish scholars is that adopting the definition in that form “would transform any factual discussion about Israeli violations and accountability into a fraught debate about alleged anti-Semitism”.

Even if you believe that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic are synonyms, surely it’s not too difficult to see the danger down the road when we try to define non-definitive points of debate out of existence.

Michael Bradley

Is denouncing Israel’s actions in the West Bank anti-Semitic? Let us know by writing to Please include your full name to be considered for publication. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

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Article source: Crikey

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000