25 November 2021 | OPINION
The student union at Queen Mary University – my university – has voted to reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. In a vote on Tuesday evening, the motion to reject the definition and to pressure the University to do the same was passed by an overwhelming majority. 73% of the votes went for rejecting the definition and only 23% for upholding it.
The IHRA’s definition states:
“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Those who do not approve of this definition claim that the definition is “too vague to the point of being unusable” and also that it stifles “freedom of speech and the struggle for social justice across the globe”. (Full Motion)
On a personal level, the rejection of the IHRA does not greatly affect day-to-day life. Niggling about the nuances of an anti-Semitism definition is not the top priority for most Jews. Anti-Semitism is plain and obvious for the most part, so arguing about its exact parameters is in most cases redundant.
Furthermore, it was argued that minorities should be able to identify their own discriminations. I do not fully agree with this proposition. On Question Time last week, host Fiona Bruce began conducting a conversation about Azeem Rafiq, the former cricketer who was the subject of racist abuse, by allowing panellist Nazir Afzal OBE to kick off the conversation. At this point, Mr Afzal got shirty and accused Ms Bruce of racism for asking an ethnic minority to speak first about ethnic minority issues.
This was obviously patently ridiculous. Poor Ms Bruce didn’t know which way to look! Perhaps Mr Afzal did feel aggrieved, but as a society, there must be clearly set definitions of what racism is and what it isn’t, which should not extend to situations like the one experienced by Ms Bruce. Self-definitions have the capacity to go over the top, so there must be some societal approval for such definitions.
But this is where my sympathy ends. There are a far more concerning things about this vote.
How is it that this motion could get such traction and opposition? On the whole, this could be seen as a relatively inoffensive motion in principle, so how was it the case that so many turned up to vote either for or against it – and then left again?
As mentioned above, those against the motion argue that it impinges upon freedom of speech, in particular with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The claim is that academics are currently, under the IHRA’s definition, in fear of their jobs and afraid to speak about certain issues surrounding Israel.
This is patently false. The Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement, which seeks to economically sanction Israel, has never been stronger. The support for Palestinians has never been greater. Students at the London School of Economics can chase and threaten the Israeli Ambassador with no consequence. On the left, it is controversial to be pro-Israel these days and any social justice cause is continually linked with the pro-Palestinian movement. The idea that Palestinian voices are being silenced is unfounded.
But even, so let us run with this assumption that the definition of anti-Semitism is too broad and it impedes freedom of speech. I wonder if the same enthusiasm would be shown to narrow the definition of, say, racism.
Having sat in Social Science lectures, I can attest to the wide-ranging use of the word racism. One tutor informed us that houses were racist because houses are a Western ideal and they assume supremacy over nomadic lifestyles. Moreover, any suggestion that the developed world is better, in any sense, than the non-developed world is also labelled racist. This, of course, forms part of the Critical Race Theory agenda that is becoming increasingly pervasive in education. Any attempt to argue against such beliefs earns you the tag of racist.
But I wonder what would happen if a motion to narrow racism so that it did not include Critical Race Theory were to be brought? Execration. Statements. Condemnation. Would the same people who claim that anti-Semitism is being used to silence debate stand up for the freedom of others to speak out against Critical Race Theory? I somehow doubt it.
And this begs the question: why anti-Semitism? Why the Jews?
The Community Security Trust announced that 111 incidents of anti-Semitism were reported during the 2020-2021 academic year, compared to 70 cases in 2019-2020. Most of the incidents recorded took place during the Israel-Gaza conflict earlier this year, according to the report.
The scenes of pro-Palestinian protestors driving halfway down the country to shout threats of violence and advocate the rape of Jews must also form part of the context.
Therefore, while the exact terminology of anti-Semitism is not of great concern to me personally, what is a concern is the mass movement behind votes such as these. It indicates a tide of aggressive anti-Semitism sweeping across campuses, which must be recognised and called out for what it really is.