What do universities have to do with the row about antisemitism in the Labour Party? And what does any of it have to do with the UCU?
Central to the accusations against Jeremy Corbyn is the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. Corbyn’s critics eventually got this definition officially adopted by the Labour Party. It had already been adopted by the British government, and in 2017 the Tories made an effort to get universities to endorse it as their official definition too.
What’s the problem? Isn’t it right that organisations commit themselves to opposing racism and isn’t a definition of antisemitism useful for doing so?
The problem is the nature of the definition itself. Some of the examples of antisemitism provided by the definition conflate Jews with Israel, and one says that ‘claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour’ is itself antisemitic.
Despite having no legal status, the definition has been used on university campuses and elsewhere to silence criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians. Some university managements have moved to shut down events organised as part of the annual Israel Apartheid Week which seek to raise support for the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement (BDS). The UCU has been central to debates on this question. The union won a landmark legal case on freedom to debate Israel, and has national policy opposing the IHRA definition.
When the government first tried to get universities to adopt the IHRA definition, Brighton UCU lobbied our Vice Chancellor and senior management against it. We supplied eminent legal opinion that the definition was seriously flawed and would not withstand a legal challenge if used in a disciplinary case, and argued that to adopt it would be to compromise the University’s obligation to uphold freedom of speech. We are pleased that the University of Brighton has not adopted the definition.
However, following the success of Corbyn’s critics, the Johnson government appears to be having another push. The Sunday Telegraph recently reported that the government was ready to name and shame universities that were refusing to adopt the definition. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said, “I will pick up the phone to any university vice-chancellor who chooses not to do so and we want to see it actually used in disciplinary proceedings, for example.”
Of course, all instances of antisemitism on campuses should be stamped out. Racism has no place in universities, or society as a whole, and freedom of speech does not extend to denigrating people because of their background, parentage or skin colour.
It is clear, however, that the drive to get the IHRA definition adopted is not aimed at tackling increasing racism against Jews which is largely driven by the growth of the far-right. Rather it is focused on undermining the Palestine solidarity movement and defending the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Earlier this year, Tower Hamlets council banned a charity bike ride which raises funds for sports equipment for Palestinian children out of fear of falling foul of the definition. Even the original author of the definition, himself a supporter of Israel, is concerned about the way it is being used to silence criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause.
Jeremy Corbyn has been smeared as an antisemite because of his long-standing commitment to the Palestinians and his opposition to Western intervention in the Middle East. The British establishment is desperately worried about the possibility of a Prime Minister abandoning the historic alliance with Israel which is the cornerstone of UK foreign policy in the region and of its relationship with the US.
If the University of Brighton were to succumb to renewed Tory pressure to adopt the definition it would be a serious threat. The Communities Minister made it clear that not only student campaigners but also “professors lecturing conspiracy theories” are in his sights. Are those of us who teach the history and politics of the Middle East going to have our lectures scrutinised for ‘anti-Israel bias’ and denounced as antisemites as Corbyn has been?
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