One academic’s bid to undermine the fight against antisemitism

Campaign Against Antisemitism rally against antisemitism (Jewish News)
Campaign Against Antisemitism rally against antisemitism (Jewish News)

Prof. David Feldman’s recent article in The Guardian opposing the adoption of the International (IHRA) Definition of Antisemitism by universities is par for the course for an academic who has been on the wrong side of the fight against antisemitism throughout the past several years.

As the director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, Prof. Feldman enjoys not only academic respectability but the communal legitimacy bestowed by a major philanthropic family. Yet his deployment of these assets has undermined rather than strengthened the fight against antisemitism.

In 2015, just months after more Jews assembled to protest antisemitism than at any time since Cable Street at a rally organised by the nascent Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), Prof. Feldman authored a report for a Parliamentary group suggesting that “the concern expressed” over antisemitism “contributed to a climate of insecurity”. This form of victim-blaming failed to recognise that the fault lay with antisemitic crime and the failure of the authorities to tackle it – not the thousands of Jews who rallied against it. He used that same report to advance what has become something of a campaign for him against the International Definition of Antisemitism.

In 2016, Prof. Feldman sat as one of two deputy chairs (and the only Jewish person) on the Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party, widely panned by the Jewish community as a whitewash. The Jewish News reported that Prof. Feldman defended Lady Chakrabarti’s report as “honest and constructive”; in reality, it helped institutionalise Labour’s antisemitism problem.

Three years later, the Labour Party, under the stewardship of Corbyn-ally Jennie Formby, sought to replace the antisemitism training provided by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) with a course on antisemitism taught by – you guessed it – Prof. Feldman. JLM was rightly furious and refused Labour’s request to adapt their sessions to fit with the Feldman course, suggesting it would make them little more than “useful idiots.”

Central to Prof. Feldman’s appeal to one Corbyn backer after another is his long-standing hostility toward the International Definition.

Now he has authored an article in The Guardian stating his opposition to calls by the Government on universities to adopt the Definition – a cause CAA has championed along with the Union of Jewish Students, Lord Mann, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust and every other mainstream Jewish organisation and activist. There are few issues that unite our community like this one, and it is telling that Prof. Feldman – as with the Chakrabarti Inquiry – finds himself at odds with the mainstream community.

Prof. Feldman’s criticisms of the definition are familiar: he fears it will “privilege one group over others” and believes it is “no substitute for carefully constructed measures to combat antisemitism and other racisms.”

But to fight antisemitism we must define it, especially given its unique complexity. That was why we, along with Lord Pickles and others, campaigned so forcefully over many meetings in Downing Street for the British Government to adopt it. It was also thanks to the International Definition that our 2019 Antisemitism Barometer – which took into account the full range of examples of antisemitism in the Definition – was the first empirical study to reveal that antisemitism on the far-left had surpassed that on the far-right.

As for the supposed need to address antisemitism only in the context of dealing with “other racisms”, Prof. Feldman is repeating a canard that, after five years of Jeremy Corbyn, the Jewish community understands well enough.

In his 2015 report, Prof. Feldman claimed the International Definition had “fallen out of favour”, but this wishful thinking on his part has been sunk by the reality that the International Definition is the single most important tool in the fight against the world’s oldest hatred. This is why CAA and others – backed by respected academics such as Dr Daniel Allington and Dr David Hirsch – have tirelessly campaigned for its widespread adoption. Prof. Feldman has contributed very little to these efforts and done too much to hinder them – a point that the Pears Foundation must surely ponder.

With our often-fractious community united as never before in agreement that the International Definition is essential to our defence, Prof. Feldman should accept that he has been as wrong on the International Definition as he was about his misadventures with Chakrabarti and other Corbyn allies. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party begrudgingly adopted the International Definition, but two years on, Prof. Feldman is one of the few still holding out.

The Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck should not be lending its credibility to a man who does so much to hinder the fight against antisemitism.

About the Author
Gideon Falter is chairman of the Campaign Against Antisemitism
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