On February 3rd, the University College London Students Union’s Welfare & Community Zone held a special session on a proposal calling to support the UCL Academic Board Working Group’s December 2020 ‘Report on Racism and Prejudice. ‘ The report advised the College to rescind the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism (IHRA) adopted in 2019.
The vote was originally scheduled for January 26th, the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day. No Jewish Society members were formally invited or notified about the impending vote; only hearing about the session through word of mouth hours before it was scheduled to begin. No official agenda was sent out to the Jewish Society or SU committee members.
The discussion format was more befitting of a kangaroo court than a vote held at the heart of liberal democracy. SU Diversity Officer and University Relations Officer for UCL ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ Sayf Abdeen defended his policy proposal in a lengthy speech. Those with reservations or opposition were only permitted brief questions. No counter-argument or robust discussion was permitted among audience members. At one point he was interrupted by the moderator to suggest that ‘we weren’t best placed to discuss what antisemitism is or is not’, an ironic interjection considering that the aim of the proposal was to do just that.
Abdeen even claimed that the Working Definition was ‘right-wing’ and ‘essentially criminalises those working for racial justice’. Putting Abdeen’s grossly inappropriate politicisation to one side, his distortions regarding the definition’s ramifications for activism are easily dismissed by UCL’s official statement upon adopting IHRA which expressed the following caveats recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2016:
‘It is not antisemitic to criticise the government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent. It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies or to take a particular interest in the Israeli government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.’
Moreover, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the November 2020 Letter signed by 122 Arab academics in protest of the definition, both cited in the policy proposal, admit that the IHRA Definition is not legally binding, and in the case of the PSC’s Legal guide for Student Activists that ‘there is no known case of any university directly citing the IHRA definition to close down an event that is legitimately critical of Israel’.
Abdeen referred to Kenneth S. Stern who was involved in the drafting of the Working Definition reservations about incorporating the definition into law, as evidence of how it is not fit for purpose. This January 2021 open letter from others responsible for the Definition makes clear: ‘Virtually all others who were involved in its [the IHRA Definition’s] development believed then and continue to believe now that [its] adoption and use… is an essential component in the fight against antisemitism.’
Besides, Stern’s argument originates from his concerns for First Amendment rights rather than a post hoc rejection of the definition itself, a concept alien to British law, which already proscribes extensive limits on expression. Antizionist groups on UCL campus hardly appear to be concerned with this given their consistent attempts to de-platform Israeli and Zionist speakers. Furthermore, even if all responsible for the Definition rejected it, this would not reduce its credibility for the millions who have come to view it as a tool for defining the ever-mutating virus of antisemitism. Abdeen and his bedfellows ought to do some well overdue research into the ‘Death of the Author’.
Just like the initial Working Group Report, the proposal appeared ignorant of the weight of evidence displaying the link between antizionism and antisemitism outlined in the Working Definition. During Israel’s 2008-09 war with Gaza for example, antisemitic incidents escalated worldwide in frequency and intensity and were not limited to firebombings and arson of Jewish buildings, attacks on Jewish individuals, defacement of synagogues and vandalism. Many attackers made it clear that they were motivated by the belief that Jews were responsible for the conflict. Thus, Abdeen’s claim that we need to fight ‘both’ for Jews and Palestinians is impossible without acknowledging the concrete links between extreme anti-Israel rhetoric that routinely incites physical violence, particularly as UCL itself has been the epicentre of such events.
With this track record, is it any wonder that a recent petition produced by the UCL Jewish Society President recorded over 270 signatures from students or recent graduates of the College expressing support for the Working Definition? Or that last month 95 Jewish student leaders published an open letter in The Guardian newspaper expressing their belief that the definition affords Jewish students the best possible protection.
Although this proposal failed, if the views of many SU representatives are anything to go by, the next generation of professors and provosts cannot be trusted to take the concerns of Jewish students into account. Moreover, given this Thursday’s Academic Board vote in favour of an advisory resolution calling on the University to “retract and replace” the Working Definition, the near future at UCL remains even more uncertain and worrying.