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UK anti-Semitism definition rejected by education union

Protest where the logo of the University and College Union is seen on a balloon [Dun.can/FlickR]
Protest where the logo of the University and College Union is seen on a balloon [Dun.can/FlickR]

The world’s largest higher education union has rejected a controversial definition of anti-Semitism, which the UK government adheres to, for conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

The definition, which was described as “confusing”, was rejected by the University and College Union (UCU), in a motion submitted by UCU branches at the University of Leeds, Goldsmiths and the University of Brighton. The motion was carried overwhelmingly in the closing minutes of UCU’s annual Congress in Brighton over the weekend. Only one delegate was said to have spoken against the motion.

Free Speech on Israel (FSoI), a Jewish-led organisation which defends the right to criticise Israel, and the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (Bricup), which campaigns for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, yesterday welcomed the vote to reject the definition of anti-Semitism endorsed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

In their press release yesterday, FSoI and Bricup stated that both these definitions are considered highly problematic because they seek to conflate criticism of Israel with genuine anti-Jewish racism. They mentioned that the IHRA definition strongly resembles the “Working Definition of Antisemitism” of a separate pro-Israeli agency, the EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), which was also rejected by the UCU in 2011.

#FreePalestine 

The definition has been adopted by the UK Government and the country’s Universities Minister Jo Johnson has insisted universities respect the definition. In particular, he alleged that “anti-Semitic incidents … might take place under the banner of Israel [sic] Apartheid events.”

Silencing opposition

In their statement, FSoI and Bricup revealed that some universities have banned or curtailed campus events during Israeli Apartheid Week or subsequently. Campaigners for Palestinian human right believe that the definition is being used to censor legitimate political activity and debate which criticises the Israeli occupation and human rights abuses.

Testimonies given during the discussion over the motion confirmed that an event organised by Friends of Palestine had been cancelled by the University of Central Lancashire. The IHRA definition was cited in declaring the event “unlawful”. FSoI and Bricup confirmed that the wave of censorship against pro-Palestinian activism prompted a number of organisations to obtain a legal opinion from a human rights lawyer.

Read: Major faults with UK government-endorsed ‘anti-semitism definition’

Citing the legal opinion, FSoI and Bricup characterised the IHRA definition as confusing, not legally binding and as putting public bodies that use it at risk of “unlawfully restricting legitimate expressions of political opinion”. A public body that bans a meeting under the IHRA definition without any evidence of genuine anti-Semitism could be breaching the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees freedom of expression (Article 10), and freedom of assembly (Article 11), stressed the legal opinion.

Arguing for the motion, Dr Mark Abel of Brighton University said:

This is a dangerous conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. … It is a definition intended to silence those who wish to puncture the Israeli state’s propaganda that it is a normal liberal democratic state.

Mike Cushman, a UCU member and co-founder of FSOI, said: “Free speech on Israel welcomes UCU’s recognition that fighting anti-Semitism is a separate struggle from defending the rights of Palestinians, and that both these struggles are important. Putting these in opposition to each other assists both anti-Semites and war criminals.”

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