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Anti-Semitism expert and UK government advisor clash over IHRA definition

December 30, 2020 at 2:26 pm

Protest against the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in London, UK on 4 September 2018 [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

One of Britain’s leading experts on anti-Semitism has clashed with the government’s adviser on anti-Jewish racism during the Limmud Festival, an annual event focused on Jewish themes organised by a British charity. Professor David Feldman warned of the dangers of adopting the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.

Feldman is the director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Birkbeck College, London. According to a report in the Jewish Chronicle, he repeated remarks made in the Guardian earlier this month, arguing that the controversial definition could undermine efforts to fight racism. Lord John Mann disagreed with him.

The Guardian article was a response to British government pressure on universities to adopt the IHRA definition or face funding cuts. Critics like Feldman and the code’s main drafter, Kenneth Stern, argue that it is not fit for purpose and will have a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Their main objection is that seven out of the eleven illustrative examples conflate anti-Jewish racism with criticism of the state of Israel. The universally accepted definition is included within the code: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Feldman provided examples of the way in which the IHRA definition is affecting free speech on campuses, pointing out that it is invoked to prevent events taking place, such as Israel Apartheid Week at the University of Central Lancashire. “Israel Apartheid Week is not something I care to support, but we live in a society in which protest and free speech, which is within the law and is not racist or anti-Semitic speech, ought to be allowed.”

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Mann claimed that there is no evidence that the cancellation had anything to do with the IHRA definition. There were other concerns, he said.

According to Feldman, the experience of Jewish students should be taken into consideration, “[but] it cannot be decisive, because it will lead us into chaos.” He noted that Palestinian students argue that the IHRA definition is an example of anti-Palestinian racism. “We have to assume that they mean that sincerely, so what we have is one set of subjective views against another set of subjective views. And we are in deadlock.”

If we depend on subjective views for our interpretation of racism, he added, we open the door to white nationalists, the sort of people who we saw marching at Charlottesville who said, we feel oppressed, and Jews will not replace us.”

Mann’s argument was that the “IHRA is not a legal tool.” Indeed, that the whole point of it is that it falls below the criminal threshold. Accepting that the IHRA definition is “not perfect” the government advisor added, “[But] it exists and it is proving very useful. And it is empowering those who want to define themselves as Zionists, and it doesn’t restrict free speech.”