For twenty years Cary Nelson was part of the elected leadership of the American Association of University Professors, serving as its President from 2006 to 2012. In this long read he examines the appalling record of antisemitism at University College London and reviews the weak arguments made by those seeking to reverse the university’s 2019 adoption of the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism. Nelson concludes with a warning: ‘None of us has yet confronted the situation of a campus that has very serious problems with antisemitism actually abandoning the IHRA’s eleven examples. That could well create a permissive campus atmosphere for antisemitism unlike anything we have recently seen in the West.’
The ‘Moving Objects’ Case at UCL: a teachable moment misused to misrepresent the IHRA
University College London is in the midst of a well organised campaign to convince the campus to withdraw its adoption of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. Members of an Academic Board Working Group have questioned the IHRA’s usefulness, arguing it presents a substantial danger to academic freedom. They have repeatedly cited challenges to a 2019 campus exhibition, which included a hand-embroidered map of Palestine that did not include Israel, as a telling example of that danger. Believing this example to have been misused by the Working Group, and the episode to offer us a teachable moment regarding how the conflict’s complexity can be aired, contained and mediated, I will begin this essay there. I then proceed to examine the arguments of the Working Group in detail, finding them often faulty, based on misrepresentations of the IHRA Definition, which I believe UCL should retain.
In the summer of 2014 I joined a faculty study tour of Israel sponsored by Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. Before departing for Israel the group spent three weeks in residence reading and discussing texts and attending lectures about the history and the contemporary issues at stake in the region. The tour was designed to give us direct experience of a variety of views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which it did with significant degree of success. An Israeli tour service was hired to take us from place to place by bus, and, as it happened, that gave us our first material evidence of politicised understanding on the way in from Ben Gurion Airport. We were each given an illustrated map of Israel that had not been vetted by the Brandeis organisers. It depicted a greater Israel encompassing the West Bank. Neither the Palestinians nor the Palestinian Authority had any discernible place on the map.
The following year, travelling independently with a friend, the two of us spent a day in the well-known Ramallah antiquities shop and home of a Palestinian who had retired from the UN. In addition to several hours of political discussion, we took the opportunity to buy some gifts at the shop. My favourite purchases were antique jewelry. But we were also offered a quite collectible hand embroidered map of Palestine. It was priced at several hundred dollars. A traditional aspirational craft item made after 1948 with a political message, it erased the State of Israel. There was only Palestine ‘free from the river to the sea,’ its Jewish presence erased.
I was startled in 2014 by what seemed such a blatant misrepresentation of reality, though I would encounter no few other examples of the same impulse in subsequent visits. By the time we saw the embroidered map the following year, I was prepared to recognise it as the other side of the same coin. Competing maps erasing one another’s identity are a recurring feature of the conflict. They are the cartographic equivalent of the competing narratives embraced by Israelis and Palestinians. Years before the IHRA Definition was approved, Israelis and Palestinians complained about each other’s maps. Anyone who wishes to learn about the conflict needs to see them.
Only a few years later, in February 2019, an exhibition titled ‘Moving Objects: Stories of Displacement’ opened in the Octagon Gallery at University College London. The form of displacement at issue was exile, and the exhibition’s press release and website announced that it ‘draws together material objects, poems, visual pieces and archival materials selected, co-created, and analysed by people with refugee backgrounds.’ Several pieces came from Palestinian refugees in Jordan, ‘including an embroidered (traditional tatreez) map of historic Palestine. The panel accompanying the embroidered map (object no. 31) read as follows:
How do ‘we’ and ‘others’ carry a vision of home/homeland with us? How might such visions transform into new futures of promise? From ancient to modern times map-making acts as a powerful tool of possession, dispossession and repossession. Maps depicting what Edward Said referred to as a ‘tiny sliver of land in the Eastern Mediterranean’, are often deeply contentious. Here a map embroidered by a refugee is rooted in a pre-1948 rural vision of Palestine transmitted across generations.
The description is clearly professionally done. It is not simply propagandistic — except for the counterfactual suggestion that there was a Palestinian Arab ambition for nationhood prior to the founding of Israel. These embroidered maps are often produced by children, which may be the case with this one as well. An account of the exhibition included as an appendix to a UCL faculty ‘Report of the Academic Board Working Group on Racism and Prejudice’ observes that ‘As an object that reflected their longing for home from the vantage point of the displaced, it had a Palestinian flag and did not make reference to Israel.’ A student complained to the university that this represented ‘hidden antisemitism.’ I would credit it to commonplace anti-Zionism, not anti-Semitism. And I would add that conservative Israelis and Palestinians each at times represent the political geography of the land between the river and the sea inaccurately.
Contrary to the student complaint, these mutually antagonistic maps of erasure do not seem so hidden in the messages they embody, alternately anti-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. While I was slightly drawn to the possibility of purchasing the tatreez map in 2014, I felt it belonged in the collection of someone who shared its aspirations, not in the home of someone for whom it was an educational souvenir. And, yes, decades of hostility were among the forces materialising in that intricately embroidered fabric. But tatreez in fact refers to the centuries-long tradition of Palestinian embroidery. A museum on the grounds of the American Colony Hotel compound in East Jerusalem includes numerous exquisite examples of Palestinian embroidery, including elaborate dresses intended for special occasions. Many are a hundred and more years old. The museum director was kind enough to grant me an exception to their rule and allow me to take photographs. The modest tatreez map that was part of the UCL exhibit channeled an ancient skill passed down from mother to daughter over generations and therefore only recently given a contemporary political valence.
Whether I could have persuaded the student who lodged the London complaint that it reflected an unfortunate element of historical ignorance I cannot guess. But I like to think that education would have complicated the student’s response. Had I been a UCL faculty member and been consulted, I would have recommended not going forward with a formal complaint. In any event, a more widespread protest against the exhibition materialised that August. A petition organised from outside the university and headed ‘Correct the anti-Israel propaganda in UCL’s refugees exhibition’ gathered over 700 signatures. The tatreez map was cited as key evidence for the accusation of anti-Semitism. The complaint elicited a response from Fiona Ryland, UCL’s Chief Operating Officer: ‘The stated purpose of the Moving Objects exhibition was to provide a series of personal perspectives on the perception of displacement, and it was not intended or presented as an objective analysis of any issue.’ That rational observation should have closed the matter, but administrators prefer to cover themselves, so Ryland authorised an investigation.
During my twenty years in the elected leadership of the American Association of University Professors, I saw many university investigations that should have been dismissed early on instead proceed pointlessly. Most did not concern antisemitism, instead dealing with other sensitive issues that administrators did not want to take responsibility for resolving. Both then and since I have seen antisemitic incidents that should have been investigated instead be ignored. The price of addressing serious matters is that some frivolous ones will enter a campus quasi-judicial system as well, at least until experience builds the will to embrace justice in a responsible manner.
The investigation of ‘Moving Objects’ concluded by endorsing the exhibition and the work of its curators, though it detoured briefly and unwisely to suggest an apologetic panel be added. But the overall controversy ended with a commitment to academic freedom. I agree with the authors of the Working Group report that the complaint against the exhibition is an instance of ‘unfounded accusations of harm’ (26). Where I do not agree is with the assessment that the controversy exemplifies ‘stifling legitimate academic debate.’ The report overstates matters by claiming ‘the review process lent credence (perhaps inadvertently) to defamatory accusations of antisemitic bias against these academics for presenting perspectives and by relevant interviewees that criticised or sidelined Israeli or Zionist narratives.’ Had the exhibit been compromised — even by requiring inclusion of a ‘balancing’ panel from a Zionist perspective — then legitimate historical research would have been compromised. But legitimate debate won out in the end. The complaint was discredited. Sensitive subjects like antisemitism or racism more broadly will occasion campus disputes whether or not the Definition is adopted.
UCL did not adopt the IHRA Working Definition until November 2019, but the controversy over ‘Moving Objects’ is repeatedly cited by the Definition’s opponents as a telling example of the kind of complaint the Definition will justify and encourage. Of course the whole incident is also a teaching opportunity. The anti-IHRA position now is that an increasing number of such complaints will have a chilling effect on academic expression. But surely the right to document Palestinian opinion was strengthened by the case. I actually think the collapse of a few frivolous and ill-informed complaints will discourage UCL from pursuing more of them. If the Definition is misused, institutions will learn from that experience and can correct their practices accordingly. Meanwhile, the Definition gives the UCL community a rational reference point for future discussions.
But it will not suffice to rely on administrators alone to choose rationality as a route to establishing a community that stands against racism and antisemitism while protecting academic freedom. Idiosyncratic as the ‘Moving Pictures’ complaint may seem, in one critical respect it entirely resembles the way academic institutions prefer to handle all forms of harassment — racial, ethnic, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and sexual. Universities prefer to adjudicate trivial offenses and ignore serious cases of harassment that reflect badly on the institution because they demonstrate that the institution has failed to protect members of its community and allowed an environment that fosters abuses to persist. By substantially exaggerating the significance of this complaint, the report may have contributed to that pattern. Used thoughtfully as part of a university’s overall commitment to educate its community about antisemitism, the IHRA’s Working Definition can help people understand and deal with the ways the world’s oldest hatred manifests itself today, focusing on serious rather than incidental examples.
THE UCL and the debate over the adoption of the IHRA
UCL’s chief governing body, the UCL Council, formally adopted the IHRA Definition in November 2019. However, UCL’s Academic Board is officially charged with advising the Council on ‘all academic matters and questions affecting the educational policy of the college, the organisation of teaching, examining, research, and courses of instruction,’ and all those responsibilities could be impacted by efforts to curtail antisemitism. The Academic Board has roughly 2000 members, including all full professors and several hundred permanent full-time faculty, senior administrative staff, and student representatives of each faculty.
Some members of the Academic Board had been agitating for months for a Working Group to be established to study and report on the consequences of adopting the Definition. Disputes about the Working Group’s proposed membership delayed its implementation, but an agreement about categories of representation in the Working Group was negotiated, and it was eventually formed and finally issued a report opposed to the adoption in December 2020. The report and its appended documents total 150 single-spaced pages. So far as I know, it is the longest and most detailed faculty group critique of the IHRA Definition.
The Working Group report should be supplemented by two detailed anti-IHRA documents issued by the University and College Union (UCU), the trade union and professional association representing casualised researchers and teaching staff, as well as professional services personnel, across the British Higher Education sector: ‘Can the IHRA working definition be implemented?’ and ‘FAQs: 16 questions on UCL and the IHRA definition of anti-semitism.’ The national UCU has a history of support for the BDS movement. The UCU at UCL is headed by Sean Wallis, a member of the Working Group who promoted a conspiracy theory disseminated to encourage the boycott of Israeli universities. He is one of two Working Group members who signed a letter in support of Bristol University conspiracy theorist and anti-Semite David Miller. Saladin Meckled-Garcia, a UCU Vice-President and the other Working Group member supporting Miller, served on the Academic Board governance committee that established the process by which the Working Group was composed.
All these papers, which are likely to be influential on other campuses, should be of interest to anyone concerned with the fate and utility of the IHRA Definition. The several documents are a mix of repetition and variation, borrowing from each other’s arguments while also introducing new elements to the discussion. The integrity and objectivity of the Academic Board’s report is, however, compromised by the fact that not a single Jewish student was included in the Working Group. Of the two students appointed, information about only one is available; he supports the accusation that Israel is an apartheid state. Only one Jewish student was even consulted. The Working Group’s status as an objective body is further put in doubt by the fact that more than half of its members were already outspoken opponents of IHRA before the Working Group was established. Four of them had signed a detailed February 2019 letter, reproduced their report (105-108), opposing UCL’s adoption of the IHRA Definition. The group notably relied on existing documents, undertaking no research of its own on UCL’s antisemitism problem.
It has been pretty much universally reported in the press that the Working Group’s report was strongly supported and officially endorsed by the Academic Board. Yet only those members who attended the earlier meeting at which the Working Group presented its report and recommendations were eligible to participate in the online vote. In the end, only 334 ballots were cast, representing between 15 and 20 percent of the membership of the Board. Interpreting the result is precisely a matter of interpretation, as votes were cast as ranked choices among four options: A) retain the IHRA as is; B) Retain and amend with specified amendments; C) Replace through a specified procedure; D) Retract and return to the Equality Act alone. Ranked voting can work well with a list of candidates for office. In this context, it can be quite confusing. A statistical report circulated by Secretary to the Board Nick McGhee was given graphic representation by International Politics and Policy Professor Brad Blitz. Analysis of the numerical data suggests that many ballots were contradictory: 40 percent voted for both B (retain with amendments) and D (retract completely), while 16 percent voted for both A (retain as is) and D (retract completely). Option C (replace) received the most first place votes, while B (retain in amended form) appeared on more ballots. The most one can conclude is that many of those who voted preferred some guidance specific to antisemitism. It is certainly not justifiable to conclude that UCL faculty are united behind a demand to eliminate the Working Definition entirely. Indeed, it is significant that only one of the eleven members of the Working Group dissented from the report. The Working Group did not reflect the variety of opinion in the faculty as a whole.
Antisemitism at University College London (UCL)
In December 2016, the UK government formally adopted the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, including the eleven examples of antisemitism that follow the brief overall definition. British universities were first formally urged to adopt the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism in a February 2017 letter from Universities’ Minister Jo Johnson to Universities UK (UUK) Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge. Widely reported public incidents of invited campus lecturers being aggressively disrupted helped fuel awareness that action was needed.
The first relevant protest took place at King’s College London on 19 January 2016, when protestors from King’s College and other London universities disrupted a presentation by Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency. After retiring, Ayalon became a peace activist, Labour Party member of the Knesset, and supporter of a two-state solution. He appears in and helped organise the 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers in which retired Shin Bet heads review Israeli security practices, critique Israeli government policy, and suggest routes toward peace. Protestors at his lecture apparently did not consider that history relevant. They adopted a tactic of repeatedly setting off building fire alarms to force the police to end the presentation, a tactic that eventually succeeded. The fire alarms were accompanied by protestors slamming chairs to the floor, chanting, and banging on windows, walls, and doors.
On October 27, 2016, a former Israel Defense Forces commander, Hen Mazzig, was scheduled to speak in a room in UCL’s Archaeology Department. The event was advertised online, as was an organised effort to disrupt it. A detailed investigative report by Professor Geraint Rees reprints the protest notice that circulated online. It included these exhortations to action, including a distinctly antisemitic suggestion that every Israeli who serves in the IDF is evil person with blood on his or her hands:
Hen served as lieutenant in the Israeli Occupation Forces (IDF) for 5 years. That means he’s complicit in the colonisation of Palestinian territory, protection of illegal Israeli settlements, and the murder and displacement of hundreds of innocent families … We’re just shocked and outraged that someone with the blood of innocent people on their hands can be given a platform at UCL to speak to students … We’re not about to sit back and let this happen. It’s sick, wrong, and a grotesque violation of every mechanism in place to make sure we don’t get evil people given a platform at our university. (8)
Protestors were urged to gather on the Main Quad hours beforehand to be instructed on a plan for action. When security officers arrived at the lecture site an hour beforehand, protestors were already in the building. Soon shouting and chanting was accompanied by pushing and shoving as political opponents confronted one another. An effort was made to block attendees from entering the room, Meanwhile, protestors climbed through a window to gain access. The protestors used loudspeakers to aid in disrupting the event. Mazzig managed to talk for fifteen minutes, but then stopped because it was very difficult to hear him. A gauntlet of protestors repeated called out ‘Shame’ to attendees who exited. The Garaint Rees report emphasised that protestors successfully created an atmosphere of intimidation that clearly undermined academic freedom and ‘ prevent the legitimate exercise of free speech’ (15).
It was not until October 2018 that UCL’s senior management agreed to give the proposal to adopt the IHRA Definition full consideration. Significantly, in January 2019 the UCL Jewish Society surveyed Jewish students about their experience of antisemitism. In March, UCL Vice-Provost Lori Houlihan summarised its results:
Comments reported by students covered a wide range of classic antisemitic tropes, including appearance (‘you’ve got a small nose for a Jew’), money (‘ Why don’t you pay for my Uber Jew boy?’ , ‘You don’t need an internship, you’re guaranteed a job in a bank’ , ‘I’m not surprised, your people are so good with money’ —said by a supervisor to their PhD student when he mentioned that he had identified a source of funding), and power (one student reports talking to a friend about antisemitic tropes about Jews controlling the media and being told ‘Well, it’s not entirely untrue, is it?’ ). Strong feelings relating to Israel/Palestine also affect Jewish students on campus regardless of their views on or connection with Israel, with reported comments including ‘why do you like killing children?’ and ‘You’re Jewish? So you take all the water from Gaza?’ (116)
These and other comments reported on the online poll map directly onto the examples included in the Working Definition, with some statements implicating more than one example. Moreover, the character of these instances of antisemitism is not seriously debatable. They represent harassment, not political opinions protected by academic freedom. They demonstrate what even the UCL opponents of the IHRA Definition concede: ‘there is disturbing evidence that incidents of antisemitism have persisted in our university’ (3); ‘even classic antisemitic tropes are frequently not recognized as such’ (36); ‘racism is part of the everyday experience of Jews, people of colour and Muslims’ (64). As the Working Group’s one dissenting member writes, ‘the IHRA was adopted by Council against a backdrop of rising antisemitic incidents at UCL and real concerns being voiced by the Jewish community about whether UCL was becoming an unsafe place for Jewish students’ (66). There are other examples from the survey — among them ‘being told I am lying about the Holocaust having happened,’ ‘I’ve been told “to go back to the gas chambers and die, you dirty f-ing Jew,’’’ ‘I’ve been told that I must have lice because all Jews do,’ ‘my friend has been called “a smelly dirty Jew’” because on shabbat he was walking around with a kippah,’ ‘I have been told that by wearing a Star of David I support an apartheid state’ (151)—but even those cited in Houlihan’s summary suffice to warn there is a serious problem. The picture painted here is substantially worse than that presented at most American and Canadian campuses. The debate that ensued was over what to do about it.
The ‘small nose for a Jew’ remark matches the IHRA example of ‘using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism.’ The insults about money all exemplify the IHRA identification of ‘making mendacious, dehumanizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews.’ The comments about killing children and taking Gaza’s water embody the IHRA example of ‘holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel,’ but they do so fundamentally by way of slanders or misinformation about Israeli policy, in the first case perhaps reading homicidal malice and deliberate intent into the deaths of Gazan children who died from Israeli air strikes during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, in the second case ignorantly and falsely claiming that water shortages in Gaza are due to Israel ‘taking’ the water. The IHRA’s examples help clarify why these comments are antisemitic. Beyond condemning them, a university might require offending students to take a course in the history of antisemitism. A student who persisted might be blocked from using university email if that medium had been the vehicle for the remarks. Oral harassment by students, staff, or faculty members could result in being barred from certain campus buildings.
The Jewish Society has continued to collect testimony about antisemitic events at UCL. A report compiled by Sam Goldstone and Rebecca Lyons documents incidents through January 2021. Thus a student reports being ‘spat at for wearing a Star of David necklace,’ while another writes ‘when I was in uni members of the palsoc made jokes about the 3 boys that had been kidnapped and murdered in Israel and then told me it wasn’t personal.’ Yet another writes, ‘As a Muslim student at UCL that is outspoken in my support of Jewish students on campus, I have often been subject to discrimination from other Muslim students on campus. In particular, I have been called a “race traitor” and have been accused of engaging in “respectability politics”.’ It is worth mentioning a few examples that involve two other contexts—classroom incidents and overheard remarks. One student reported this incident during the 2019 academic year, once again an example of holding all Jews responsible for Israel’s practices:
Whilst reading postcolonial literature, I was personally singled-out by my professor in front of an entire lecture hall of students, and jokingly told to write my essay on the topic of ‘the Israeli colonisation of Palestine’, with particular focus on ‘the ongoing Israeli torture of disabled Palestinians in the West Bank.’ This comment was entirely out of context with the texts relevant to my syllabus, and obviously directed towards me as a way of singling me, a Jew, as “other”. I recall the humiliation and shock I felt, the stares of my peers, and the inability to confront a Professor who was my obvious superior.
There are several examples of overheard remarks; this one offers notable detail:
During exam seasons in May 2018, I experienced anti-Semitism in the cruciform hub at UCL. I was studying in a shared room when I overheard a group of five people next to me starting to discuss Israel. They said things like ‘it’s a sad world to be accused of anti semitism for being against Israel’, then another student continued with ‘yes they should’ve all just burnt in the concentration camps’. The whole group laughed out loud. I [have] graduated now but as a Jewish student listening to this, I did not feel safe.
The 2010 Equality Act isn’t enough. Even the Working Group admits it does not define antisemitism
Britain’s 2010 Equality Act has a sound definition of harassment: ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive behavior, through means which have the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, or humiliating environment,’ a definition that UCL embraces. The Working Group insists that is all a university needs to address antisemitic harassment. Yet their report also points out that UCL overall displays ‘a lack of awareness about what antisemitism is and why it is a problem.’ The Equality Act gives no guidance in identifying actual instances of antisemitism or any other form of harassment involving protected categories. The gap between the Equality Act’s generalisations and any action against antisemitism requires the additional information the IHRA examples provide.
Critics of the IHRA examples sometimes complain that they do not include the specific tactics for harassment regularly seen on campuses in a number of countries. Worse still, some argue, it does not categorise violent, even murderous, attacks on Jews, whether at the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris or the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. That critique fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the purpose of the Working Definition. It identifies key examples of the political, ideological, and religious beliefs that underlie, motivate, or justify antisemitic statements and actions. That is the first step in recognising and understanding contemporary antisemitism. Indeed, the Working Definition succeeds at identifying motivations behind both social and political antisemitism, categories Bernard Harrison has done much to clarify. A much larger educational project should follow. The IHRA Definition is not the last word on antisemitism.
Assessing the arguments of the ‘Working Group’ against the IHRA Definition
(i) ‘Academic Freedom’
As one of its general arguments against UCL or any other university adopting the IHRA Definition, the Working Group report repeatedly warns it will both directly and indirectly compromise academic freedom. As proof this fear is warranted, it emphasises both the objection to the 2019 ‘Moving Objects’ exhibit and a request to prohibit Jackie Walker from speaking at the 2019 campus book launch for The Responsibilities of Intellectuals. Walker, a political activist and writer, is one of the contributors to the book. She had been suspended from the Labour Party for antisemitic remarks in 2016, then reinstated, and was finally expelled in March 2019. As the report’s authors acknowledge, Walker was approved for participation and the book launch proceeded.
The Book Launch is paired with the ‘Moving Objects’ exhibition as one of two clear demonstrations of the dangers IHRA will impose. Inconveniently for the purposes of the Working Group report, both events took place anyway, so the purported damage from the challenges to them is at best theoretical. The reputations of all involved in the projects may actually have been strengthened. It seems the authors of the report want to milk the implications of trying to constrain a book launch at a research institution. The odds of successfully blocking one of a book’s contributors from speaking at such an event are so minute as to defy calculation. However, one additional fact renders the calculation mathematically impossible: the book gathers essays previously presented at a UCL conference.
In parallel to the ‘Moving Objects’ protest, once again an administrator tried to impose a textual condition. This time speakers were asked to sign a set of guidelines identifying ‘tropes that UCL would find unacceptable to be repeated on its campus.’ The Responsibilities of Intellectuals echoes the title of a Noam Chomsky project and honors his work. Chomsky was shown the guidelines and given an opportunity to advise the speakers about whether to sign. He is one of the world’s best known anti-Zionists. Another mathematical impossibility: calculating the time delay between Chomsky receiving the guidelines and urging the speakers to refuse to sign them. The speakers then did refuse, and the requirement was dropped. While I object to the corrective panel proposed for ‘Moving Objects,’ I find these campus guidelines, which adapt IHRA examples, instructive, although I would not prohibit people from violating them on campus or require speakers to promise compliance:
–Suggestions (overt or implied) that Jews as a group or particular sections of the British Jewish community invent, exaggerate or ‘weaponise’ incidents of antisemitism for political or other benefit
–Suggestions (overt or implied) that Jews as a group or particular sections of the British Jewish community exploit or exaggerate the Holocaust for political or other benefit
–Use (overt or implied) of ‘dual loyalty’ tropes relating to Jews as a group or particular sections of the British Jewish community and the State of Israel – for example that they are ‘controlled’ by Israel or are working on behalf of Israel to the detriment of Britain
–Suggestions (overt or implied) that antisemitism is a less toxic form of racism than any other and/or that Jews are less vulnerable to discrimination than other minority groups
–Repetition (overt or implied) of antisemitic tropes relating to Jews and money and/or Jewish financial involvement in historical events or injustices – for example that Jews financed wars, slavery, etc. (84)
It could be quite productive for the campus community to discuss whether it would be beneficial to air such views. Indeed, both the ‘Moving Objects’ and the Book Launch examples demonstrate that IHRA presents no credible threat to academic freedom and no plausible prospect of a chilling effect on anti-Zionist speech. Of course they are both frivolous complaints, but they are apparently the best the Working Group can offer. They would be a cause for concern only if you wish it were so. Despite that, I am willing to attribute their use in the report to a combination of confirmation bias and groupthink.
(ii) The Working Group badly distort a series of US cases
I cannot, however, regard the 27 February 2019, letter signed by Working Group chair Seth Anziska and 43 other UCL faculty members with equal generosity. The letter’s appendix lists what it calls ‘Documented Risks to Campus Free Speech Posed by the IHRA Definition in the US,’ six identified as ‘Threats Against Professors/Classroom Curriculum’ and three classified as ‘Threats Against Student Clubs’ (109-110). I have written about several of these cases before, so I will just summarise them here. The letter by these UCL faculty willfully distorts and misrepresents these incidents, despite the fact that considerable factual information is available through an internet search.
The UCL appendix implies that University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold was unfairly sanctioned because of a Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) demand following his refusal to write a letter of recommendation requested by one of his students who wished to study at Tel Aviv University. Cheney-Lippold made it clear the student was fully qualified, and he volunteered to write her a recommendation for any non-Israeli university. He was punished because his action was clearly discriminatory and in violation of his professional responsibilities. ZOA was but one of many organisations that commented on this widely debated case. Do Anziska and his colleagues actually believe the faculty member’s blatantly discriminatory behavior is defensible?
The student-taught Berkeley course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was briefly suspended and then reinstated because it had not been subjected to the appropriate faculty review. I discuss the syllabus and the review process in detail in my Israel Denial. The readings assigned were consistently anti-Zionist. The student was not qualified to answer the challenge that they were also antisemitic. Many of us who commented felt that uncredentialed undergraduates should not be teaching controversial political subjects for credit. That same consideration applied to the Riverside course, which I discuss as well. Both students were taught, advised, and supervised by faculty members active in the boycott movement. The students were not exercising independent professional judgment in their teaching.
The appendix goes on to express its concern over complaints about the national Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) conference scheduled to take place at UCLA in 2018. Protests about such events will take place whether or not institutions adopt the IHRA Definition. In any case, like the events at UCL, the conference took place as planned.
Finally, and regrettably, the UCL faculty members address an event at Berkeley. As I wrote in Fathom, Neal Sher, a former Justice Department official responsible from 1983-1994 for hunting former Nazis, told a reporter in 2018 that UC Berkeley students who equated the Pittsburgh synagogue murders with Israeli action in Gaza should be expelled, an intemperate statement that merits condemnation. But Sher was a private citizen whose government responsibilities had ended more than thirty years earlier. Indeed, he had been disbarred in the interim. Unsurprisingly, the students were not in fact expelled. The UCL faculty cite none of these details, presumably because one individual’s irresponsible remark would seem unworthy of notice.
These remarkably weak anecdotes are not the only basis of the report’s critique. It begins with the brief general definition in the IHRA text: ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’ Curiously enough, both the IHRA’s supporters and its detractors take issue with these two sentences. The key fact regarding campus adoption, however, is not that it is dangerous to use this definition to identify potentially antisemitic statements or actions; the key fact is that it is impossible to do so. It has no practical uses. Critics and supporters of the IHRA definition alike find the reliance on ‘a certain perception of Jews’ to be disabling and unresolvable. Antisemitism is as likely to be based in beliefs and delusional explanatory theories as in perceptions. And they realise that even if it ‘may be expressed as hatred of Jews,’ it also may not be.
I regard the opening definition as a preface to the examples that are the functional part of the Working Definition. I prefer to see the opening definition supplemented by at least a couple of alternatives, emphasizing that no brief definition will be perfect. The Working Group quotes Holocaust scholar Helen Fein’s definition of antisemitism, which I have used as well: ‘A persisting latent structure of hostile beliefs toward Jews as a collectivity manifested in individuals as attitudes, and in culture as myth, ideology, folklore, and imagery, and in actions—social or legal discrimination, political mobilization against Jews, and collective or state violence—which results in and/or is designed to distance, displace or destroy Jews as Jews.’ One of the virtues of her definition is that it recognizes that antisemitism is several things at once. Its latent persistence can erupt into a variety of manifest forms. A single unified definition accounting for the whole history of those manifestations is impossible.
(iii) The ‘Working Group’ mangles the relation between the IHRA’s opening definition and its accompanying examples
Most IHRA critics consequently regard the eleven examples as ‘ the main problem.’ Both the University College Union (UCU) and the UCL Board’s Working Group, however, insist on elevating the importance of the opening definition and treating it as a major condition for applying the eleven examples to real world behavior. Both the UCU and the Working Group characterise it as the ‘core’ or ‘underlying’ definition: ‘to qualify as antisemitic under the IHRA, it must fit the underlying definition of antisemitism’ (32), something that the IHRA never asserts. In ‘Can the IHRA working definition be implemented?’ the UCU overreacts accordingly: ‘It invites investigative managers and panel members to ascribe beliefs to the accused, apparently on an all-or-nothing basis. Such allegations are liable to be libelous if unsupported by considerable evidence.’
Matters were not clarified when the UK’s Home Affairs Select Committee, in an effort to ensure cautious use of the IHRA, recommended adding two ‘caveats’ supplementing the Working Definition, one of which reads as follows: ‘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.’ That evidence can come from the overall context, which includes the surrounding debates about Israeli policies and actions. But it would be a mistake to infer that the use of antisemitic tropes without conscious or deliberate antisemitic intent avoids antisemitic consequences.
(iv) The Working Group reads a demand for evidence of ‘intent’ into the IHRA Definition which isn’t there
The caveat bringing ‘intent’ into the discussion helped the Working Group read an insistence on ‘intent’ back into the IHRA Definition of antisemitism. The Working Group thus falsely insists that the opening definition imposes intent on all manifestations of the eleven examples that follow (33), something the Definition never maintains. The IHRA rightly does not say that its examples only qualify as antisemitic if accompanied by a specific antisemitic intent. Nor in fact do the caveats precisely say that, despite the Working Group declaring that they require it. The Working Group report aims to convince us that the IHRA is constructed so that none of the examples are valid in application unless antisemitic intent can be demonstrated on every occasion.
Why should the cultural prevalence of ‘a certain perception of Jews’ guarantee deliberate intent behind every antisemitic statement or action? The relevant perceptions can produce both conscious and unconscious dislike. They vary over time and from culture to culture and community to community. It would have been a mistake for the IHRA to insist on intentional motivation for every antisemitic statement or action, and it does not do so. For better or worse, human beings often enough have no idea why they act as they do. Indeed, even the Working Group concedes that the Definition ‘otherwise make[s] no reference to the intent of the speaker’ (33), but the initial definition does not take a stand on intent either. The preceding sentence in the UCU statement is more accurate in its assessment of the opening definition: ‘In practice this is not a diagnostic tool that is readily employed.’ But that practical view contradicts the dire warnings that follow in the UCU position paper. Moreover, if the definition invites responsible parties to ‘ascribe beliefs to the accused,’ it is notable that no university I know of has required its community to do so over the years since the Definition was adopted by the IHRA. Intent plays a role in some cases but not in others.
The decision of the UCL’s critics to make intent such a central issue is not a product of disinterested or objective analysis. It was a political decision to seize on what was perceived to be a target of opportunity. That choice first of all reflects the fact that intent is often impossible to determine with any certainty. The presumed ‘requirement’ of intent thus disables the ability to identify most antisemitic statements or actions. Moreover, once this fictitious account of the Definition is announced, it can then be read into the examples: ‘the IHRA working definition says that antisemitic intent may be adduced from e.g. ‘denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination’ or by ‘claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.’ (35). Yet the Working Definition says nothing of the kind. The standard of analysis for years has been that such anti-Zionist statements have antisemitic effects, not antisemitic intent.
The artificially manufactured requirement of proven intent weaponises the opening definition so it can be turned against the eleven examples. The Working Definition then contradicts and deconstructs itself. The invented issue of intent also puts the Definition in conflict with the definition of harassment in England’s 2010 Equality Act, a definition the Working Group purports to endorse: ‘This is a broader definition than the IHRA, as it covers not only statements but also acts, which furthermore need not be motivated by “hatred”; moreover, it does not require intent to be demonstrated’ (52). If either identification or enforcement is the goal, the Working Definition in fact is the Equality Act’s partner, not its opponent. There is no ‘unavoidable tension’ (54) between the two. The remarkable passage above from the Working Group is a layered collection of misrepresentations. The Working Definition highlights the beliefs that motivate antisemitic actions; it is not limited to explicit hatred; and it does not require evidence of intent. Moreover, the Equality Act gives no explicit guidance for defining instances of antisemitic harassment. IHRA meets that need.
The Working Group’s highly debatable reasoning lets it appear to endorse five of the IHRA examples that address traditional forms of antisemitism unrelated to Israel (46-47), while disputing the IHRA’s ability to confirm them. The five examples are thus approved in principle only; if the principles are linked to the IHRA, then we are powerless to use them. We are burdened with disabling IHRA conditions. But the conditions, again, are only artifacts of the Working Group’s reasoning; the IHRA Definition itself gives us the authority to dismiss those conditions if we choose.
The chain of reasoning just outlined makes it possible for the Working Group to dismiss the IHRA Definition as ‘a tokenistic gesture rather than a rigorous and enforceable set of procedures and protocols’ (4), even though the Definition makes no effort to design enforcement procedures. Those will depend on applicable national laws and institutional missions. Only if people believe the Working Group’s reasoning can they accept its otherwise incomprehensible conclusion that ‘the IHRA working definition is unhelpful in identifying cases of harassment and is therefore a weak tool for effective university action’ (5), indeed that its adoption ‘will actually undermine—rather than advance—efforts to tackle antisemitism’ (45). We are to believe the Working Definition is at one and the same time a powerful and dangerous tool destined to destroy academic freedom and a weak, self-contradictory document that should be contemptuously disregarded.
Israel, Contemporary Antisemitism, and the IHRA
As with all anti-IHRA projects, the Working Group must turn to its main opponent: the seven examples that address the State of Israel, ultimately asking ‘whether any questioning of the existence of the State of Israel or its legitimacy is sufficient to constitute antisemitism’ (35). A negative answer would be a stunning proposition in the light, among other instances, of the Hamas charter that suggests the unacceptable presence of Israel justifies the general killing of Jews. In the long history of the longest hatred, the Jewish people have never escaped the mutating hostility that has always kept them in view. But before 1948 the Jewish people did not have a Jewish state to draw antisemitic fire. Some would prefer to exclude Israel from discussions of antisemitism; then we could all agree on examples much easier to discredit. Yet even the Working Group has to concede that ‘contemporary antisemitism is often expressed in virulent criticism of the state of Israel’ (46). The antisemitic attacks on Israel are at the center of what some designate as ‘the new antisemitism,’ though in truth there have been a succession of new antisemitisms over centuries. But the phenomenon of antisemitic anti-Zionism must be addressed whether or not it is seen to reconfigure antisemitism as a whole.
The IHRA sets out a fundamental precondition for all consideration of whether anti-Israel sentiment is antisemitic: ‘criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’ This carefully worded condition is designed to mandate inclusion of a very wide range of attacks on Israeli policy and practices within acceptable political discourse. It deliberately opts to say ‘similar to,’ rather than ‘the same as.’ The ‘same as’ would make the task of adjudicating examples much easier, but it would also classify many more criticisms of Israel as antisemitic. With that phrase, the Definition responsibly narrows the options for condemning criticisms of Israeli policy, reserving the accusation of antisemitism for attacks that treat Israel differently from other nation states. The Working Group worries that a course syllabus that ‘probes[s] how Israeli independence was intimately tied to Palestinian dispossession’ (34) might be judged antisemitic, but the ‘similar to’ criterion would admit comparisons with a significant number of modern nation states created by way of population transfers. And it would allow comparison or contrast as well with more violent dispossession, such as that central to the creation of Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the United States, among other countries. The whole range of potential comparisons is admitted to discussion, with the antisemitic designation available only to those judged not ‘similar to.’
Like many other anti-IHRA manifestoes, the Working Group’s report complains that the Definition ‘fails to give adequate criteria for distinguishing’ among criticisms ‘that are antisemitic from those that are not’ (46), and it adds that ‘the notion of ‘similar’ … is too vague and subjective to be useful as a neutral criterion’ (50) for drawing the necessary distinctions. The Definition does indeed leave the considerable work in making all these comparisons to the collective work of analysts across the world. The task is not appropriate to a concise Working Definition. Over time, after research and debate, general principles for comparisons among nation states related to antisemitism will be possible. Meanwhile, the Definition sets a high bar for the antisemitism designation. Far from being irresponsibly ‘vague’ or ‘imprecise,’ the Definition is determinedly ethical.
The IHRA precondition above parallels one of the eleven examples of antisemitism: ‘Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.’ Indeed, it is helpful to pair the precondition with this example. This particular example has attracted remarkably confused and excited criticism. Once again, it requires serious comparative work by multiple scholars before it can be widely employed, but that necessity has just been addressed, and a great deal of that work has already been done. The Working Group regrettably quotes some decidedly confused reasoning to buttress its concerns. Thus it finds reasonable Lara Friedman’s contention that the IHRA concludes ‘it is anti-Semitic to challenge Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands—unless one is equally challenging occupation anywhere’ (48). She seems to feel the IHRA assigns this Herculean burden to everyone. The requirement instead is to contextualize criticism of Israel within the patterns of critique applied to other nations. That does not mean those patterns need to be specified. No one is required to elaborate on those comparisons as she says. We should be aware of the norms for nation state and policy critique when addressing Israeli policy, not create special demands of Israel alone among the nations. To do so, IHRA argues, may after analysis prove to be antisemitic.
The Working Group apparently also endorses Friedman’s claim that the IHRA implies boycotts of Israel are antisemitic ‘unless one is similarly boycotting every country guilty of violating the rights of any people, anywhere’ (49), but no sane person has ever maintained that. On the other hand, when only one nation on earth, the one Jewish state, is subject to a continuing international boycott campaign, there is reason for concern that that nation’s Jewish character may be at issue.
The parameters the Working Definition sets for criticism of Israel are designed to protect robust critique while guarding against the far too frequent tendency for it to veer into demonisation. When that happens, Jewish students, staff, and faculty feel the part of their identities that identify with the Jewish state have been demonised as well. The available alternatives to the Definition, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) notable among them, are structured to make demonisation acceptable. That is not a sound basis for education. The Working Group nonetheless may well reorganise as a new group dedicated to promoting the Jerusalem Declaration as a substitute for the Working Definition. Anziska is one of those who drafted the JDA. François Guesnet, another Working Group member, co-signed it. Some British Universities are considering adopting both the Definition and the JDA, but the two documents would effectively cancel each other out and produce paralyzing confusion.
Conclusion: a campus with an antisemitism problem that ditches the IHRA risks creating a permissive atmosphere for antisemitism
Increasing examples of antisemitism worldwide combined with increasing attention to antisemitism has brought more frequent debate about antisemitism to campuses and the public sphere alike. There is, however, no evidence that the fears UCL and other IHRA opponents have expressed that a flood of restrictions and complaints has materialised or will materialise to undermine academic freedom. Challenges will occur, and we will learn from them. As part of the debate over the IHRA, UCL’s Provost recommended an annual report documenting and summarising complaints and investigations. That would be a good way of assuring that local history and its lessons are not forgotten.
The Working Group report suggests ‘there is a real risk that members of the UCL community will be anxious about crossing a line when discussing topics like Israel and Palestine’ (60). The reality is that the disciplines for which teaching and research about the Middle East is central are the very disciplines in which relentless anti-Zionism is pervasive. We are a long way from a culture in which those students and faculty would feel any hesitation about condemning Israel and pressing for its elimination. I do not see the adoption of the Working Definition changing that culture quickly; it certainly has not done so yet. The Definition can help orient the educational program that should be introduced, but it will not suffice on its own. Yet ‘Jewish students did report feeling safer on campus following its adoption’ (42).
One-off event cancellations might have proven more likely, but the list of those is short. The University of Central Lancashire did cancel an event scheduled to be part of Israeli Apartheid Week early in 2017. The university first said the panel on ‘Debunking Misconceptions on Palestine’ violated IHRA guidelines, then said approval had not been requested on time. The ‘ Legal Guide for Palestine Solidarity Student Activists’ issued by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in April 2021 cites the Central Lancashire cancellation, then adds:
In withstanding attempts to mischaracterise and suppress the BDS movement for Palestinian rights, it is important to remember that there is no other known case of any university directly citing the IHRA definition to close down an event that is legitimately critical of Israel and is therefore not anti-Semitic in the proper sense of manifesting hatred, discrimination or prejudice, towards Jewish people as Jews. If this were to occur this would be likely to be legally challengeable. (16)
Although the Working Group concedes as well that the campus has not blocked a speaker (51), that fact does not make vigilance less necessary nor the issues less pressing. But it does suggest that the warnings issued and the rhetoric employed by the anti-IHRA movement might benefit from some moderation. When the UCU declares that ‘despite its length and complexity, the IHRA working definition (and all of its examples and caveats) adds barely a useful word to the Equality Act 2010 definition of harassment’ it does not advance either understanding or productive debate (‘ Can the IHRA working definition be implemented?’). Similarly, the Working Group’s concern for ‘the lecturer, who is forced to demonstrate time and again that he or she is not motivated by antisemitic intent’ (54) is unfounded, not least because it would itself constitute harassment. The Working Group is also concerned that the Definition, once adopted, will function as ‘the final word on antisemitism’ (54), a concern that has already been proven moot and one that would seem vanishingly small at any university.
The UCU in its ‘FAQs’ document raises a quite justified concern that campus disciplinary procedures can take so long to resolve that they constitute punishment even for those judged innocent. We have already seen that happen repeatedly with false accusations leveled against Zionist students and faculty in the US. A key partial solution to that problem is to build into procedures ways to reject frivolous complaints and cases that lack sufficient evidence promptly.
The IHRA Working Definition is a powerful aid to both education and policy development. I hope that this review of the opposition’s arguments will help promote its continued adoption. But of course that is not the issue at stake at University College London, where the IHRA has been adopted, and the Academic Board has been understood to demand its withdrawal. None of us has yet confronted the situation of a campus that has very serious problems with antisemitism actually abandoning the IHRA’s eleven examples. That could well create a permissive campus atmosphere for antisemitism unlike anything we have recently seen in the West.
Anziska, Seth, et al, ‘Report of the Academic Board Working Group on Racism and Prejudice,’ University College London (December 16, 2020), https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucu/sites/ucu/files/wg-racism-and-prejudice-report.pdf.
Blitz, Brad, ‘Analysis of the UCL Academic Board Vote on the IHRA Working Definition on Antisemitism’ (2021), report circulated to UCL faculty.
Goldstone, Sam, and Rebecca Lyons, ‘Appendix: Testimonies from January 2018 to January 2021,’ London: Jewish Society, unpublished manuscript.
Harrison, Bernard. Blaming the Jews: Politics and Delusion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020.
‘Legal Guide for Palestine Solidarity Student Activists’ (April 2021), London: Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Nelson, Cary. Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State. Bloomington: Academic Engagement Network/Indiana University Press, 2019.
Rees, Geraint, ‘Investigation into the UCLU Friends of Israel Society event on 27th October 2016’ (January 2017) University College London, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/drupal/site_news/sites/news/files/Investigation_report.pdf.
Schraub, David, ‘Wallis ‘Refutes’ Anti-Semitism Charge,’ The Debate Link (June 2, 2009), http://dsadevil.blogspot.com/2009/06/wallis-refutes-anti-semitism-charge.html.
UCL UCA, ‘FAQs: 16 questions on UCL and the IHRA definition of anti-semitism’ (2021), https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucu/campaigns/faqs-16-questions-ucl-and-ihra-definition-anti-semitism.
_____, ‘Can the IHRA working definition be implemented?’ (2021), https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucu/campaigns/faqs-16-questions-ucl-and-ihra-definition-anti-semitism/can-ihra-working-definition-be.
 My thanks to John Hyman and Anthony Julius for providing me with essential documents and for suggestions about an earlier draft.
 The embroidered map is reproduced at the website opposing the exhibition, ‘Anti-Israel propaganda in UCL’s refugees exhibition’: https://onthedarkside410122300.wordpress.com/2019/08/19/anti-israel-propaganda-in-ucls-refugees-exhibition/.
 In 2009, Wallis spoke at a meeting organized by a UCU Congress group and accused lawyers backed by ‘bank balances from Lehman Brothers that can’t be tracked down’ of opposing the academic boycott (https://cst.org.uk/news/blog/2009/06/10/jewish-jokes). Wallis denies any antisemitic intent. On his denial, see David Schraub’s blog post.