UCU Scotland event on the IHRA definition of antisemitism

UCU Scotland recently organised an online event to inform members about the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which has already been adopted by several universities without consultation, and the UCU response to it. The event, led by UCU members and featuring speakers from across Scotland, informed members about the definition, why it is problematic, and what adoption of the definition does to academic freedom and the work of our members and students.

As a trade union working to end all forms of racism, including antisemitism, we continue to look for tools in this work – the IHRA definition, however, is not one of these. UCU on both a Scottish and UK level have clear policy on opposing the IHRA definition of antisemitism, since 2017. Also outside of UCU structures, groups of scholars (such as scholars of the Middle East, groups of Jewish scholars, Israeli Academics in the UK, Palestinian scholars and intellectuals) as well as individuals have vocally opposed the definition. Some other unions, however, and the Scottish Government, have adopted the definition.

 What, then, is the IHRA definition, and why is there so much opposition to it?

The definition and its problems

The Working Definition of Antisemitism published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) in 2016 has since been adopted by some universities, institutions, the Scottish Government, and even some other trade unions. Indeed, the Conservative Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson instructed English universities to adopt the definition, or else face consequences. Despite Scottish universities not being obligated to do so, many have gone ahead anyway, often without any consultation of Jewish staff, academic experts, or trade unions.

Out first speaker Itamar Kastner (University of Edinburgh) outlined the IHRA definition, and why it is necessary to oppose it and look for alternatives. He noted that the definition consists of a brief definition and a list of examples, with some of these examples referencing critiques of Israel as being anti-Semitic.

Laying out the critiques of the definition, highlighting his position as a Jewish and Israeli member of staff, Itamar pointed out that the definition is too vague: it actually does not provide useful guidance on what counts as antisemistism. It is also often performative: institutions adopt the definition, but do not engage in any actual work to combat antisemitism or adopt a uniform anti-racist agenda; it does not add anything to the already existing Equality Act 2010 or institutional policies on equalities. The definition itself, by branding criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic, constricts academic freedom and free speech, and we have already seen examples of it being used to silence pro-Palestinian academics and activists.

Lack of consultation and calls for action

Both Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, as Itamar and our next speaker Rhys Machold (University of Glasgow) outlined, adopted the definition without proper consultation with staff or trade unions, with uncertain input from EDI committees. In both institutions, UCU members have set up local working groups to lobby senior management and reach clarity on how and why decisions were made.

Following the framing of the issue by the above members, a Palestinian student from the University of Glasgow gave a harrowing account of how the IHRA definition had been used to constrict their research, hindering their academic career, with them being been told that their dissertation topic was ‘antisemitic’ due to its examination of Israeli violence against Palestinians, and additionally having their own life experience questioned and circumscribed. Listening to this student, members at the event expressed solidarity and regret at the treatment of the speaker in question, and we thanked them for their contribution.

Henry Maitles (University of the West of Scotland) and Samer Abdelnour (University of Edinburgh) both shared local and international experiences. Henry shared his experience of, being Jewish himself, being called anti-Semitic when calling Israel a racist state and ended by calling for a strengthening of pro-Palestinian work in the form of Boycott, Divest, Sanction. Samer noted the international adoption of the IHRA definition severely constricting solidarity with Palestinians, giving examples from Germany, and shared his criticisms also of the alternative Jerusalem Definition.

Taking a step back from local and international contexts, Mary Senior (UCU Scotland official) and Jenny Sherrard (UCU UK Head of Equality) came in to update participants on UCU’s UK and Scottish work. Mary, who has emailed all principals at Scottish universities enquiring about their position and laying out UCU policy on the issue, reported back on the number of universities that have adopted, rejected, or are consulting with staff.

The event ended with Carlo Morelli (University of Dundee) calling for solidarity with the Palestinian people, and giving a slightly more hopeful view from Dundee, where the university are now in fact consulting with staff and trade unions on whether or not to adopt the IHRA definition.

Where to now?

Throughout the event, discussion and expressions of solidarity were had in the event chat, with participants commenting on having learned and wanting to get more involved in UCU’s work on this. Whether we lobby for alternative definitions, or a more all-encompassing approach against all forms of racism, as Itamar noted at the start of the event ‘we want our institutions to adopt a uniform, comprehensive anti-racist approach’.

Two of the speakers have agreed to co-organise a Scotland-wide working group on the IHRA definition on antisemitism. If you want to get involved, please contact them: Itamar Kastner (itamar.kastner@ed.ac.uk) and Carlo Morelli (c.j.morelli@dundee.ac.uk).


(thanks to Itamar Kastner and Samer Abdelnour for these):

Overview of some problems with the definition (Gordon and LeVine)

Thorough FAQ by the UCL branch of UCU

Letter by the Israeli Academics in the UK

Stern-Weiner (2021). The politics of a definition: How the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is being misrepresented

Abdelnour (2021). The Jerusalem Declaration’s Fatal Flaw

Resolutions of UCU Scotland Congress 2021 – resolution 16 ‘Rejecting the IHRA definition

Equality resolutions of UCU UK Congress –  resolutions 12 – 14 on IHRA issues

UCU letter to Gavin Williamson – November 2020

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