Aberdeen University has rejected a “working definition” of antisemitism as recommended by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance for governments and organisations around the world to adopt.
After a two-year consultation, the university has adopted the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism (JDA) instead of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) guidance.
The move has been welcomed by a human rights group and a professor at Aberdeen University who argued that parts of the IHRA guidance “define antisemitism as any critique of the state of Israel”. He claimed this would have posed a “real threat” to his teaching.
However the Campaign Against Antisemitism has accused Aberdeen University of taking a “scandalous position” by not adopting the IHRA definition. The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities pointed out that the IHRA definition states “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.
Supporters of the IHRA definition say it is key in fighting hatred of Jews around the world.
Critics of the IHRA definition argue that it stifles free speech relating to criticism of actions and policies by the Israeli government.
The university’s Race Definitions Task and Finish Group (the Group) had proposed in May 2021 that the IHRA definition should be adopted, according to an internal university document seen by The Ferret.
However at a meeting of the university’s senate in September 2021, concerns were raised that the IHRA guidance “impinged too heavily on academic freedom and the work of academics”.
The principal concerns were it was “too vague” and “narrow in scope” and “does not serve to tackle discrimination against Jewish people”. It was also perceived as posing a “threat to academic freedom”.
The Group said: “It was noted that 100 UK universities had adopted the definition, however it was also noted that there had been recent high-profile cases which had resulted in academics losing their jobs, leading the group to discuss whether the definition had become ‘weaponised’ in the sector.”
As a result of those concerns, the IHRA recommendation was withdrawn and it was proposed the JDA should be adopted instead.
The Group noted that the JDA — which was published on 25 March 2021 — was “developed largely as a response to the IHRA definition and to counteract what some saw as the failings of the IHRA definition, namely that it is said to hamper free speech and focus on the Israeli/Palestine political issues”.
The JDA provided “a fairer and clearer definition and set of guidelines” than those presented in the IHRA definition, the Group stated.
The IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism — which is non legally binding — states: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward 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.”
The IHRA says that manifestations of antisemitism include “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”.
The JDA says that evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state is not antisemitic. “This includes its institutions and founding principles. It also includes its policies and practices, domestic and abroad, such as the conduct of Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, the role Israel plays in the region, or any other way in which, as a state, it influences events in the world,” the JDA says.
Welcoming the decision, the Aberdeen Branch of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign said: “By rejecting the IHRA definition in favour of the JDA, they have sent a clear message of political impartiality and opposed the undermining of academic freedom to expose human rights abuses.
“We urge all the institutions and organisations who have adopted the IHRA definition to review their stance and reject this shameful political attempt to undermine the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel and criminalise those who advocate for Palestinian rights!”
Professor David Anderson, chair in the Anthropology of the North at Aberdeen University, also welcomed the move and said: “I am so relieved that the senate did not rubber-stamp the management proposal to introduce the IHRA definition. We all stand firm against antisemitism and injustice. The fact that parts of the definition define antisemitism as any critique of the state of Israel posed a real threat to my teaching.
He added: “In my module on indigenous rights I sometimes ask the students to think through the situation of Palestinians in comparison to those suffering oppression from settler states around the world.
“Even an exercise like this, where there could be arguments for and against would likely be prosecuted under this law. Definitions like this have no place in a university. They stifle creativity and debate.”
Robbie Uriarte, a fourth year student and member of Aberdeen University Jewish Students’ Society, was involved in the consultation. He said: “We are delighted by the university’s decision to adopt the JDA definition of antisemitism. The university has worked closely with the community throughout the decision-making process. This decision demonstrates an ongoing commitment by the university to tackling antisemitism in all its forms and ensuring the University of Aberdeen continues to be a safe and welcoming environment for Jewish students.”
A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism said the Jerusalem Declaration is a “wrecking document intended to undermine the globally-recognised” IHRA definition.
They added: “The university is the only such institution in the country to take this scandalous position. In rejecting the definition that has consensus support across the Jewish community in favour of the fringe and controversial Jerusalem Declaration, the university has done the opposite of standing with British Jews and Jewish students.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities said: “If the critics of the IHRA Definition (originally devised by the EU Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia) had taken the trouble to read it, they would see that far from ‘defining antisemitism as any critique of the state of Israel’, it explicitly says the opposite – the second paragraph begins ‘criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’
They added: “Unfortunately however there is no shortage of antisemitism of all kinds on campuses, and universities and their staff should be at the forefront of stamping it out. If they claim to oppose racism but tolerate antisemitism of any kind, they are simply proving David Baddiel’s thesis that ‘Jews don’t count’ and indulging in second-order antisemitism.”
A spokesperson for Aberdeen University said the JDA helps to “identify, address and raise awareness of antisemitism and how it can manifest”, adding it was adopted following an extensive consultation with the “wellbeing of Jewish students” at the core of discussions.
The spokesperson added: “Working with the Aberdeen University Jewish Society and the Palestinian Society, University Senate and other staff and students, it was agreed that the university should adopt a definition of antisemitism to support its Jewish community but that wider options than the IHRA definition should be considered.
“Further consultation indicated that the JDA definition was the preferred option, noting that it offers a clear and fair definition which protects critical open debate.”
IHRA did not reply to our request for a comment.
The IHRA grew out of a task force established by Sweden, Britain and the US in 1998 to promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance. Its membership today comprises 29 European countries plus Israel, the US, Canada, Australia and Argentina.
IHRA policy is agreed at biannual meetings attended by delegates from each member country.
Thirty eight nations have adopted or endorsed the IHRA working definition of antisemitism including the UK and US and it has been championed by various Jewish and pro-Israeli groups.
In 2019 an author of the IHRA definition –— Kenneth Stern –— accused right-wing Jews of using it to suppress free speech.
In January this year Palestinian lecturer, Shahd Abusalama, was suspended from teaching by Sheffield Hallam University over an anti-Israel social media post. She was accused of breaching the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, which is endorsed by the university, but reinstated a few weeks later after an investigation into antisemitism was dropped.
The Ferret understands that six higher education institutions (HEIs) in Scotland have adopted the IHRA guidance. They include the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Seven HEIs have the definition under active consideration, while six have reached the view that their existing policies on equality, diversity and antiracism are sufficient.
A spokesperson for Universities Scotland said: “There is no place for antisemitism in Scotland’s universities. There is no place for faith or race-based hate, discrimination or harassment of any kind in Scottish higher education. All institutions have policies in place that prohibit antisemitism and provide for disciplinary sanctions in cases where it occurs in the university community.”
The Scottish Government formally adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism in June 2017.
While it is not legally binding, the Scottish Government encourages publicly funded bodies to similarly adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, “noting however that it is up to these bodies to make this decision for themselves”.
The UK Government has also adopted the IHRA guidance.
Earlier this year, a Jewish advisory body said that anti-Semitic incidents in Britain reached a record high in 2021, driven by reaction to a rise in violence in Israel and Gaza.
The annual report by the Community Security Trust (CST), which advises Britain’s estimated 280,000 Jews on security matters, found there had been 2,255 anti-Semitic incidents reported in 2021, a rise of 34 per cent from the previous year.
Cover image thanks to Heartland-Arts/iStock