Dave Rich

David Feldman should not be encouraging those who denigrate Jews

The director of Britain's only academic centre for the study of antisemitism "comes dangerously close to a classic antisemitic trope" in his views, write two of the centre's associates

December 14, 2020 17:45

The Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, based at Birkbeck, University of London, is the only academic institute in the United Kingdom that is dedicated to the study of antisemitism, and as such it ought to play a leading role in the struggle against this persistent prejudice. We both have a formal association with this Institute, which we assumed was set up to enhance understanding of antisemitism so as to help combat it, a task that is more urgent now than it has been for some time. When we  accepted the invitation to join it, we did not imagine that we would find ourselves reading an article by the Institute’s Director, David Feldman, recently published in the Guardian newspaper, that in our judgment not only does not take antisemitism seriously, but may actually provide encouragement to those who have systematically denigrated Jews in this country. 

The article in question opposed the use by universities of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. IHRA was founded in 1998 and is an alliance of 34 countries in four continents that seeks to promote Holocaust remembrance and to combat antisemitism. Its working definition consists of a generic description of antisemitism and eleven examples of speech that “could, taking into account the overall context”, be antisemitic. It was formally adopted by the British government in December 2016, and in June 2017 the European Parliament called on all European states to follow suit. In the UK it has since been adopted and used by the Scottish government, the Welsh Assembly, the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Union of Students, Ofcom, the Premier League, several universities and more than 260 local authorities.

It makes no sense to suggest, as David Feldman does, that the adoption by universities of the working definition “places academic freedom and free speech on campus at risk.” The idea that it will have a “chilling effect” on students, academic and professional staff in British Universities is to turn things entirely on their head. It is antisemitic speech which has a chilling effect on Jewish students, academic and professional staff, while nobody, surely, would want to protect the free speech of antisemites on campus. There are of course several laws which already restrict speech on campus in order to protect minorities, which David Feldman acknowledges, but laws protecting students from antisemitic harassment are of little value if universities do not know what antisemitic speech sounds like. The working definition helps to bridge that gap. It is not a strict legal code but rather, as the European commission has stated, a practical tool to help identify different examples of possible antisemitism. Nor is it a replacement for policies to address and reduce antisemitism on our campuses: but it will be much easier for universities to tackle antisemitism with the definition than without it.

More worrying is David Feldman’s claim that the adoption of this definition would pit minorities against each other. The fight against racism is not a zero-sum game, in which fighting against one form of racism means one cannot fight against others. On the contrary, if we make progress in fighting one form of racism and protecting one group, it should stimulate us to do the same for others. Indeed, the IHRA definition has inspired various organisations fighting anti-Muslim hatred to try to develop their own versions for that purpose.

This line of argument comes dangerously close to a classic antisemitic trope in which Jews are seen to be seeking to promote their own interests at the expense of others. This impression is reinforced by the suggestion that adopting the IHRA definition somehow “privileges” Jews, since another antisemitic trope is to argue that Jews always seek to exaggerate their suffering in order to obtain special treatment. It is in any case not a “privilege” to encourage people to fight antisemitism. It is not a “privilege” to be protected against racism. It should be an elementary expectation. That the Director of an Institute for the study of antisemitism thinks that adopting an agreed definition of antisemitism is a form of “privilege” is, to say the least, somewhat disconcerting.

At the heart of David Feldman’s criticism of the IHRA definition is his suggestion that it has an “emphasis on Israel” because “six of the 11 [examples] deal with discourse on Israel.” This is simply misleading. Five of the six examples that mention Israel also mention Jews; four of them deal specifically with the way in which explicitly antisemitic ideas can be cloaked them in Israel-related language. These include examples such as “accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust” or “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”. We very much doubt that David Feldman would really argue that defining these particular ideas as antisemitic presents an unacceptable suppression of free speech. Rather, the IHRA definition requires us to think about why, and how, some Israel-related discourse perpetuates, rehearses and reinvigorates classic antisemitic themes; while remembering, as the definition states, that "criticism of the State of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be considered antisemitic."

To understand why the IHRA definition does this it is necessary to look back to the early 2000s, when Jewish communities, especially in Western Europe, suffered a new wave of antisemitic violence and harassment. This frightening surge in attacks on Jewish people and community buildings was fuelled by a new discourse that harnessed anger towards Israel – this was during the heat of the Second Intifada – and redirected it onto Diaspora Jewish communities. In response to repeated appeals for help from Jewish communities, and following the discovery that most European police forces at that time simply didn’t collect data on how many antisemitic hate crimes were reported, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) produced a new definition of antisemitism for law enforcement agencies to use when recording antisemitic hate crimes. Some of the examples of antisemitic speech included in this new definition attempted to reflect the way that traditional antisemitic notions of Jewish conspiracy, inhumanity and dual loyalty had been reconstituted within the language of progressive anti-Israel politics. This original EUMC working definition was taken on by IHRA, with some minor amendments, and it has proven helpful for those who use it.

There are two examples in the definition that do relate more to Israel than to Jews: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”; and “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Critics claim that these examples prevent them from saying, for example, that Israel has racist policies, or that ethnic cleansing occurred in 1948, or from using boycotts as a campaign tactic. In fact, the IHRA definition does not explicitly prohibit any of these things: all it demands is that each statement or action should be assessed in context to see whether antisemitism is present.

The question of double standards relates to the fact that there is, especially on the left in this country, a quite obsessive focus on Israel/Palestine, which is qualitatively different to the way that other foreign policy conflicts are addressed; even those that involve British colonial history and Western democracies. The emotional tone is palpably different. This double standard is not in itself proof of antisemitism, but it should serve, as the IHRA definition suggests, as a warning light that triggers further reflection and consideration as to whether antisemitism is involved. It is striking, to say the least, that many advocates of the Palestinian cause demand for themselves an equal say to that afforded to Jewish communities in how antisemitism should be defined. This is the true double standard: it is difficult to think of another form of prejudice or discrimination where leftists would advocate anything similar. And it is illuminating in another way, because it suggests that those pro-Palestinian campaigners who make this demand are aware that antisemitic discourse is a problem within their movement. A ground-breaking study by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and the Community Security Trust in 2018 found that people with strongly anti-Israel views are much more likely than the general population to also hold anti-Jewish attitudes; pro-Palestinian campaigners ought to welcome the IHRA definition as a way of avoiding these antisemitic tropes while advocating for Palestinian rights.

In recent years we have witnessed with dismay the resurgence of antisemitism on the left in this country. Both of us have written books about it. So grave did the situation become that the Labour party was forced, with immense reluctance, to conduct an inquiry into the extent and nature of antisemitism within its ranks, which was quite clearly tolerated, condoned and in our judgment facilitated by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry, of which the Director of the Pears Institute was one of two vice-chairs, produced what we regard as a shameful whitewash. No significant action was subsequently taken by the Labour Party to address this growth in antisemitism, which reached such a scale that it constituted unlawful harassment and discrimination, as found by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). David Feldman is right that the IHRA definition “acquired symbolic importance” in the struggle over antisemitism in the Labour Party, but it was only made so by Jeremy Corbyn’s stubborn rejection of it in the face of widespread consensus across the Jewish community.

The recent publication of the EHRC report with its utterly damning conclusions, based on a mountain of evidence, has broadly speaking generated two reactions. One has been the belated recognition that antisemitism has indeed, as we have repeatedly argued, become a serious problem on the left, and this clearly includes universities. The other, which one finds from the former Labour leader and his supporters including many who work in those universities, is that these conclusions are unjust, that they are exaggerated, that they constitute a smear, and explicitly or implicitly are a crucial part of a conspiracy to block the forces of progress. These responses all, unsurprisingly, draw on classic antisemitic tropes whose recycling it is, in our view, essential to combat. It is indeed one of the many virtues of the IHRA definition, entirely unacknowledged in David Feldman’s article, that it encourages all those who adopt it to reflect on how and where these tropes are being used and rearticulated so damagingly today.

Over the past few years, both of us have attended conferences and seminars (including unfortunately some held by the Pears Institute) where we listened with dismay to speakers or audience members insisting that we should not be discussing antisemitism at all, because it is unimportant or exaggerated; or that allegations of antisemitism were smears designed by Jewish organisations and Israel to bully Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party into submission. These are the very people who will, one imagines, be more than happy to have witnessed the Institute’s Director take such a public stance against the IHRA definition.

Finally, the overriding context for the debate over the use of the IHRA definition in universities ought to be the status of Jewish students themselves. A 2018 survey by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that 28% of British Jews said they had heard antisemitic statements “in academia” during the previous 12 months. Antisemitic anti-Zionism is an undeniable part of this: a 2016 study by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research concluded that, while most Jewish students encountered little prejudice towards them on the grounds of their religious identity, “the discourse around Israel, both in student politics and sometimes in the classroom, is often toxic and even threatening, and can leave Jewish students feeling a variety of emotions, including anxiety, confusion and anger.” At present, the record of British universities in taking these episodes and attitudes seriously is, to say the least, underwhelming. Adopting the IHRA definition is an important first step towards change, both in a practical sense and as a signal to Jewish students. It is a matter of considerable regret to us that his Guardian article rejecting the IHRA definition appears to be the first significant public intervention by the Director of the Pears Institute on the question of campus antisemitism, undertaken not to highlight the extent of antisemitism in British universities but to attack efforts to do something about it. Rather than ill-informed and misplaced criticism of the IHRA definition, it would surely be far better for those working inside British universities to show leadership in how to use it to improve the reporting and recording of antisemitic acts, to recognise how the overwhelming majority of Jews feel, and to unmask all expressions of antisemitism, coded or explicit. 

Professor Philip Spencer, Associate, Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Co- Author (with Robert Fine) of Antisemitism and the Left: On the return of the Jewish question (Manchester University Press, 2017)

Dr Dave Rich, Associate Research Fellow, Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel & Antisemitism (Biteback, 2018)

December 14, 2020 17:45

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