John Mann

Jewish students are starting to ask if they are really safe at university

At UCL the adoption of IHRA is working really well in the real world, Lord Mann writes


Group of students sitting at round tables, seen from above, with steps leading down from platform

May 13, 2021 15:50

The clue is in the name. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition is being used by every part of the UK and by our political parties. It is an international definition, agreed by governmental representatives of more than 30 countries, at an international body that was established 20 years ago. And it is a working definition.

This seems to annoy some people. How can you have a reference point that you consult to consider whether an issue includes problematic antisemitism? It isn’t a policy document, a manifesto, a declaration, a student union debate. Neither is it the provenance of the academic board of UCL.

The choice is whether you choose to use the international working definition or not. Increasingly and overwhelmingly, universities are choosing to do so. In the past week, four more universities determined to use it – not as some grand gesture or under Government pressure, but because as they discussed it they saw how a small minority of students, the Jews, have the same rights of choosing to be who they want to be that universities try to afford to every student. Should a university allow a vote on whether someone has the right to identify as who they choose to be, even if some are thought to be uncomfortable with this? I say no, everyone is entitled to be themselves. So, a Jewish student has the right to identify as a Zionist as part of who they are, as part of their Jewish society on campus. And the academic board of UCL has no business whatsoever in downgrading, undermining or even having an opinion on that right.

The IHRA working definition gives no special rights, no additional rights. It says nothing on BDS and it does not and has never once stopped other voices on the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is not there to silence either Palestinians or dissenting Jewish voices. But effective use of the IHRA definition empowers that minority in our universities, Jewish students, in going about university life like everybody else. Having opinions, joining societies, participating in debates, but able to do so without abuse, without discrimination, without ostracisation.

Strip the antisemites out of the way and the criticisms that some, including Palestinian students, attempt to make about Israeli government policy and actions will be heard more clearly and, by definition, will become much more effective.

The IHRA does not stop anyone criticising the state of Israel, but it does provide a baseline for protecting Jewish students who are proud Zionists (which itself is a wide spectrum of opinion) and whose Zionism identifies them as an integral part of who they are. This basic right is non-negotiable and non-voteable. Any university that chooses not to give this very run-of-the-mill support to its Jewish students will have to face up to the question that is already foremost in people’s minds: is this a safe university for me to go to?

As for UCL, here is the big irony. Its Holocaust Studies department uses the IHRA working definition, week in, week out, without a problem, built into its educational training programmes. At UCL the adoption of IHRA is working really well in the real world.


Lord Mann is the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism


May 13, 2021 15:50

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