Why won't my UCL colleagues accept the IHRA definition of Jew-hate?

I was deeply disappointed when the Academic Board elected to explore an alternative definition of antisemitism

April 22, 2021 11:19

Antisemitism has a near-constant presence in the media at present. Given this, one might assume there is widespread understanding and awareness of what antisemitism is. But plenty of polling evidence shows that vast swathes of the public do not even know what the term means. 

Antisemitism is not something that is fixed and immutable. On the contrary, a large part of its malice derives from its ability and tendency to assume different shapes and forms in accordance with contemporary trends and developments. From the blood libel of the Middle Ages to the myth of “Jewish money-power” in the last century, the longest hatred shape-shifts relentlessly – with the undercurrent of antisemitic tropes, stereotypes and prejudices remaining a constant menace just below the surface. 

But the essence remains constant. Antisemitism is, at its core, about irrational hatred of Jewish people. In 2016, our research at the University College London Centre for Holocaust Education indicated that most young people are oblivious to this fundamental truth of antisemitism. 

Just 37 per cent of 11 to 18-year-olds we surveyed could correctly identify what the term antisemitism meant. Moreover, we also unearthed a troubling propensity among young people to try and “plug” gaps in their knowledge of the Holocaust by rehearsing common myths and misconceptions about Jewish people in the 1930s and 1940s. 

It was this work that led the centre to become a member of IHRA, an intergovernmental organisation with 34 member countries whose purpose is to strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance worldwide. We are one of only two organisations in the UK with a place on the IHRA Education Working Group. 

We were first invited to serve as a delegate because of our unique research-informed approach to teacher development. Over the past 12 years, the centre has regularly shared the findings of its research with the delegation and has helped to promote an evidence-based, research-informed educational agenda. 

As a member of IHRA, the centre continues to support its principles, policies and practice, which, importantly, includes the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition and its accompanying examples provide a vital framework for describing antisemitism and its manifestations. This is its purpose and utility, but also its necessity. It enables educators to explore with students how an inchoate hatred, spread across centuries, could combine in lethal fashion with other factors to lead to mass suffering and genocide. For this reason we were deeply disappointed when the UCL Academic Board elected to explore an alternative definition of antisemitism. We wrote to the Chair of Council and the Provost informing them of our position: we are clear that this decision will not detract from our commitment to IHRA and its definition without equivocation or dilution. We will stand by it.

For more than a decade, the centre’s research-informed approach has demonstrated that if teachers are provided with appropriate training – which deepens their knowledge and understanding and gives them the confidence to tackle this complex history – they can overcome alarming levels of ignorance among young people about the Holocaust and antisemitism.  
Our work, and the work we do with IHRA, raises awareness of how antisemitism can take root in times of economic depression or insecurity. It can alert young people to the fragility of democracy and the dangers of extremist rhetoric. It can induce understanding, respect and empathy for those persecuted and attacked. And, probably most important of all, it has the potential to encourage young people to proactively confront and challenge hate speech, antisemitism and racism in contemporary society. 

Prof Foster has been Executive Director of the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education since 2008

April 22, 2021 11:19

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