Top academic warns UCL may create a licence for Jews to be treated as ‘agents of evil’

Michael Walzer, a leading political philosopher at Princeton, said it was critical that the university did not back away from the IHRA definition of antisemitism


A top academic has told the JC that if University College London went back on its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism it would be creating a “licence to treat every Jewish kid as an agent of evil.”

Michael Walzer, a leading political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was a key signatory of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), a definition proposed as an alternative to IHRA over concerns the latter limited criticism of Israel.  

However he said he was backing IHRA for UK campuses because a failure to do so would “would send a very bad message to students and teachers.

“It would be a license not only to treat the state of Israel as the embodiment of evil (I would be happy to join an argument about that) but to treat every Jewish kid as an agent of evil—which no university should allow,” he said.

The intervention comes as UCL students and staff members are defending IHRA as “an important safeguard” amid growing harassment and intimidation of Jewish students. 

In February Jewish student leaders and former graduates of UCL reacted with fury to a decision taken by a group of academics at UCL to reject the use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

Defying the decision by the university itself over one year ago to adopt IHRA, UCL’s Academic Board confirmed it had voted to call on the university to “replace” the working definition with “a more precise definition of antisemitism”.

UCL’s academic board voted this year to advise the university’s governing Council to find an alternative definition which it is expected to decide on next month. 

However, writing in Fathom on Tuesday Mr Walzer said he thought that the controversy about defining antisemitism had “reached a critical stage” and that students experiences of antisemitism on campus were “unlike anything I have experienced myself and far more nasty than anything I have read about on any American campus."

He wrote: "Jewish students are regularly denounced with the Zionist-Nazi trope and harassed and bullied as they go about their academic routines in ways designed to isolate and intimidate them. They say further that they need the IHRA definition of antisemitism so that they can give their treatment its proper name.”

Mr Walzer, who originally backed the JDA because he felt it was more helpful to the fight against anti-Zionism in the American context, said those at the UCL who were arguing against the IHRA “do not seem to understand the urgency of the fight against the bullying and harassment of Jewish students.”

He wrote: “As I understand it, IHRA is a non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism, it has been adopted by UCL, and there is now an effort to rescind the adoption. 

“What is at issue here is not the enforcement of this or any definition; it is not a question of regulating or censoring research or teaching. 

“IHRA hasn’t been incorporated into UCL’s disciplinary code, and no-one has proposed that it should be. Arguments about Israeli wickedness would not be constrained, though if they reach a certain level of viciousness, I hope they would be called out. What is actually at issue is the recognition of antisemitism as an everyday feature of campus life.”

He called on UCL faculty and staff to defend the IHRA definition, “as I would do were if I with them.”

The decision to oppose IHRA was also supported by UCL’s branch of the University and College Union (UCU), which has a national policy of opposing what it calls a “politicised and divisive definition”.

In a statement UCL said following a "thoughtful debate which universally reaffirmed the university’s commitment to tackling antisemitism, a meeting of UCL’s Academic Board voted to make an advisory recommendation to Council to find an alternative definition to the IHRA.

"Council will now consider this recommendation and will continue to consult and listen to the views of the entire UCL community on this and other issues."

According to the university the decision to adopt the IHRA in 2019 was passed by an overwhelming majority of UCL’s Council and "sent a strong message that we take antisemitism seriously and are committed to tackling it."


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