I almost didn’t write this column.
Just over a year ago, a retired academic and member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada contacted me asking me to write about IJVC’s campaign opposing the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism.
This was the first I had heard of the definition, even though it has been around for 16 years, was adopted in 2016 by the 31 member countries of the IHRA and has in recent years been at the centre of some prominent controversies. Notable among them is the U.K. Labour Party’s response to charges of antisemitism.
Even though I didn’t know the history of the IHRA definition, I knew the core issues. On the one hand, criticisms of Israel often serve as antisemitic dog whistles. On the other, political scientists, human rights scholars and historians (among others) need to be able to turn a critical gaze to Israel – as they would any country, but in particular as they would any country that acts as an occupying force.
This is a very fine line to walk, and I wasn’t sure that I should be walking it. I am not Jewish, and while I am deeply aware of the long history and tenacious presence of antisemitism, I have not myself been subject to it. Nor has anyone in my family. I am reminded of the anti-Corbyn protest signs reading, “What offends Jews is our business – not yours!”
Afraid to wade in, I wrote a non-committal reply to my IJVC correspondent. When I received an automated message about a problem with the originating email address, I admit that I breathed a sigh of relief and let the matter drop.
It is perhaps worth admitting that I have not always been so chicken with this column. Over the past couple of years, I have written about academic freedom as it touches on trans issues, campus anti-abortion campaigns, and even the n-word. I admit that I was nervous writing about the first and third of those issues because I am neither Black nor trans and was committed to staying in my lane. Ultimately, though, I decided that as University Affairs’ academic freedom columnist, I had a duty to discuss the toughest issues that Canadian scholars face when it comes to academic freedom.
Further, in this column and in my scholarly work on academic freedom, I seek to tread a middle path between positions that are too often represented as polarized between unfettered libertarianism and “safe spaces.”
In particular, I seek to defend academic freedom by balancing it against the responsibilities that academics owe to each other and to society; and I seek to help cultivate universities that are more inclusive of people who have for too long been left out of the circles of academic power by advocating for more robust academic freedom for them. My hope is that by encouraging readers to think about ways to balance the core values that animate universities, I may be able to help relieve them of forced and artificial choices in some of the thorniest matters we confront as academics.
The IHRA working definition is just such a matter.
In October, the Ontario government issued an order in council adopting the IHRA working definition. That announcement, hard on the heels of the University of Toronto law school rescinding a job offer to Valentina Azarova, apparently because of her criticisms of Israel, led some scholars to decry the IHRA working definition as a threat to academic freedom.
To be precise, it is not the definition, but some of the illustrative examples of antisemitism that the IHRA lists in support of the definition that some scholars regard as a threat to academic freedom. The definition itself is actually fairly brief and anodyne. The worst that can be said about it is that it is vague: “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 trouble arises with the 11 examples offered by the IHRA and in particular with the seven examples from the 11 that make reference to Israel:
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
- 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.
- Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
Critics charge that implicating Israel in over half of the IHRA’s examples blocks reasonable critique of that state. However, I think that view is just wrong. It is antisemitism, not reasonable scholarly critique, that motivates claims that Israel exaggerates the Holocaust or that Jews are either more loyal to Israel than their countries of citizenship or collectively responsible for what Israel does. (And these aren’t remotely the most antisemitic examples on the list.)
Moreover, including such examples is essential to the original purpose for which the definition was drafted – that is, to help data collectors monitor antisemitism by codifying which acts and statements should be counted as antisemitic and which shouldn’t. That very specific purpose is why the definition has for 16 years borne the moniker “working definition.” It is a working definition because it is used to do important classificatory work, not because it is a first draft.
In that sense, most of the companion examples actually support important scholarship rather than threatening it. The difficulty comes in with the third example: “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.”
This example alone blocks critical scholarship about Israel. It does so by prohibiting scholarship about Israel using the decolonial and critical race theoretic lenses that are standard scholarly approaches to other occupying powers. The third example is thus in direct tension with the fourth example, which bars “Applying double standards … not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
Notice the strangeness of that third bullet point. Each bullet is meant to be an example. Bullet 3 alone is an example that comes bearing its own example. Moreover, that subsidiary example is wildly unreliable. To see that this is the case, try applying it to any other country.
Take Canada, for instance. Because of Canada’s settler colonial history and present, some scholars argue that Canada is at bottom a racist endeavour. However, few if any of those scholars wish to deny Canadians their right to self-determination. These scholars don’t want Canada to cease to exist; they just want it to stop being racist.
But that analogy only goes so far. There are important differences between Canada and Israel despite the fact that they are both colonial states. The most important difference is that (settler) Canadians are not bound together by 500 years of shared, often violent, oppression based on their ethnicity and religion. Moreover, since “Canadian” isn’t an ethnicity or a religion, critiques of Canada are never used as xenophobic dog whistles. (In this connection, it is telling how many critiques of the IHRA definition are animated by claims that the definition is being promoted by a strong pro-Israeli lobby.)
The distinctive but unmistakable way in which Israel is often used as a Trojan horse for antisemitism makes it crucial that such references to Israel are included in the IHRA definition so that such usages make their way into the data.
However, a data classification system must not conflate reasonable critique with hatred, and it ought not to be an official government stance – especially from a government that just a year before Ontario’s order in council issued another such order requiring postsecondary institutions to adopt free speech policies.
If we truly care about academic freedom and campus free speech, then criticism of Israel must be fair game. Conversely, if we are committed to making academia inclusive and just, then we must defend sensible tools – sensibly applied – for monitoring and fighting antisemitism.