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Dispatches on academic freedom

How to fight antisemitism without threatening
academic freedom

An examination of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism.


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.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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  1. Peter Wertheim / December 16, 2020 at 06:59

    One important thing missing from this analysis is the fact that the IHRA working definition itself states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. This is a get-out clause that applies to each and every one of the examples which relate to Israel.

    Further, the analysis misses the nuance that the IHRA definition only applies to claims that “the *existence* of *a* State of Israel is a racist endeavor” ie claims that the very existence of a State of Israel, no matter how it behaves, is racist. The IHRA definition therefore does not apply to claims that particular policies and practices of the actual State of Israel are racist, however false and outlandish such claims may be.

  2. Mordko / December 16, 2020 at 07:17

    I have never seen anyone writing “Canada is a racist endeavour” on bus stops. I have seen this written against Israel. There is reason for this inconsistency.

    Facts are well known. Foundation of Israel was part of Jewish liberation movement, a reaction to many centuries of persecution of Jews in Christian and Muslim countries, blood libels, discrimination in law and pogroms.

    • Norm Hunter / December 16, 2020 at 14:00

      Might I suggest that the recently published ‘Mythologies Without End’ (Oxford University Press) by Jerome Slater and Shlomo Sands’ ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ provide a more accurate, and complete, analysis of the ‘creation of the state of Israel’. Both books contain very carefully documented facts necessary to make an honest assessment regarding the creation of Israel.

      • Edward Weinberg / December 17, 2020 at 10:03

        @Norm Hunter — I don’t know the other book, but the Sands book relies on the debunked theory that Eastern European Jews are descended from a Turkic people called the Khazars.

        This unsupportable theory has been weaponized by people seeking to delegitimize the Jewish claim to Israel. Not a good place to start.

    • Moise / December 16, 2020 at 18:53

      Canada do not have a selective immigration law that allow automatic racial or religious discrimination for anyone who want to immigrate to the country as does Israel by allowing only jewish immigrants. Any country with same policies will qualify to be branded a racist regime.

  3. Ed Weinberg / December 16, 2020 at 09:40

    Thanks for your sensitive treatment of the issues that come up in this. I’d appreciate a stronger conclusion — although of course it’s hard to see if one exists, as it’s mostly a question of tone that separates a good-faith inquiry from a bad-faith one.

    The question of double standards seems to me to be somewhat quantifiable though. Maybe the logic of systems could also be applied to academia? While one scholar focusing on Israel as an ethnostate with corresponding “problems” isn’t a problem, too great a number of them focusing on Israel and not Armenia, Bulgaria, Serbia does tip the scales. This seems to me to be the better comparison than some place like Canada — a settler colonial comparison implies no connection between Israeli Jews and Israel, not an indigenous connection broken by 1,900 years as a satellite of different empires.

  4. Henry Wolkowicz / April 10, 2021 at 09:19

    This article indeed proves that antisemitism is alive and flourishing. The biased constant criticism and singling out of Israel is exactly what antisemitism is. Read the statistics of what goes on at the UN The greatest pastime in Israel is arguably the criticism of the government. In what country do academics have more freedom to criticize their government? Yes, this article is exactly what antisemitism is about. No matter what Jews do throughout history they are criticized/slandered and that has been turned around now into doing so for the only TINY Jewish state in the world.

  5. Vanessa Miliowsky / August 23, 2021 at 11:42

    Shannon Dea, Israel is not a colonial state. It is the indigenous land of the Jewish people supported by archeological evidence. If you’re going to write about this topic, at least get your facts straight.