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Image: Warwick Media Library

Open letter by Warwick staff urges vice-chancellor to “continue to refuse to adopt” the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism

An open letter urging the University of Warwick’s vice-chancellor to “continue to refuse to adopt” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of anti-Semitism has been signed by almost 80 Warwick members of staff.

The release of the letter follows Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft’s decision that Warwick would not officially adopt the IHRA’s definition last month. The full open letter can be found here.

Professor Croft explained in response to a letter delivered by Warwick Jewish Israeli Society (JISoc) president Angus Taylor that the definition did not have “any added value” and to “formally adopt individual definitions of specific forms of discriminatory behaviour” would “inevitably lead to the adoption of a whole series of such definitions”.

Signed by staff from numerous departments across the University, the open letter urging Professor Croft to continue to refuse the definition’s adoption states that “as a group” those who have signed the letter are “utterly committed to fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination in a steadfast manner, and will accept no compromise on these issues”.

“Many of us are Jews ourselves. Many of us have foregrounded the combat against racism and discrimination in our scholarly and professional work as well. Indeed, it is because of the seriousness of our commitment that we remain opposed to the adoption of this definition.”

It is “well known” and “has been stated repeatedly by some of its own authors”, the letter continues, that “the IHRA definition was never intended to be used as a tool to adjudicate whether any particular statement or opinion is or is not an example of anti-Semitic hate speech”.

“In its construction and logic it is quite simply not fit for this purpose.”

The staff letter explained that “in contrast to the definitions of institutional racism provided by MacPherson Report or the Commission for Racial Equality, the IHRA definition is unable to deal with structural anti-Semitism as its focus is on emotion or intent— something that is generally unprovable with regards to organisations or legal structures, let alone individuals”.

In contrast to the definitions of institutional racism provided by MacPherson Report or the Commission for Racial Equality, the IHRA definition is unable to deal with structural anti-Semitism as its focus is on emotion or intent

– Open letter by staff

“For this reason, leading scholars of anti-Semitism have dismissed the definition as inconsistent, contradictory, and ambiguous, and numerous Holocaust historians have expressed similar concerns.”

Finally, the letter argues that the IHRA’s definition “is of serious concern in that its instrumentalisation can jeopardise academic freedom in the context of teaching and research on Israel and Palestine, whilst not addressing, and even abetting the rise of anti-Semitism globally”.

The letter acknowledges Warwick Students’ Union (SU)’s statement released after Professor Croft’s decision on not adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, “wholeheartedly” agreeing that there is a need for “specific definitions of racial discrimination” and that Warwick “must listen to and work with students (and staff) “to adopt definitions and processes that are appropriate for those who have experienced anti- Semitism as well as other forms of racism””.

It calls on the University to “begin such a community discussion with the goal of crafting clear definitions that will be appropriate and effective in our context at Warwick” but adds that “as a result of the definition’s inability to identify hate speech or identify structural anti-Semitism and its repeated use to stifle academic freedom”, the signatories “feel that the IHRA is not and cannot be that definition”.

A joint statement was also released by five Warwick societies – Warwick Friends of Palestine Society, Anti-Racism Society, Labour Society, Arabic Society and Anti-Sexism Society – on Monday 3 February on the adoption of the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism at Warwick.

The IHRA definition creates a conflict between the rights of Palestinians and the fight against antisemitism when there should be none

– Joint societies’ statement

The statement outlined that the societies’ “firmly believe that Jewish students and staff must be protected from antisemitism, as it is a vile form of racism that has persisted in society for thousands of years, culminating in Jews being subject to some of the worst atrocities that the world has ever seen”.

However, they stated that the IHRA’s definition “is problematic in that it silences valid criticism of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, thereby silencing support for those who were displaced and subject to ethnic cleansing in the creation of the State of Israel and who continue to suffer racial oppression in Israel and Israeli-occupied territories to this day.”

“Antisemitism is deeply rooted in many societies and manifests itself in many ways,” the statement continued. “We are fundamentally opposed to antisemitism and are concerned at its persistence and resurgence in modern society.”

The statement continued that “in the fight against antisemitism, the defense of the rights of Palestinians must not be silenced” and that “the IHRA definition creates a conflict between the rights of Palestinians and the fight against antisemitism when there should be none, especially considering that there are many Jewish people and organisations who oppose the Israeli treatment of Palestinians and have historically been at the forefront of the struggle for their rights.”

The societies outline that they “agree with the majority of the definition” but “take issue with the example of antisemitism provided under the subsection of the definition titled “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”, with the IHRA arguing that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” is antisemitic.”

We expect our right as a minority community to define our own oppression to be respected, and feel that attempts to reject the IHRA Definition are in contravention of this

– Warwick Jewish Israeli Society

“The pursuit of self-determination by any people is not inherently racist. However, what must be taken into account, with regards to the State of Israel, are the processes by which this took place and continues to take place.”

“It is undeniable that Israel’s current existence is based on racism towards Palestinians,” the statement reads, outlining “forms of racial discrimination faced by Palestinians in Israel and Israeli-occupied territories” including “racist hate speech”, “racism in the judicial system” and “the seizure of, and denial of access to, Palestinian resources”, along with the passing of the Nationality Bill by the Israeli government in 2018.

The statement continues: “The example…provided in the definition fails to acknowledge the clear racial oppression that exists in Israel, and risks silencing Palestinians in their struggle for equality, erases the voices of Jews across the world opposed to Israeli human rights violations, and seriously undermines academic freedom to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

It also outlines that “the main drafter of the definition, Kenneth Stern, agreed with this sentiment”.

“By adopting this definition, the university would be silencing academics and students who seek to criticize Israel and defend Palestinians’ rights, and would be taking away their freedom of speech – an integral part of any university worth being respected,” the statement concludes.

Instead, the societies’ urge “the university to adopt a definition of antisemitism that protects Jewish students and staff without a trade-off that fundamentally underplays racism faced by other groups and restricts academic and political freedom”.

Following the release of the societies’ statement on Facebook, Warwick JISoc also released a statement, explaining they were “pleased that these societies affirmed their belief that Jewish students and staff must be protected from racism” but that they “fundamentally believe that the criticisms raised by the group of five are based on misconceptions with regards to what the definition states”.

“The example cited verbatim, Example 7 of the Definition, refers to ‘a’ state of Israel, not ‘the’ state of Israel. Whilst this distinction may seem semantic, it is absolutely crucial.

“The reference to ‘a’ state refers to a hypothetical, abstract realisation of Jewish self-determination. To deny this right, uniquely, to the Jewish people is self-evidently an example of antisemitism.”

There are ongoing dialogues about all matters related to this

– University of Warwick

JISoc added: “It is also important to note the immense unity on this issue within the Jewish community. Our communal representatives, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, have adopted the IHRA Definition and encourage all institutions to follow suit.

“Consequently, we expect our right as a minority community to define our own oppression to be respected, and feel that attempts to reject the IHRA Definition are in contravention of this.”

The society’s statement also “note(d) that our local elected representatives, namely Matt Western MP, Jeremy Wright MP, and Zarah Sultana MP, have, alongside 638 other MPs, signed the full, unabridged IHRA Declaration” along with Warwick SU.

“We continue to implore the University to adopt the IHRA Definition without delay.”

Since the vice-chancellor’s decision, Andrew Percy MP recently pointed to the University of Warwick in parliament for not adopting the definition, stating that “we have a big problem with anti-Semitism on campuses”.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has also said that UK universities and colleges who refuse to adopt IHRA’s definition will be publicly named and could face funding cuts.

Asked about the open letter, the University told The Boar that it has “nothing further to add to this story at this time” but “there are ongoing dialogues about all matters related to this”.

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