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Clear definition of anti-Semitism aims to stop its rise

By ZFA President Jeremy Leibler

This article originally appeared in The Australian on 12 August 2021 and can be viewed here

Much of the outrage sparked by barrister Julian Burnside’s recent tweet (since withdrawn) likening the treatment of Palestinians to that of Jews during the Holocaust hinged on the assessment that someone with his level of education should know better.

But the sad reality is, with an uptick in anti-Semitism being experienced by Jewish people across the globe, one of the settings in which they experience the greatest hostility is on campuses.

News of Israeli-Palestinian violence invariably results in actions on campus that make Jewish students and staff feel unsafe. As federal Education Minister Alan Tudge wrote in these pages last week, during the most recent clash between Israel and Hamas many Jewish students stayed home because of the intimidation.

There have been numerous accounts of this behaviour on campuses around Australia. Even before the violence in May, I heard from members of the Australian Jewish community and my own friendship groups distressing stories of lecturers singling out Jewish students to defend Israel’s military policy or students being denied membership in progressive student clubs because they were “Zionists”, which too often is used as code for Jewish. The ante was upped in May when leaders of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students received death threats.

This is why the time has come for Australian universities to follow the lead set by more than half of all British universities (including Oxford and Cambridge) in adopting the working definition of anti-Semitism promulgated by the Berlin-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental body. With overwhelming evidence that the scourge of anti-Semitism is again on the rise, the IHRA determined that to address the problem there must be clarity about what anti-Semitism is. Its Committee on Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial succeeded in building international consensus on a non-legally binding definition that was adopted in 2016.

Twenty-nine nations, including Muslim-majority countries, have adopted or endorsed the definition, alongside a wide range of other organisations including the English Premier League and the Global Imams Council.

In Australia, the government is undertaking a process to consider formally adopting it and Labor leader Anthony Albanese and opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong have reaffirmed the ALP’s full endorsement of the IHRA definition.

The definition encompasses just two sentences: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Critically, IHRA backs up the definition with 11 practical examples for assessing expressions of anti-Semitism, enabling real-world application. This is an important feature because, like a virus, anti-Semitism mutates over time – from the blood libel of the Middle Ages, through the racially based, genetic manifestation of anti-Semitism perpetrated by the Nazis through to the demonisation of Israel we see today.

The IHRA definition has never sought to constrain or silence criticism of Israel. In fact, it states “criticism of Israel, similar to that levelled against any other country, cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic”. But where the Jewish people collectively are held responsible for Israeli actions or where anyone who identifies as a Zionist is excluded from participation in clubs – simply for supporting the right of the Jewish people to self-determination – a dangerous line has been crossed.

Indeed, where criticism of Israel turns into challenging its right to exist, the motivation is unfailingly anti-Semitic. Ignorance is no defence.

It is precisely for this reason that education – about racism, about what offends and why it offends – is a tool to empower minorities but also the communities in which they live and work.

Any suggestion that Israel treats Palestinians like Hitler treated the Jews is deeply offensive and blatantly incorrect. Nobody could reasonably argue that the Israeli government or military has made any attempt, in any form, to replicate what the Nazis did to the Jewish people. While the Holocaust was an exercise in extermination, the Palestinian popu­lation continues to grow. In Israel, Palestinian citizens are diplomats, judges, government ministers, members of parliament, journalists, doctors and teachers.

The IHRA lists “drawing comparison(s) of contemporary Israeli policies to that of the Nazis” as one of its 11 examples of Jewish hate. On this basis, several academics around the globe have waged the furphy argument that the definition will somehow cruel free speech and academic freedom. It neither was intended to, nor would it ever succeed in being used to, undermine these fundamental democratic freedoms.

The core focus of the definition is to promote understanding and fairness. It is one of many tools governments and institutions have at their disposal to assess allegations of racism, discrimination and hate speech.

If the higher education sector wants to be true to its self-image as a beacon of human rights protection and advocacy, the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism provides a mirror for universities to ensure they aren’t mistaking progressive groupthink for justice.

Jeremy Leibler is president of the Zionist Federation of Australia.