Throwing the bathroom out with the bathwater

The UK's largest trade union for academics has been branded 'institutionally racist' for not recognising the EUMC definition on anti-Semitism.

If this isn't anti-Semitic, what is?
Dan Sheldon
On 31 May 2011 13:52

That the University and College Union (UCU) has chosen to condemn and disassociate itself from the EUMC Working Definition of anti-Semitism is no surprise. In fact, that’s probably one of the worst aspects of this whole saga - that such a policy position has been able to establish itself without much serious consideration or opposition. Such is the sorry state of the national lecturers’ union. 

Why then, have I found myself so shocked by this grimly inevitable turn of events? Why have so many Jewish students – and others - expressed outrage?

Perhaps it is because this decision betrays an ignorance one wouldn’t expect of a collective of academics. Ignorance of the nature of anti-Semitism, with its coded language and deep rooted stereotypes. Perhaps they are unaware of the prevalence of such prejudice, and precisely why it is considered racist? Or perhaps they are ignorant of the recent NUS Hate Crime Interim Report, a survey of over 9,000 students? It found that 31 percent of Jewish students had experienced a hate incident - far more than any other religious group. 

Ignorance, too, of a basic logic - spelt out by Eve Garrad here - that it is possible to be critical (or more) of Israel whilst also engaging in anti-Semitism. To state that criticism of Israel is always anti-Semitic is wrong and devalues anti-Semitism. However, those who hold that criticism of Israel can never be anti-Semitic are either blind to basic logic or acting in bad faith. 

Ignorance, also, of what the Working Definition actually is. How anybody who has read the Working Definition can maintain that it “confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism” is beyond me. In fact, it is this very confusion that the Working Definition aims to clear up. 

To be sure, the Working Definition is not perfect. It never claimed to be, hence why it is known as the Working Definition. That’s why the preamble to the definition states that it is intended to be a “practical guide”, and the definition itself contains the caveat “could, taking into account the overall context” when listing potential examples of anti-Semitism. 

In fact, any attempt to construct a perfect definition of anti-Semitism, or any form of prejudice, is something of a fool’s mission. No definition can capture every possible instance of prejudice, especially within something as multi-faceted and ever-evolving as anti-Semitism. Nor can a single definition ever take full account of the overall context and perception of the victim

However, to afford the Working Definition the status of a definitive, water tight definition is to construct a massive, luminous straw man in this discussion. 

Let me be clear - the Working Definition is not a binding hate speech code, it is not law and it should not be treated as such. Rather, it is a useful primer on anti-Semitism; an accessible tool for educating on and identifying anti-Semitism. For universities and students’ unions, it sums up in one page what Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora does in 864. It is the start of a serious conversation about anti-Semitism, not the last word. 

Where, then, has this misplaced perception of the Working Definition’s intent and purpose come from? No doubt there are some who misunderstand and misuse the Working Definition. Instead of using it as a pedagogical resource or a tool for monitoring anti-Semitism, some may attempt to use the Working Definition as a means to punish those responsible for expressions similar to those potential examples of anti-Semitism it lists. To the contrary, this is not the position of the Union of Jewish Students, the Community Security Trust, the Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism, the American Jewish Congress or anybody else who does serious work on this issue.

To pretend, as the UCU policy does, that the Working Definition “is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus” leaves the impression that this is a widespread issue; that the Working Definition is regularly used to punish those who criticise Israel.

Where, then, is the evidence for such a claim? The example cited in the debate at UCU Congress was that the recent ‘Freedom for Palestine’ motion adopted by NUS had been objected to on the grounds that it breached the Working Definition. In fact, this example proves that it is, in fact, perfectly possible to debate and criticise Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. Despite having adopted the Working Definition (twice, after full debates at National Conference), NUS was able to debate and adopt a policy extremely critical of Israel. No claims were made at the time, or subsequently, that this policy breaches the Working Definition. 

Quite simply, the claim that the Working Definition - when properly used - shuts down debate on Israel does not stand up to scrutiny. 

The UCU, however, cannot claim to be in any doubt about the purpose of the Working Definition. The proposers of the motion have clearly read it very carefully and they know full well that it is intended to be a working guide. They just don’t agree with the content - that’s why they have dismissed it entirely, making “no use” of it, not even in “educating members”. 

If the UCU were merely guilty of ignorance, that could be understood and - through education and dialogue - resolved. If someone had proposed that the UCU adopt the Working Definition, and Congress were to reject it, that would be the result of ignorance. Regrettable, but understandable. 

However, the UCU has never used the Working Definition, and nobody proposed that it should start doing so. Instead, UCU has decided, apropos of nothing, to condemn the Working Definition whilst offering no serious alternative. In doing so, they have singled out anti-Semitism from other forms of prejudice as something only they, and not the victims, have the right to identify.  

That’s where this goes beyond ignorance into genuine malice. One is left wondering what occupies the thoughts of those who are so keen to lecture Jews on what constitutes anti-Semitism. Jewish students are left wondering whether their lecturers’ commitment to “combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination” is anything other than hollow rhetoric. 

Dan Sheldon is the incoming Campaigns Director of the Union of Jewish Students. This article was cross-posted from the UJS website with permission from the author.

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