For the third time in two years, the Guardian published a letter (“If we endorse the IHRA definition of antisemitism we put at risk Australia’s academic freedom”, Oct. 29) by a Palestinian group complaining that a widely accepted antisemitism definition designed to protect Jews represents a form of oppression against Palestinians.
The letter, authored by “a collective of Palestinians who work and study in Australian universities”, follows the vow by Australia’s Prime Minister that the country will adopt the IHRA working definition, and opens with moral throat-clearing, acknowledging that “antisemitism remains a persistent threat to Jewish people”, noting the “rise of neo-Nazi white supremacist groups in Australia”.
However, whilst neo-Nazi antisemitism is a serious threat in Australia, a study currently being peer reviewed showed that another major trigger for antisemitism in the country anti-Israel protests during conflicts with Hamas. This of course mirrors the situation in the UK, US and other countries, where, during these periods, such as the conflict in May, antisemitic incidents, disproportionately perpetrated by pro-Palestinian Muslims, skyrocket.
The signatories opine that the “Palestinian cause is a fundamentally intersectional struggle” and that their “fight against anti-Palestinian racism…unquestionably includes that against antisemitism”, before making their main argument: that the “endorsement of the IHRA definition on university campuses would pose a dangerous threat to academic freedom“.
However, their commitment to academic freedom is, at best, suspect, as the main pro-Palestinian group in Australia (Australian Students for Justice in Palestine) has expressed support for an academic boycott of Israel. Specifically, they signed a petition calling for an end to academic cooperation with Israeli universities that they claim are linked to or complicit in Israeli “crimes” – language so broad that it could include nearly every Israeli academic institution. The hypocrisy of pro-Palestinian academics who, on one had, denounce the adoption of IHRA as a threat to academic freedom, while simultaneously blacklisting all Israeli academics, is stunning.
Further, as the CST’s Dave Rich and others noted, IHRA is a non-legally binding definition, full of caveats making it clear that, in any situation where IHRA is considering being applied, the overall context, such as the legal protections for academic freedom that exist in a country, must be considered. As Michael Whine, one of IHRA’s co-authors, made clear in a piece at Fathom, the definition “was to be a guide for better understanding antisemitism, not a speech code etched in stone”. To strike the necessary balance, he stressed, they added the important, conditional phrase, “depending on the context”, and stated explicitly that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.
The Palestinian signatories then, ignoring that IHRA caveat about mere criticism of Israel not being antisemitic, write “the IHRA definition will not protect Jews from antisemitism, but will censure legitimate critique of Israel“. That sentence links to a statement by the antisemitic group ‘Jewish Voices for Peace’ – a movement so extreme that they partner with terror and terror-affiliated groups, and recently celebrated the escape of terrorists serving sentences for the murder of Israeli Jews.
The Palestinian signatories also seem to believe that they understand Judaism more than Jews themselves by claiming, in the letter, that IHRA “falsely conflates Judaism with Zionism”, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jews see Israel as intrinsically linked to their Jewish identity. The letter also complains that the IHRA definition will only increase discrimination against Palestinian and pro-Palestinian scholars, citing, as a poster-boy for those ‘falsely accused’ of antisemitism, Professor David Miller, writing that “David Miller, was recently “accused of antisemitism over comments about Israel and fired”.
Miller of course was not fired due to “comments about Israel”, but, rather, because he’s consistently peddled classic antisemitic tropes, evoking the idea that Jews and Jewish groups in the UK are part of a global Zionist conspiracy to push an Islamophobic agenda. The letter also notes that “Prof Miller…accused the university of bowing to pressure from the Israel lobby”, a fact contradicted by Miller himself, who recently admitted that the original complaint against him was filed by one of his own Jewish students.
The misrepresentations and lies in the letter continue, as it argues that the “IHRA definition has been widely disputed since its inception”. This ignores the fact that it’s been adopted by over 30 (democratic) countries, including the EU Council, Parliament and Commission, Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed, UN Secretary General Antonia Guterres and scores of municipalities, law enforcement agencies and universities.
The signatories of the Guardian letter reveal their hand when they pivot to what is likely their main problem with the definition, its codification as antisemitic the rejection of Israel’s right to exist, and then begin to make their case on why Israel is indeed uniquely malevolent:
They write that Israel “was established on displacing 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948”, when the Palestinians in question were displaced as the result of an Arab war of annihilation launched on the day of the Jewish state’s rebirth;
They write that Israel “continues to deny Palestinians their equal right to self-determination”, ignoring several Israeli offers of statehood rejected by Palestinian leaders.
They write of Israel’s “illegal siege on the Gaza Strip”, ignoring the fact that a UN commission in 2011 determined that Israel’s naval blockade is consistent with international law.
They write that Israel denies “diasporic Palestinians our internationally recognised “right of return” since 1948”, despite the fact that there is no such right bestowed by the international community allowing millions of descendants of the 1948 refugees to emigrate to Israel.
Finally, the letter engages in a series of straw men and non-sequiturs:
Australian scholars must remain free to critically examine Israel, just as all other states are open to critique. We must not allow IHRA to exceptionalise Israel. Israel is not beyond critique. It is absurd to suggest that calling into question state racism is racist; it is in fact the opposite.
Not only are Australian scholars, and scholars around the world, free to “critically examine Israel”, but the state is arguably the most critically examined state in the world. And, if Israel is “exceptionalised”, it’s in the way Israel’s every flaw – problems, such as racism, considered serious though unexceptional when detected in other states – is framed as evidence that it’s uniquely evil, representing some sort of organic obstacle to international peace and progress.
Finally, what’s truly “absurd” is that Palestinians, who are among the most antisemitic groups in the world, not only lack introspection and are seemingly unapologetic about their own racism, but make the debate over anti-Jewish racism about themselves – insisting that they know better than Jews the connection between Judaism and Zionism; and that they know better than Jews what constitutes, and which measures will help fight, antisemitism.
The fact that the Guardian provides forums for such voices – who Palsplain antisemitism – is just more evidence that their full-throated support for the Palestinian cause continues to shatter the pretense that their brand of ‘progressivism’ could ever conceivably prioritise the safety and wellbeing of the world’s Jews.