Academia,  antisemitism

The IHRA definition and the Bristol brouhaha

Some people object to the IHRA definition of antisemitism because it doesn’t clearly label criticism of Israel, or for that matter full-blooded antizionism, as always being antisemitic.  Some other people object to the IHRA definition because it doesn’t clearly label criticism of Israel, or full-blooded antizionism, as never being antisemitic.  Both of these groups are wrong, and indeed wrong for the same reason: the IHRA definition doesn’t label criticism of Israel, or for that matter antizionism, as always being antisemitic or never being antisemitic.  The reason for this is the prosaic and undramatic truth that sometimes criticism of Israel, or objections to Zionism, are antisemitic, and sometimes they aren’t; and this is what IHRA says.

Some universities have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism; some have not.  Sometimes it is rejected on the specious grounds that it suppresses criticism of Israel.  There are some universities, however, where the IHRA definition has been adopted, but it doesn’t seem to be having much effect on their practice.

The most obvious current example of this is Bristol University, where one of the sociologists, Professor David Miller, claims as his goal the eradication of Zionism as a functioning ideology.  He also claims that members of Bristol’s Jewish Society (some of whom are his students), and many other Jewish and non-Jewish people who show some level of support for Israel, are Zionist agents, pawns in the hands of a violent, racist state which seeks to impose its will, and its racism, on the rest of the world.  The university has taken no action against the sociologist, other than to say that it doesn’t endorse his views.

A letter has been sent to the university in support of Professor Miller, signed by several hundred interested parties, many from abroad, some from within Bristol University itself.  This letter does not only defend Miller on the grounds of academic freedom, but also on the (supposed) grounds that what he says about Israel ‘and its supporters’ is true.  Another letter aiming to show that Miller’s claims give ‘aid and comfort to antisemites’, signed by even more hundreds of interested parties, including some from Bristol University, has also been sent.

Now, it might be argued that this state of affairs at least demonstrates that the IHRA definition doesn’t in fact suppress criticism of Israel, and even less does it suppress antizionism.  That certainly seems to be true.  But since nothing actually appears to have been done by the University, it also suggests that endorsing IHRA needn’t make any difference in practice to how an institution conducts itself with respect to behaviour that could be viewed, and certainly is viewed by many people, as paradigmatically antisemitic[1].  This is, to put it mildly, an unsatisfactory state of affairs, since the adoption of a definition of antisemitism is supposed to be of some practical use.

So what does it take to deploy a definition like the IHRA one – to get it to actually do some work?  Two things seem to be essential: first, the adoption must be made with the intention of applying it – that is, it must be made in good faith, rather than just as a piece of PR window-dressing.  Second, a definition such as IHRA which is quite complex, and rightly so, needs moral judgement for successful application.  This is not unique to the IHRA definition, or to the subject of antisemitism, or indeed to the subject of racism; applying something as relatively simple as university regulations about plagiarism will also require some quite sensitive moral judgement.  A fortiori with respect to a tinderbox concept like antisemitism.

Good faith, and the ability to make halfway decent moral judgements, are needed for the application of any set of moral or quasi-moral guidelines, from euthanasia to disabled parking.  Paper policy, even the helpful IHRA definition, can’t make a difference on its own, but a definition or policy can usefully inform a good faith and morally competent decision-making process.  Can it possibly be the case that with respect to antisemitism, there are academics or administrators at Bristol University who lack good faith, or competent moral judgement, or both?

Naturally we’d prefer to think not.  But when an individual, or an institution, publicly adopts a moral principle, and gets the moral credit for adopting it, but in practice makes no effort to apply its tenets, then we generally regard that as a case of hypocritical virtue-signalling.  Politicians often do this, and indeed sometimes have to do it, for good political reasons.  But it’s hard to think of any good reasons a university might have for misleading its members and the public about a matter of such significance as the prevalence of antisemitism within its walls.  It’s easy, of course, to think of the many bad reasons they might have for deciding to do this.

Eve Garrard

[1] For excellent detailed treatments of this, see David Hirsh, https://fathomjournal.org/fathom-long-read-the-meaning-of-david-miller/, and also Lucy Lips, http://hurryupharry.net/2021/03/06/when-a-professor-at-bristol-university-became-a-jew/

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