Dear Vice Chancellor, don’t let Gavin Williamson bully you into adopting IHRA

Dear Vice Chancellor, don’t let Gavin Williamson bully you into adopting IHRA October 17, 2020

Dear Professor Schofield

RE: The Secretary of State’s request that Lancaster University adopts the International Holocaust Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

I’m writing to you as a Jewish student studying at Lancaster University in the hope that you’ll resist the pressure being put on you by the government to adopt what I, and many other Jews in the UK and around the world, believe to be a flawed and deeply problematic document on antisemitism.

First of all though, may I congratulate you on your appointment as Vice Chancellor earlier this year. You’ve arrived in the post at an extraordinary time and I don’t envy you the task of navigating the many challenges of Covid-19 for both your students and staff. I was also glad to see the commitment you’ve made to widening participation and championing equality, diversity and inclusion at Lancaster.

I applied to study at Lancaster University in the spring and was pleased to be offered a place despite a thirty year break from higher education. I’m taking a part-time MA in the department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, and fitting my studies around a full-time job. I’m fortunate to have found an upside to the pandemic, and have turned my old routine of office commuting into study time.

What’s been good about my course so far, is the academic rigour, frameworks and models I’m learning to apply to my political thinking and in particular to my long-time interest and concern about Israel/Palestine, which as I’m sure you know, can be a highly controversial area of study, full of contested and competing viewpoints. Which brings me back to the reason I’m writing to you.

A document worthy of study, but not adoption

The letter from Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, to all UK Vice Chancellors, requests that every university adopts the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. I believe it’s a document which is certainly worthy of study, especially within the academic department I’m now a part of. It’s an excellent illustration of how contemporary identity politics can be blended with history, religion and political ideology. It may appear reasonable to the less well-informed, but it has detrimental consequences (intended or unintended) for freedom of speech, academic study, and the achievement of inclusion and diversity on university campuses.

The document’s definition of antisemitism is itself confusing and muddled in its wording – never a good starting point for an academic definition which needs clarity and precision. And it sets the antisemitism bar too high, talking only of “hatred” without referencing prejudice or discrimination.

The IHRA itself describes its wording as a ‘working definition’, in other words, not to be considered final or definitive in any way. And it certainly does need a lot more work. You have to wonder why, with such a clear caveat attached, is this wording being pushed so strongly for adoption by universities? Wouldn’t it be better to spend some more time knocking it into better shape?

However, it’s clear from his letter to you, that Mr. Williamson wants Lancaster to adopt not only the work in progress definition but the illustrations offered by IHRA as well.

While some of the eleven illustrations are clear and uncontroversial, others (those relating to the State of Israel and Zionism) should raise numerous questions and concerns for any academic, especially students of politics and ethics. To its credit, the document points out that applying the examples should also take into account “the overall context”. But there’s no guidance on how to evaluate any context or how to decide if a viewpoint being expressed is reasonable, proportionate or defendable. At which point, you have to question how helpful the Israel related illustration will be in adjudicating actual cases of alleged antisemitism. I wouldn’t want to be a Vice Chancellor having to take disciplinary action against students or staff based only on this document for guidance.

Illustrating the problem

Let me take just one of the illustrations to illustrate the problem.

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.

Unpacking this wording can take quite some time. Again, that in itself should call into question its value as a practical guide to managing debate on campus.

Is national self-determination a protected right for every individual? What happens if its application denies another group its own national self-determination? Are we confusing categories by making criticism of Jews and criticism of a nation state synonymous? To change the context, would we be comfortable saying it’s wrong for a native American to describe the creation of the United States as a racist endeavour? And if they did, would it automatically mean they are being racist towards individual Americans?

These are all areas of legitimate and lively academic inquiry. But this is far from being a purely academic debate. If you’re a Palestinian student studying at a British university this is about your right to express your lived history and that of your family and people. Denying the expression of that experience would seem to go against any ambitions to be truly diverse, inclusive and welcoming institution.

Understanding of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel cannot be the exclusive right of Jewish people. For a rounded understanding of what Zionism has meant, and what it means today, you need to include Palestinian testimony and Palestinian academic writing. I can’t imagine any serious educational institution, especially Lancaster, to expect anything less.

Critiquing this illustration alone ought to be enough to point out to the Secretary of State why his enthusiasm for the IHRA document is misplaced.

Kenneth Stern’s concerns

Even Kenneth Stern, the American Jewish author of the original IHRA text, is worried about how it’s being applied and politicised.

In the Guardian last year, Stern wrote about how right-wing advocates for Israel (such as Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor on the Middle East, Jared Kushner) were looking to give the IHRA document a legal standing which was entirely inappropriate.

“I’m a Zionist. But on a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression. I suspect that if Kushner or I had been born into a Palestinian family displaced in 1948, we might have a different view of Zionism, and that need not be because we vilify Jews or think they conspire to harm humanity. Further, there’s a debate inside the Jewish community whether being Jewish requires one to be a Zionist. I don’t know if this question can be resolved, but it should frighten all Jews that the government is essentially defining the answer for us.”

These debates are even more toxic in the United States than there are here in the UK, but we appear to be heading in a similar direction.

The more immediate danger is that academics and students begin to self-censure themselves to avoid even the possibility of antisemitic accusations being made, or that public debates are cancelled or never organised for fear of falling foul of the IHRA’s potential application. In fact, this has already been happening, as this report about UCLan in Preston, just down the road from you, shows. Of course, this kind of application of IHRA may be the very reason why the document is being so actively championed in the first place, particularly by professional advocates for the State of Israel around the world.

There are many other concerned Jewish voices on this matter, and they write with considerable authority and expertise. I would direct you and your colleagues to Dr. Brian Klug at Oxford University;  Antony Lerman, an expert in modern European antisemitism; Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the study of antisemitism; and for a detailed critique of all elements of the IHRA document, take a look at the Canadian branch of Independent Jewish Voices.

Difficult decisions

Professor Schofield, I understand how difficult this situation is for you and your peers in higher education. The Secretary of State is behaving like a bully and using genuine concerns about rising incidents of antisemitism on campus to push a flawed document which will do little to help the situation.

Mr. Williamson says he’s “frankly disappointed” at the reluctance of universities to adopt the IHRA which he describes as a “straightforward way” to demonstrate clearly that you do not tolerate antisemitism. As I hope I’ve shown, there’s nothing straightforward about this document. Not adopting IHRA ought to be clear evidence that you understand the complexities of antisemitism, Zionism and Israel (and the dangers of their conflation) rather better than the Secretary of State does.

It doesn’t help you that the Union of Jewish Students has also been campaigning for IHRA to be adopted by all universities, despite the fact that the text itself only aggravates disagreements about Israel and Zionism on campus. As a Jewish student, I find the UJS position poorly thought out and deeply regrettable. Until it can accept that Zionism has not been an entirely innocent endeavour, it will struggle to build effective alliances with other minority groups on campus.

Finally, I wish you well in your conversations with the Secretary of State and with the development of your policies on equality and inclusivity. If you think I can be of any assistance, please do get in touch. In the meantime, I have every confidence that you will continue to uphold the highest standards of academic life at Lancaster University.


Robert Cohen

MA student, Graduate College, Lancaster University

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