December 1, 2020 by IJV
Kenneth Stern in conversation with Seth Anziska and Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, chaired by Jacqueline Rose
IJV and Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities hosted this online panel discussion on 14 December 2020 | 8pm GMT. Full transcript below.
The event is free to attend online but prior registration is required.
Freedom of speech is a core value of our society, and one that British universities are legally required to uphold. It is essential that measures to define and challenge antisemitism do not constrain free speech. The matter has become pressing in relation to the much-debated International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has insisted that British universities must adopt the IHRA definition by the end of 2020 or face punitive funding cuts – but concerns have been raised that this could stifle legitimate critical discussion of the Palestine / Israel conflict. This panel discussion will explore these issues, with contributions from: Kenneth Stern, author of The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel / Palestine Campus Debate (2020) and Director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate; Seth Anziska, Associate Professor of Jewish-Muslim Relations at UCL and Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, barrister and chair of the British-Palestinian Policy Council. The discussion will be chaired by Jacqueline Rose, Professor of Humanities and Co-Director, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.
DEFINING ANTISEMITISM: Freedom of Speech on British Campuses and Beyond
14 DECEMBER 2020
A Panel Discussion hosted by IJV in conjunction with Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, chaired by Jacqueline Rose with Kenneth Stern, Seth Anziska and Salma Karmi-Ayyoub
Jacqueline Rose, 0:00
Well, see isn’t quite the right word. We’re very aware of the conditions under which we meet. And we feel those conditions make this kind of discussion all the more necessary and pressing and we hope profitable for all. We’re here to discuss the IHRA definition of antisemitism. And I think when I was preparing for this evening, I thought there are three key issues raised by the definition, which we’re here to discuss: the effect on freedom of speech, acutely focused in the UK, by Gavin Williamson, Minister for Education threatening universities with withdrawal of funds, if they do not accept the definition; the effects on Palestinian and on human rights advocacy of the definition; the effect on the protection of Jews against antisemitism, and what are the effects of the definition on making Jewish students more or less comfortable on campus, and perhaps, above all, how all these might be interrelated?
Because of its widespread international adoption, and because of the concern articulated by many that the definition is not aiding the struggle against antisemitism, and is, instead, having an adverse effect on freedom of speech, Independent Jewish voices in support of its objective to provide a context for dissent wanted to provide a space in which the definition can be subjected to critical scrutiny. Our procedure on this has been questioned by, for example, john Mann, who is formerly a Labour MP and is now Baron Mann, who said ‘Why have you chosen not to put someone on your panel who believes that IHRA strengthens freedom of speech in universities as this has been offered to you, and is not a contradiction when debating free speech’. So, we thought we should address that up front. And in response, we would just like to say that anyone can of course hold any meeting they want on this topic. In fact, under the conditions created by COVID, it has never been easier for people to produce a situation where they can talk, discuss, and have a meeting of this kind. It’s never been more urgent in a way and easier and more straightforward. But I would also like to suggest that I do not think that those who have been urging us to include a supporter of the definition on this panel will have been contacting events and contexts where support for the definition is already the focus, and asking for a dissenting voice to be present. So, let’s just say the demand for balance is rarely balanced. In fact, I would suggest that the concept of balance is misleading, if not corrupt, in an unbalanced world. The definition has power — of government and state on its side. Our aim for that would therefore be described, perhaps, as part of the well-worn tradition of speaking truth to power. Let me quote Brian Klug, writer on Jewish thought and philosophy on the controversy roused by the definition ‘when any group thinks with one mind and speaks with one voice, it runs the risk of surrendering its critical faculties. A working definition is not written in stone. Yet this one seems to have acquired the status of a sacred text’.
Now we have this evening three speakers about whom to say that they have been at the heart of these debates would be an understatement. At the same time, they speak from very different positions, and will not, I suspect, on the basis of my reading their interventions with great pleasure and their contributions in their writing, be completely agreeing with or even be on the same page as each other. So as part of my introduction, let me give you a quote from each of them in turn. First, Ken stern. ‘Rather than consider the long history of the state suppressing speech, which the state sees as dangerous (opposition to war, the promotion of civil rights) many today seem comfortable with the idea that the state should regulate expression’.
He is the director of the Center for Hate Speech is at Bard College and I think he was a founding director and the author most recently of “The conflict over the conflict. The Israel Palestine Campus Debate”, which was published this year and of previous books including a study of antisemitism. And crucially for this discussion, the draft of the original 2016 Antisemitism Awareness Act, which forms the basis for the IHRA definition, which we are here to talk about today. For him, I think the issue is one of freedom of speech.
Secondly, Salma Karmi-Ayyoub. She says in one of her recent interviews, ‘the conflation of criticism of Israel and antisemitism’ – which she suggests is part of this definition, or is allowed by this definition – ‘does a huge disservice both to the Palestinian cause and to the struggle against antisemitism, by giving it an opportunity to rise and grow and not be addressed properly. She is a criminal barrister, Al Shabaka policy member. She provides legal consultancy and advice services to individuals, NGOs, solicitors, firms on issues related to criminal and human rights law. She writes and is regularly interviewed on issues relating to the conflict. For her, I would say the issues one of advocacy and human rights.
And finally, Seth Anziska. Writing of his visit to the West Bank during a yeshiva year between high school and university in New York, when he questions what he sees one savvy educator comments ‘do you know, Seth, as bad as things have gotten, it’s important to remember that we need to care about our own first, before we address the needs of the other side’. Seth is the Mohamed S. Farsi-Polonsky lecturer in Jewish-Muslim Relations at University College London, visiting fellow at the US Middle East project, and author of “Preventing Palestine: A political history from Camp David to Oslo,” which was published two years ago. For him, I would suggest the issue is one of disenchantment with his own earlier views of Israel, and his right to be able to pursue and articulate the complexity of political and ethical choices, which that reality presents him with.
So, the way we’re going to proceed this evening is that Kenneth Stern, who we welcome warmly — we really appreciate his participation this evening, and indeed all our speakers — Kenneth Stern will open. And I would have said that he’s come further than anybody else, but of course, it’s all virtual so he hasn’t come further at all. But he has, as it were symbolically, he has as he is based in the States. He will open and be speaking for 18 minutes, followed by Selma and Seth at 12-15 minutes, and there will be signs going up when you’re approaching the end of your time. Then hopefully a discussion amongst them for 10 minutes. And then the 10-minute breakout groups for people to be able to talk to each other freely and openly and to submit their questions via the chat facility, which will provide mediated by Henry Stewart, who is comparing the whole evening as it were, where he will mediate the questions, which will be selected and passed to me to communicate to our speakers, and we hope to have 20 minutes for that part of the evening. So now it’s just over to our speakers to begin, and we’re going to ask Kenneth Stern to open the discussion. Thank you for being here.
Kenneth Stern 7:26
Thank you, Jacqueline. Thank you for inviting me. Thank you, everybody, for spending some time in your evening with me discussing this important and difficult issue. I expect the reason that I was invited was because I’ve written about how the working definition now known as the IHRA definition, has been weaponized against pro-Palestinian speech, particularly on the campus and I of course, share that concern. But I want to start out for the first few minutes before talking in detail about the definition about my overall framework for looking at this challenge and the principles that are at stake. First, the academies are an important institution that has a vital role in democracy, particularly to teach the next generation how to become critical thinkers, to question how they know what they know, to test out ideas and to give them the opportunity and the space to be wrong. Second, to achieve this goal, academic freedom and free speech have to be protected. That doesn’t mean you don’t criticize ideas you disagree with, or even find hateful, but it means you don’t suppress them either. My day job, as Jacqueline mentioned, is the Director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, and I’ve long been fascinated by the capacity of human beings to define an “us” and a “them” and sometimes to dehumanize or demonize the “them”, usually justifying such feelings and actions as something noble and self-protection, especially when identity is tethered to an issue of perceived social justice or injustice. And we see some of this phenomenon on the campus around Israel and Palestine. We see a desire to reduce complex ideas into simpler ones, to gravitate towards notions of good and bad, right and wrong, and we justify trying to silence those whose stances we see as unjust, at best, or evil and dangerous, at worst. And the irony, which I spend a lot of time talking about in my book is that the Israel Palestine debate is really an ideal one through which to look at this human tendency around hate, and how we respond to it. The campus is the perfect place to do this, and to really teach about how we have difficult discussions, but instead, I see each side is trying to silence the other.
The campus is a different institution from other institutions. A political party can rally around a set of ideas it agrees with. A campus is to promote thinking about ideas. Its job is to help explore ideas, to make people uncomfortable, and have them figure out how they deal with ideas they make find reprehensible, something students will have to navigate for the rest of their adult lives. Maintaining academic freedom, and free speech are essential for the academy to succeed. But there’s a contradiction here. You want everybody on campus to be able to say what they think, to try out ideas, and as I said to be wrong, but sometimes people will hear things that cut into their core, and they may not want to fully participate in the academy because of that. If an environment on campus becomes toxic, there’s a problem. I worry and I suggest, we should all worry, when there are instances of Jewish students who feel they have to think twice about wearing a religious item, or the pro-Palestinian students have to worry if they’re going to end up on a blacklist like that of Canary Mission, which says they should never be employed, or faculty on both sides having their ability to research, to think and to teach affected. The University must make sure that students and faculty are not bullied, harassed or discriminated against, it’s not their job to protect them from ideas.
What I’m arguing for today is a consistent principle that upholds academic freedom and free speech, regardless of our political or communal passions. So I think it’s important to put this into context for the same reason I will outline in a minute about why I’m so opposed to using the definition as a hate speech tool, I also oppose other challenges to academic freedom and free speech on this debate, including blacklists on either side. I oppose the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I know some say, ‘well, it’s just of individuals,’ ‘It’s not of the individuals, it’s of institutions’, that’s just not possible. It’s like saying the time of COVID I’m gonna boycott a hospital, but not a doctor, academics and their institutions are intrinsically connected. The problem with the idea of an academic boycott is that the [role of the] academy again is to explore ideas and ideas should not be segregated because of the nation where scholars may be based. I’m against the shouting down of pro-Israel speakers, which happens from time, because that denies the ability of people to hear what the speaker says. I’m against threats against faculty, you have a pro-Palestinian view, or a pro-Israel view from inside or outside the Academy, and that happens too often. I’m against the anti-normalization rubric that prohibits discussion, because ‘why would have why would one have a discussion with a Nazi equivalent?’, or on the flip side in the United States on the campus, the Hillel guidelines that prohibit discussion with BDS proponents, for a similar reason, they say, ‘you know, this is a Nazi equivalent, why would we have discussions with them’.
I’m also concerned when faculty prioritize their own political views over student interests, such as refusing to write letters of recommendations to study in Israel. I think that’s bad teaching. Students interest and their opportunity to learn come first. For those same reasons I see in the working definition is an attack which I will go into in a minute on free speech and academic freedom. But I think you have to be consistent on both sides. Now, I’ve had some friends in the UK, who I respect in the mainstream Jewish community tell me that they want IHRA imposed, because, “ it makes Jewish students feel that the university has their back.” “Feel”. When they said that they reminded me of some discussions I’ve had with American academics of why they support the academic boycott, because they’re at their wit’s end about what to do about things that they have problems with Israel, and they feel a need to do something. I understand both feelings. But I think in both instances there, people are being blind to the things that can actually have an impact on the campus and are more attracted to simple solutions. There are things to do and I have a whole chapter in my book, and we can discuss those things towards the end.
The problem with the imposition of a definition of a hate speech code, like IHRA, is being used is that it’s too easy in approach. As I said, it blinds us to other things that are much more important to do. It’s really harmful, I think, when we’re talking about antisemitism, to have a whole discussion about campus antisemitism reduced to whether there should be IHRA or no IHRA. It’s like the old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When I was at the American Jewish Committee, I trained 200 college presidents and how to deal with campus bigotry. This is before IHRA or the working definition was anybody’s thought. But the one common denominator for dealing with any type of campus bigotry is that everything that has to be done, should ideally promote and at least not harm academic freedom, otherwise it won’t work. Of all the things that I’m alarmed about with the attack on academic freedom and free speech on campus, the thing that alarms me the most is when instruments of state are being used to chill or suppress speech. So let me tell you why I’m concerned about the use of the definition and give you a little bit of background of the history.
When the Second Intifada started, and the breakdown of Camp David, there was an uptick in antisemitic incidents around the globe. In Europe, there was a group called the EUMC, which has now folded into the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU that had the task of doing reports about racism, antisemitism and so forth. It had a failed report then it had an initial report and it pointed out that there was a real problem here. It had data collectors in different parts of Europe, but no common definition of what to include or what to exclude, no guideposts. And we all wanted to see something that at least in theory, could provide some indication of something common across borders and that we could compare across time. So it said let’s have a working — didn’t call it quite a working definition, but a “working framework” that said antisemitism was a series of stereotypes about Jews. Well, aside from the fact that I think that’s intellectually backwards (it’s a reflection of what antisemitism is) I think, broach it that way, because of a political problem. What do you do if somebody in the streets of London or Paris is Jewish and is beaten up as a stand in for an Israeli? And they basically said, ‘Well, if somebody has these ideas, and applies them to Israelis, and reapplies them to the port Jews in front of them, that’s antisemitism. But if they’re upset at Israeli policy and it attacks the same Jew, that’s lamentable, but shouldn’t be counted’. But for me, living in the United States, I’m thinking of the South in the 50s, somebody who has strung up a black person because somebody had these stereotypes about blacks, that’s racism. But if they are upset at a Martin Luther King speech, or civil rights act passage, and the same person has the same result, then that’s not to be counted. That doesn’t make any sense. So what happened was that the head of the EMC was coming to the American Jewish Committee. A couple of weeks before there was a firebombing of a Montreal Jewish school. It was done in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of a Hamas leader — theoretically not antisemitism according to how they’d set it up. So that gave an opportunity to talk about what they should do instead, to really capture antisemitism, particularly for reports, that was the major thing of coming up with the examples for guideposts.
It’s interesting to see the discussions about the definition. There was at the beginning a part of it that is about a perception of Jews. That part was suggested by somebody else I didn’t know. I thought of it as a preamble, it doesn’t really say much. It says like, you know, sexism is a perception of women. The major part to me, which is not really talked about much is different words a little bit to what I’m going to say now, but its antisemitism is at its core conspiracy theory about Jews. Jews, conspiring to harm non-Jews and providing an explanation for what goes wrong in the world. So that was a key part to make. Hate crime was important too. You may recall, there were debates about Jews, you know, in one particular case, a Jew being kidnapped — because Jews were rich — and tortured, ultimately killed is that antisemitism and people saying, ‘well, no, it’s a positive stereotype’. So is that really included? I wanted to use the hate crime rubric in the United States a case of Wisconsin v. Mitchell that basically said, you don’t have to look at, psychoanalyze [and examine] an intent of the person to know whether they really hated somebody, they just had to select them to be a victim of a crime. So the situation like in the Montreal school would be included. Israel was important to be included. That’s the most contentious part of the definition. Why? You have to remember the background. Between 1975 and 1991, the United Nations have equated Zionism with racism. There became this principle, including in colleges in the UK, that said, ‘if you’re a Jew you’re a Zionist, if you’re a Zionist, you’re a racist, and racists have no place among us’ so Jewish groups were not allowed. There were other problems as well. In 1991 that was repealed, we saw in the Durban World Conference against racism, blatant antisemitism, selling of the Protocols, stopping Jewish groups from speaking and so forth. So that was the background to the timing of 2004 when the definition was put together. Nobody ever said that there was a causation, but there was a correlation between an increase of vehement anti-Israel expressions, including anti-Zionist ones, and the hate crimes we were seeing on the ground. So if the point of the exercise was to provide a temperature reading of antisemitism over time and over borders, it was important to have some indicia that look at some of these expressions that we saw as correlated, because it would have been inexcusable not to include them. But again, it was never intended to label anybody an anti-Semite nor to use it to suppress speech, it was mostly for the data collecting purposes. It was used for other purposes too. As I said, for hate crime I work with ODIHR and OSCE for training on hate crimes, we’d use the definition for that. I advocated with both the Bush and the Obama administration with a Special Envoy on Antisemitism to use it as a diplomatic tool. So when the president of Iran said, ‘Israel should be wiped off the map’, if they’re saying that’s antisemitism, here’s a text you could point to. But then what happened? Around 2010, we started seeing some Jewish groups in the United States come up with a bright idea or so they thought. I’m not going to go into too much detail but there’s a something called the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title six of it protects students from harassment, intimidation, and discrimination on campuses where it becomes pervasive. It was unclear whether Jews and Sikhs and Muslims were included because it didn’t say religion. But in 2010, it became clear that they were included as well. What happened was that groups on the Jewish right were trying to make title six claims were theoretically a University could lose all funding. Sound familiar?
The texts that were being used in classes and speakers that were coming, they were saying things that they found objectionable according to the definition. They were using things that were basic academic freedom exercises, a free speech exercise to form the basis of these Title Six cases. So they lost all the cases, they tried to get the University of California to adopt it. When they lost that, they went and tried to get Congress to adopt it and I testified in 2007. What was interesting was that the Jewish organizations, were all proposing that this Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would apply the definition and require it to be considered on these Title Six cases, they were all pushing it and the people against it were me, the president of Penn America, and most importantly, the President of the Association for Jewish Studies, citing among other things, professors worrying about outside groups coming and looking over their shoulders of what they’re teaching and threatening lawsuits. You know, why would they teach that if it’s going to open them up to lawsuits, as opposed to you know, teaching about the shtetl, which is an easier thing to teach. So it would chill in effect, the ability for Jewish students to talk about contemporary Israel and other things. The other point about it too, is I always look at issues of bigotry and try to do a comparison where the same rules apply. So one of the arguments I had against this is, imagine that you had a definition of racism of what your isn’t used in the same way, saying that opposition to removing Confederate statues was an indicia that the state that had to be considered looking at a civil rights violation. That would chill speech, it would prioritize certain speech and that would not be correct. The Executive Order was signed by President Trump in December 2019, when the legislation didn’t pass. And not only am I concerned about how it’s going to chill and continues to chill speech. There’s also a religious freedom part here that shouldn’t be overlooked. Even though Jews in the US and in the UK are overwhelmingly have a connection to Israel that’s pro-Israel, some are anti-Zionist, the Satmar Jews are anti-Zionist. Jews who see Israel’s existence as a Jewish state as irreconcilable with their understanding of religious teachings about how Jews should treat the stranger. When the state decides what it means to be Jewish, whether, you know, as Kushner said, that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. That’s a state decision of an internal Jewish question, which I find difficult as well. I think the adoption of the definition that way does it.
So some say, I know, and I’ve had this debate in Canada and elsewhere, that the adoption won’t affect free speech and academic freedom. That’s ignoring the clear history of the abuse – it may not be the intent. I think the people who say that it won’t have that impact don’t want us to necessarily see that impact but they’re blinding themselves to the fact that it has had that impact. There’s a symbolic problem when the state says that, yes, anti-Zionism is antisemitism. I had in my book that Rebekah Gould case in the UK, where there’s an investigation of what somebody wrote, Simon Wiesenthal Center applauding and saying, every university in the in the world should apply the definition and stop Israel apartheid week. I’m not a great fan of Israel apartheid week, but its political expression should be allowed, and it’s being used to chill speak. And actually Ken Marcus, who was in the, the Trump administration, the key architect of the executive order and pushing the legislation admitted at the time where those cases were failing, the intent was to suppress pro-Palestinian speech, which he found objectionable. If you think about administrators on college campuses, one of their jobs is to protect the university from being sued. And if they’re going to succeed, in that, it gives an incentive for them to either suppress or chill speech that might be attractive for people to form the basis of a suit on. If you look at history of academic freedom, and again, I go through this in my book, there are times that are particularly worrisome if we look back. In the US, in particular in World War One, there was a requirement of Columbia University and some other places for loyalty around World War One. I presume everybody here knows about what was happening during the McCarthy era. I think it’s inevitable that when there is this suppression of political speech on campus, what happens when a government threatens funding if a particular view of a contentious political issue isn’t adopted? It’s irreconcilable with academic freedom, and we’re falling down that same road, and that troubles me deeply. So as much as I disagree with some anti-Zionist expression, the use of the IHRA definition to suppress it is dangerous.
Let me just come up with some final points. One, I hope that some here today who might support academic boycotts have turned a blind eye to when pro-Israel students and faculty are bullied, decide that’s unacceptable too. If you support academic freedom rights to say what you think without bullying or suppression or discrimination, I believe you must be supportive of the rights of your political opponents or you lose all credibility. To that the boycott is unacceptable. I’m deeply concerned with some Israeli academics that I know have to hide their Jewish name or affiliation to succeed in the academy. I think that’s unacceptable. There are other ways to advocate for Palestinians and Palestinian academics. Without going down that road. We can have differences of opinion in society about BDS outside the academy, but in the academy, I also worry that BDS has been used as a weapon against academic inquiry, academic freedom and free speech rights. I encourage everybody to start with the proposition that we’re going to protect academic freedom and do our politicking in ways that don’t harm it on. And finally, you know, it’s a plea to the mainstream Jewish community, globally, to realize the dangers of using IHRA as a hate speech code. Stop focusing on that, and rather on the other things that really can be done that are consistent with academic freedom, there are things that are better to do. As I said the campus is a key place courses that can explore the complexities of competing narratives courses on antisemitism and hate. One course I highlight in the book by a brilliant person that came up with this using a simulation game, to bring students back to the Peel Commission of the 1930s and really wrestled with the competing narratives, as if they were in a time capsule — not to change your point of view, but to make them really engage the ideas. Initiatives that focus on rejecting harassment and intimidation and discrimination, and that use the capacity of the university for actual teaching or what’s important rather than the doctrine of a definition and a venue where in my view, it has no practical purpose other than to chill and suppress political expression. My hope is that those who are trying to mandate that pause and stop, and instead we can all work together to discuss really what can be done on campus to reduce antisemitism, and to promote the capacity to have difficult discussions and have free speech occur. I both individually, and as Director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, I’m happy to work with any of you on such a project. Thank you very much.
Jacqueline Rose 29:08
Thank you. Thank you very much, Ken.
Jacqueline Rose 29:15
Okay. Well, first of all, let me thank you for that. I think you’ve managed to sum up a rather long and complex book in 18 minutes. I don’t know quite how you did that. I have seen some questions for clarification about what the particular examples in the UK were, that you were mentioning, but perhaps that can come up later. I think people will not have been able to capture all the detail of what you were saying it was rich and complex and people won’t be familiar with stuff you’ve been involved with for decades. Now we’ll hand over to Salma Karmi-Ayyoub and we’re very much looking forward to hearing you. Salma can you now come on screen as it were and start your presentation please?
Salma Karmi-Ayyoub 30:18
First of all, thank you very much to Independent Jewish voices for inviting me to speak at this really important event. I’m thrilled to see how many participants there are. I think Jacqueline predicted that I presume that I might disagree with things that Kenneth has said, or not be on the same page as him. But having listened to his presentation, I think there’s going to be a great deal of agreement between us. What I really wanted to use my time to talk about is how the IHRA definition at least or at least its interpretation or its application, has been used to stifle Palestinian advocacy. Bearing in mind what Kenneth said about the history of the definition, even if it wasn’t designed for that purpose or wasn’t intended to be used that way, I think it’s, it’s undeniable, that it forms part of a broader campaign, which is spearheaded by the Israeli State, to shore up its own legitimacy by asserting that anti-Zionism is a form of form of antisemitism, and in so doing, to stigmatize the Palestinian cause and support for Palestinians in the wider public. What I’d like to do is just first of all talk about what aspect of IHRA definition Palestinians find particularly problematic, and what impact the application of that part of the definition has had on Palestinian advocacy. It probably won’t be a surprise to those of you who are familiar with the definition that really it’s the illustrative examples attached to it, which Palestinians have found problematic. In particular, the definition that kind of meant the example that Kenneth mentioned, which essentially talks about anti-Zionism and says (I’m quoting word for word) ‘denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel as a racist endeavour is potentially a form of antisemitism’. The problem for Palestinians with this is that it on the face of it, that illustrative example does appear to conflate a political position, as an anti-Zionist position of opposing, I suppose, the formation of the State of Israel or its maintenance in its current form with antisemitism. To the extent that it does that it reinforces, I would suggest a broader Israeli State-sponsored narrative, which holds that there is a kind of “new antisemitism”, which is a major problem, particularly in the Western world, and which has to be defeated. This new antisemitism is basically defined as opposition to the State of Israel, or opposition to Zionism. The assertion is that those sorts of political positions are necessarily antisemitic. So they’re not anti-Semitic in certain circumstances. Nor are they potentially correlated with antisemitic views and the way that Kenneth described that they are in and of themselves. It is in and of itself, antisemitic, and therefore a form of prohibited hate speech to oppose the existence of Israel, let’s say the, the maintenance of Israel in its current form, and/or the establishment of the State of Israel.
Unknown Speaker 33:56
This concept of the new antisemitism and this concept of antisemitism, that antisemitism is anti-Zionism has been around in in different guises for several decades. But I see it as emerging prominently in Israeli political discourse after the 2001 Durban Conference, that Kenneth mentioned. Israel in particular established a body called the Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism, which is meant to monitor antisemitism worldwide. That body explicitly defines anti Zionism as a form of “new antisemitism”. And if you look, for example, at this body’ 2015 Annual Action Plan, which you can find on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, it speaks of the need to combat the so called “delegitimization of the State of Israel”, which it identifies as being carried out mainly through BDS campaigns. It says, and I’m quoting from the Action Plan of this body ‘fundamentally, we see the delegitimization campaign of Israel as antisemitic and a clear case of Israel denial, by which we mean that supporters of BDS seek to deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination in their homeland, Israel, that they claim for the Palestinians’. The action plan of this body includes the need to emphasize the Jewish consensus that BDS is antisemitic, and the need to reassert the legitimacy of Israel’s founding as a State for the Jewish people. IT then goes on to talk about the need to target particular universities and legislatures to suppress pro-Palestinian advocacy and in particular BDS advocacy. Now, another way that I’ve seen this, this question of anti-Zionism equals antisemitism being put in public discussions is when Israeli Government spokespeople or pro-Israeli supporters say it’s antisemitic to deny Israel’s right to exist. I think that that concept, that it’s antisemitic to deny Israel’s right to exist is really a euphemism for saying it’s antisemitic, to deny that it is right for that to be a Jewish majority state and Palestine. Increasingly, I’ve seen that there’s a kind of dividing line that’s been drawn up between permissible criticism of Israel versus impermissible criticism of Israel. So the permissible criticism of Israel says it’s okay to criticize individual policies of the Israeli government, for example. But it’s not okay to deny, deny the state’s right to exist. You have this, for example, in the campaigns that were run by Labour Party candidates for leadership of the Labour Party, I’m just giving that as an example. It’s a line that, for example, Lisa Mandy, MP who’s a shadow Foreign Secretary has promoted, which is that, you know, it’s, it’s okay to oppose what Israel does, for example, in the West Bank, but it’s not okay to really oppose, I suppose, or question even the legitimacy of the State of Israel. I think what we’re seeing, which is something very much, I think, spearheaded by the Israeli state, on which whether by design or by accident, the IHRA definition has become kind of a part of a tool in doing is perpetrating this narrative, and a campaign that goes alongside them to shore up Israeli legitimacy by closing down any opposition to Israel as it is currently constituted, and closing down any question marks over the legitimacy of the Israeli state, or so called “delegitimization of the state”, which is said to be antisemitic, and therefore a kind of prohibited hate speech. I think that’s where we’re at, at the moment in terms of the public discourse. I think that’s what, to my mind, at least an illustrative example in the IHRA definition has been instrumentalized to do.
I just wanted to use the rest of my time to talk about the impact on Palestinians as a result of this campaign of conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. I think the main impact has been online quite obviously, on policy and advocacy. I have noticed that advocacy by Palestinians of rights that challenge Israel as a Jewish state and by extension, advocacy that opposes and policies which are central to the Zionist nature of the State, are being considered are being labelled antisemitic, and therefore prohibited, and it’s having a chilling effect on people being able to speak about those core issues in relation to Israel. So, for example, opposing Israel’s Law of Return, which grants any Jewish person in the world the right to Israeli citizenship, but denies the parallel right to Palestinians, or advocating for the Palestinian Right of Return because this threatens Israel’s Jewish majority composition, if it were to occur, those kinds of discussions I think people are becoming squeamish about. They’re not wanting to really discuss those sorts of issues. Certainly there’s this concept, as I said, of not being allowed to challenge Israel’s right to exist, the Palestinians shouldn’t oppose Israel’s right to exist, even if it is actually the fact of Israel’s establishment and the manner of its maintenance as a Jewish state that is a fundamental cause of Palestinian suffering and it’s therefore natural for Palestinians to want to, “oppose Israel’s right to exist”. In this way, this conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is kind of placing a ceiling on Palestinian advocacy. It’s saying, maybe it’s okay for Palestinians to challenge Israeli practices for individual practices and human rights abuses that happen, for example, in the West Bank, but are not an inevitable consequence of Israel’s Zionist nature, but Palestinians are not allowed to challenge issues that go to the heart of Israel’s Jewish nature.
Now, I just end by talking briefly through some of the very negative implications of closing down the debate in this way. I think first of all, it leads to a public discourse that is fundamentally really dishonest public discourse around Israel Palestine that is that is dishonest and misleading, because it attempts to decontextualized Israel’s establishment. What I mean is, I can just about see how the notion that targeting Israel for very vociferous criticism more than that that you target towards other states could plausibly be considered antisemitic if Israel were an ordinary state and the legitimacy of the Israeli state were not in question. But the reality is that actually Israel is a state that came into being relatively recently, in conditions that involved the dispossession and expulsion of an indigenous population, the Palestinians, from their land, and Israel’s legitimacy has consequently been contested ever since its establishment. So in that context, it doesn’t make sense to say that opposing Israel’s legitimacy is antisemitic, because it seems to completely remove historical context and political understanding of the Israel Palestine question. The second implication, I think, of this conflation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, as I’ve said, is that it seeks to and has been somewhat successful in silencing Palestinian voices and the capacity of Palestinians to articulate their cause in the manner in which they see fit, and in a manner that accords, in fact, with historical fact, and with Palestinian experience. Lastly, and I’ll end on this, I’d like to invite all the participants here to consider and think through what is really being demanded of Palestinians when they are told that they are not allowed to adopt anti-Zionist positions or “delegitimize the State of Israel” by opposing that State’s establishment because to do so is antisemitic. I’d like to invite you to consider what you’re really asking of Palestinians. I would suggest that what’s being asked is that Palestinians should prioritize the feelings of Jewish people over the pursuit of their rights. I think that’s an abusive kind of paradigm to set up. It’s only permissible because there exists a type of unspoken anti-Palestinian racism at the heart of this campaign to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. So let me just unpack that quickly. What I mean is that there is this general refrain which is that you shouldn’t criticize Israel to vociferously or you should not deny Israel’s right to exist because to do so, is to strike at the heart of something which many Jewish people feel is very close to, or integral to their Jewish identity. And so opposing Israel in this way is kind of tantamount to opposing Jews or is in some way anti-Jewish. That’s the refrain that I often hear as a Palestinian, which is, ‘you better be sensitive in the way you criticize Israel, because it’s very hurtful to Jews when you’re really insensitive about it’. But opposing, for example, Israel, so called “right to exist” or opposing Israel’s current constitution as a Jewish state, may well be the only way that Palestinians can properly advocate for their full range of rights, including, for example, the repatriation to their homeland and the return of property that was stolen from them in 1948, during Israel’s establishment and which they remain not in possession of because Israel continues to maintain itself as a so-called Jewish state. So in other words, when Palestinians are being told you can’t oppose Israel’s right to exist, what Palestinians are really being told is you can’t you’re not allowed to advocate for your full rights or articulate your cause in its entirety, because doing so challenges a concept that is close to Jewish, some people, many people’s hearts who are Jewish. And in other words, Jewish attachment to Israel, which is core to that identity, is more important than your rights and Palestinian rights. You as Palestinians have to subordinate pursuing your rights to protect the feelings or the sensibilities of a group of people who essentially pledge allegiance to or support to the perpetrator of crimes that have been committed against you, which is the Israeli state. I think that’s a really unacceptable demand to make of Palestinians, to say that they have to subordinate the pursuit of their rights, the articulation of their cause, in order to prevent Jewish feelings from being harmed, and I’m sorry to say it’s so kind of bluntly and perhaps insensitively, but that is absolutely what it feels like at the moment in the way that the discourse is being had right now. Jacqueline, can I take one more minute to sum up, we’re on my way over way over time.
Unknown Speaker 47:12
All right. So I want to say, in summary, the IHRA definition has been massively detrimental to policy and campaigning. It’s leading to the silencing that I’ve described. On a personal note, I just want to remind people, you know, had kind of saying that he doesn’t necessarily agree with the way BDS is being carried out on campuses and how it could lead to Israeli students feeling that they need to hide their identity or something along those lines. What I want to say is, I am not trying to deny I’m certainly not denying the existence of antisemitism or the existence of Jewish suffering, in general. But what I am saying is, BDS campaigns, which are held on campuses might hurt the feelings of Jewish people. But the anti-BDS campaign that Israel has been carrying out, a campaign, to suppress BDS is doing actual harm to Palestinians. I’m an example of the person to whom it has done great, a great deal of harm, because I believe, and I can’t be sure that my perceived support for BDS is what got me deported from Ben Gurion Airport a few years ago and banned from going to Israel and never going to my own homeland. That was an experience which actually resulted in a denial of fundamental rights of my fundamental rights. So I just want to always ground this discussion as well in a little bit of reality, and remind the people who are participating that there is a real campaign being spearheaded by Israel to oppose Palestinians and those that support them, which results in serious harm to Palestinians and to their supporters.
Jacqueline Rose 48:18
Thank you Salma. That was impassioned. I think it was a very important follow up from Kenneth Stern’s presentation. I mean, you graciously said you thought you didn’t disagree about very much. But I think you disagreed perhaps about more than you said you were going to disagree, but that’s absolutely fine. We’re very glad to hear that. You’ve given an impassioned defence of freedom as the freedom in relationship to historical memory and accountability, and rights, and you have stated that it is the freedom for Palestinians to be able to talk about their history that you feel is being threatened by the definition and what has become legitimate and illegitimate to say. There’s a great deal to discuss in your remarks about the State of Israel and legitimization. I’m sure it’ll come up later in the discussion. So we will now move on to Seth Anziska. Please.
Seth Anziska 49:25
Thank you, Jacqueline, for the introduction. And thank you everybody for joining. It’s really nice to see so many familiar faces. I wanted to say a little bit about how I’m coming to this conversation, and where I’m looking at it, from what perspective I’m looking at this, and that’s really as somebody in the classroom and somebody who’s teaching on Israel on Palestine, at UCL here in London, and who is navigating a lot of these questions, week by week, in my seminars and in in my lectures. So these questions are not theoretical. They’re not just legal debates or you know, questions about government imposition and how people are responding. They’re about what it means to be engaged in a process of critical thinking around history and politics of Israel and Palestine. So there, I think it probably fits very much with both Kenneth and Salma’s initial comments. I’m also coming at this as an American, as you can hear in my voice. The fact that I’m sitting here in London, but my country of birth is United States. So my understanding and thinking about this is very much shaped, I think, by some of the context of the US, and also coming to understand these debates and questions in the UK, from a very different perspective and trying to disentangle some of the issues around Israel Palestine, from a very different worldview that you see here in the UK and in Europe. I think it’s also about understanding different forms of antisemitism that, for me, things that I probably saw are experienced in this country that were quite different from growing up in, in the northeast of the United States. I wanted to begin actually by saying a few remarks about what I have learned from students at UCL about their experience of antisemitism. What we found in discussions with students and reports about what’s happened are disturbing incidents that have persisted around antisemitism. These incidents have had to do overwhelmingly with classical antisemitic tropes, comments about Jews and money, comments about Jews and the Holocaust, things that are bone-chilling, and are disturbing in the fact that they seem not to have been addressed by the University or by the reporting or concerns about them. When we listen to the incidents or realities of how people have experienced antisemitism and they might experience other forms of racism and prejudice, what’s striking in thinking about it is how do we combat this? How do we create a safer, healthier environment for all protected groups in a university setting? And what we have in the UK is a really wonderful 2010 Equalities Law, which is essentially protecting all groups from these forms of discrimination, racism and prejudice. So the first thing I wanted to say is, how do we consider the existing legal context as a way to combat actual antisemitism, where we see it. That should be, I think, a priority for us. It’s in this context, that the issues with the IHRA have surfaced, because the introduction of this working definition in university settings and the letter of Gavin Williamson demanding that this be adopted and embraced before Christmas, I think adds very unhelpful context that muddies the water around how we can effectively combat antisemitism and protect students or staff who have ever experienced it. The problem, as I see it, with the IHRA working definition, I think Ken, as the primary author of it, has tried to explain is that its origins as a reporting tool have become instrumentalized as a hate speech code. And in that context, it brings debates over Israel, Palestine into the middle of a conversations about understanding what antisemitism is and how it functions. As a result, we have a dynamic where what is supposed to be some form of an educational document, explaining the meaning of antisemitism has become a prescriptive legal tool to ensure or make certain speech or conversations possible, and others deemed unacceptable. This is something that scholars of antisemitism have made very clear. You can look at David Feldman’s piece in The Guardian last week about the IHRA working definition, the idea that the core definition itself is bewilderingly imprecise, you can look at Ken’s own writing on this issue. The fact that in its application and the way it has been used, even with the parliamentary riders that have been attached to it in these settings, it actually is a weaker basis of fighting against antisemitism and equalities legislation. So why are we believing it to be this great asset and tool that needs to be imposed and adopted everywhere? In this context, what I see happening is a kind of conflation that the debates around Israel-Palestine become the proxy for talking about antisemitism. This from a from a classroom perspective is supremely unhelpful. Because what then does it mean in a lecture or in a seminar if we’re going to talk about 1948 and the founding of the State of Israel as well as the Nakba, the dispossession of over 700,000 Palestinians, what does it mean according to the IHRA working definition of what might be permitted or not be permissible in a classroom setting? Of what articles I might set on a syllabus if I’m going to write or talk about histories of Zionism or anti-Zionism? What, for example, does it mean if I want to give a lecture on the Nation State Bill of 2018 and the question of racist legislation in the Israeli state against non-Jewish citizens? You can take a look, for example, at Adalah, the legal rights organization in Haifa, the most recent work they’ve done on a decision by the Karmiel municipal city council that has barred in practice non-Jewish students from certain schools in Karmiel on the basis of the Nation State Law. How can we make room for having conversations about these difficult and real problems that are actually happening on the ground, in a classroom or in a university setting? Here we can see a kind of way in which the definition itself has become a legal tool, and I think can mention the case of Rebecca Gould, my colleague, who when she was at the University of Bristol was subject to this kind of critique on the basis of the IHRA working definition. Why should we be in a situation where worrying that certain views might be seen as falling afoul of the examples in the IHRA? Could I, for example, invite Israeli member of Knesset Ayman Odeh of the Joint List to come and give a public event at UCL if he were to critique the Nation State Bill in 2018. Would this be considered under certain forms of the examples of the IHRA working definition as antisemitic? The fact that we’re thinking about this or even imagining this possibility means that we are in a process of self-censorship, or chilling speech. So this is not a theoretical debate. It’s not an academic debate. It’s a very real concern. It has affected colleagues and students in university contexts. It’s a way of chilling speech. Universities, unlike political parties, unlike governments have a statutory duty in the institution itself to protect freedom of expression within the law. So there has to be a space to have difficult conversations, and to make space for discomfort. You don’t have a right not to be offended in a classroom, in that way, by things you might read, by articles, or by lectures you might hear. It’s not to say that those things can’t bleed over into unacceptable discourse. There might be ways in which we can have examples where certain things are, you know, on the basis of equalities legislation, forms of harassment or intimidation against protected categories. But when it comes to the way in which the arbitrary working definition is operated, I think we’re in a space, we’re in a zone, where we have real concerns about freedom of expression and academic freedom. And that is something we need to be considering.
What it means in practice, and I want to kind of end with a specific example that that I experienced at UCL, is a kind of warning to the way in which self-censorship can operate. About a year and a half ago, I was asked to visit an exhibit that had been set up the central gallery at UCL on ‘Moving Objects, experiences of refugees around the world’. One of the vitrines in this exhibit, contained objects from a collection of Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, representing their experience of displacement and of home. Among the objects that was in the vitrine was a Tatreez map of Palestine, an embroidered map of Palestine in Arabic, representing the experience of Palestinians in the Zarka camp had of their past their history. On the basis of the fact that there was a Palestinian flag and that this didn’t contain any evidence of Israel on the map, a complaint was levelled by a student and later in an online forum, that there was hidden antisemitism in this exhibit. Now, as a result, my colleagues who were co-curators of these exhibit came under attack by outside pressures against the way in which this exhibit unfolded. What’s shocking or striking to me, in the experience of watching how this played out, is exactly this idea of the discomfort. You don’t have a right not to be offended by certain things you might see in an exhibit, you might think it’s unfair, you might think it’s unwarranted, you might think it’s inappropriate. But this is the principle upon which the bedrock of university rests. If we’ve gotten to a place where the universities are then having to investigate these claims of hidden antisemitism on the basis of this kind of concern, is that the kind of institution we want to find ourselves in. I think the writing is on the wall as Ken has explained about the way in which the IHRA working definition is functioning. It’s not just a theoretical concern, it’s not just a question of the feelings about safety. There are many ways in which all students who are suffering from any form of discrimination, racism, or prejudice can feel protected and safe by University institution, we have policies, we have procedures, we have policies on discrimination and harassment. And there might be a role educationally for more specific definitions that deal or navigate with specific protected categories. But I certainly do not think on very close examination of this particular definition, that it has a place or that it would be appropriate to be used in this way, within a university setting. So I’ll leave it at that. I’m happy to take questions and continue the discussion from there.
Jacqueline Rose 1:01:21
Apologies, everybody for having it’s completely out of joint a bit early. And we’re really hoping for that part of the evening. So apologies on behalf of the technology. And it’s because of the wonderful numbers of over 400 people have been here at various points throughout the discussion. So what we’ll do now is we’ll have, we’ve got some 9:30. So let’s have 10 minutes of talking to each other. And then we’ll move to the open the open session where we try and respond to questions from the floor. Or let me ask, Henry, should we just go straight to the question period?
I will read on the questions that I’ve got here, which is, the reduction of questions of oppression and hatred, to definitions has proved disastrous. It removes racism, from a social sphere into a realm of legalism and institutional bureaucracy. Given that the freedom of Palestinians will only occur, socially, just as the end of antisemitism must be opposed by social forces, and not by legal or bureaucratic decree, do you recognize all attempts to squeeze the struggles to freedom and against oppression into such legal spheres must be opposed? So this would be an interesting question for all three of you to respond to, is the very concept of a legal definition obstructive to struggles for social justice, for both sets of peoples or in different ways. Who would like to answer?
Kenneth Stern 1:03:23
I could take a stab at that. I don’t like all-encompassing statements one way or another. So I think the definition does have its place, and I outlined how it was intended The problem that we see is abusing it for certain ways, particularly to chill speech. The other thing is that when we talk about law sometimes — my background, you know, I’m a lawyer — but I think it’s sometimes when we look at legal remedies to societal problems, even though they do have a place, people tend to put all the attention into it. It becomes the easiest thing to do. And then all the other more difficult things become invisible. And that’s what we’re seeing here on the campus too. If you’re thinking about, just taking antisemitism, and the fact that it’s a complex thing, and especially as it plays out relation to Israel. Even though I might not agree with some of what Salma said, she’s representing a point of view that’s important. Rather than telling people to somehow extinguish that, keep it on the side, don’t let it be on the campus, it’s important for people to engage and to see what they think about it. I’ve had these discussions on and off the campus lo and behold, people are open to learning! They understand a little bit more about the history of antisemitism. They understand why Jews react so negatively to the idea of boycott given the examples in Jewish history. But they could also understand that not every challenge to Zionism is racism, it comes from people’s experience, the imagination if they were born in different circumstances. Education, I think, is a much better tool for approaching these different things and for the Jewish community that’s seduced by the idea that we’re gonna have a simple cut and paste rule, complexity is where people learn how to understand the antisemitism. Seth read a copy of my book and there’s a section in it which I think he commented on, which I think is very instructive, that there was a push by the Iroquois group of nations and Indian nations, pushed by a Palestinian group, for the Iroquois not to go to a Lacrosse tournament in Israel because it’s a settler colonial state, you don’t want to endorse it and so forth. I contrasted it with Judea Pearl, who is Daniel Pearl’s father, who wrote ‘Name another settler colonial state, where you have people speaking the language that was spoken there before the current indigenous people where people don’t give new names like New Berlin, and New Warsaw, and so forth.’ Seth’s comment was, ‘it’s communal advocacy to push one narrative or the other narrative, real history and real education, you have to wrestle with both.’ And if we’re going to tackle the ideas of antisemitism around issues around Israel, especially on a campus, you want to encourage those voices to be discussing those difficult issues, to be engaged rather than trying to suppress them, especially by instruments of state.
Jacqueline Rose 1:06:48
Would Salma or Seth like to respond to this question or respond to what Ken has just said.
Seth Anziska 26:42
I might just add briefly that historians of antisemitism have been debating for decades how you would even define antisemitism. So how could we necessarily think that we can easily come up with usable legal definitions? Obviously, we need to find ways that in instances where there are particular cases of harassment or discrimination for legal or adjudicating purposes find ways to navigate it. But when did we get this idea that everything gets put in one box? And then that’s the sort of, you know, the box that gets used for all outcomes, one size fits all. Certainly on issues of this, of this magnitude. So I think we have to be careful about just sort of drawing on either an off the shelf legal definition or an educational definition. I mean, one of the things you could see even just on this debate around the IHRA working definition is the vast amount of literature it’s now generated a whole host of different definitions. Independent Jewish Voices Canada has a definition, the Community Security Trust has a definition, the OSCE has a definition. You know, look at the work of Gavin Lankhmar. Look at David Myers, look at the American Historical Review roundtable on antisemitism. There’s so much material that you could draw on. Shouldn’t we be finding a way to move through those scholarly and historical texts to apply and think about it in the moments we find ourselves because there’s a constant shift happening around these questions in terms of social and cultural change. So none of this is happening in a vacuum. We need to consider ways we might actually respond more effectively to what we see happening around us.
Jacqueline Rose 1:08:42
I think, if I can come in here, I think this is important, when you say ‘in the moment we find ourselves’ because I think what you’re raising Seth is the difficulty of the present moment and what his demands are on us now. So I’m very struck by the contrast between Ken talking about the fine detail of whether it’s fair to call Israel a colonial-settler state and how that can be and should be debated in the context of a full educational system. And the very different urgency of Salma’s contribution in relationship to advocacy of Palestinian rights and their ongoing situation in Israel-Palestine. We have a question here, which is very much on that. It’s saying, what should our primary strategy be Now, given all this? Should we continue to fight the definition? Or is there a danger that this distracts our focus from Palestinian rights? Salma apologies, you may have wanted to come into the previous conversation, perhaps you could come in now.
Salma Karmi-Ayyoub 1:09:49
Just to say very briefly about the danger of using definitions and I’m basically agreeing what Ken and Seth have said. I think a definition of racism can be a useful tool, but it can’t ever be sufficient in and of itself and it shouldn’t be adhered to too rigidly because essentially, the problem would then be acting as though racism is not a societal issue, but as a kind of question just of definitions. It also assuming that racism is just a question of speech, rather than also of action and of discrimination in the real world. I just wanted to say something about the IHRA definition, this ties in with this question about what should we now do, could you repeat the latest question?
Is this distracting our focus from Palestinian rights?
Is this a bit of a decoy? is, I think, what they’re saying.
Salma Karmi-Ayyoub 1:10:49
The comment I wanted to make is kind of relevant to that question, too. I think we have got ourselves into quite a weird situation where, because of the IHRA definition and its use, and it’s kind of, and the way in which certain parts of the Jewish communities in the UK have clung to it as being, you know, really necessary to adhere to and to impose, I think the danger of doing that is that you divorce, racism from a societal context, and then you risk losing a sense of perspective as to what’s actually happening in the real world. So I don’t want to, in any way, discount the fact that there can be antisemitic comments made, for example, on campuses that are upsetting people and create a hostile atmosphere for them. But, to me, there is something very weird about that. I’m not and I have to say, you know, rather pernicious from the Palestinian perspective about all of this focus on what’s happening, for example, in university campuses during Israel Apartheid Week, whether the Jewish students do or don’t feel comfortable, being confronted by exposés of Israeli crimes that have been committed. And the focus is on how to protect support for Israel from being disconcerted by Palestinian campaigning, rather than looking at the fact that Palestinians are actually being discriminated against structurally and systematically by the Israeli state. I just think this is the danger of the IHRA definition. It’s like we’re looking at kind of rhetorical racism that happens on the level of rhetoric, and ignoring that which happens in real life, where the Israeli state systematically discriminates against Palestinians. And that discrimination and that racism that’s perpetrated against Palestinians in Israel-Palestine, casts a wide net, and it actually captures Palestinians in the UK. And you see a suppression of Palestinian rights here as a direct result of what the Israeli State is doing over there. So in terms of whether we should be opposing IHRA as a decoy, I mean, not really. I’ve always thought that what we actually have to do is see this question of how the IHRA definition has been instrumentalized by Israel, in its proper political context, and combat it there. So we don’t come back to Iraq in a narrow way, we place it in the context of what it what it’s all really about, which I think is the suppression of Palestinian campaigning. And we actually do have to tackle that issue head on. I don’t think it’s right to try to sidestep it, and just carry on with our work as it were, because those of us who are involved in campaigning, especially students, are finding, they’re actually not able to, because of the direct application of the IHRA, the IHRA definition. So I hope that answers the question, and I hope that was clear about the danger I see in limiting our discussion of racism to kind of legalistic forms and definitions.
Seth Anziska 1:14:18
Can I also just jump in here and say that there’s a strategic question to be asked, which is, how do we want to frame group-specific protections? I mean, one of the things that’s come up, for example, on our own university campus is it’s not only Jewish students and staff who are concerned about antisemitism. We also have Muslim students and staff concerned about Islamophobia. We have other groups concerned about discrimination, racism and prejudice. So is the basis of the response to go for group-specific definitions or as the basis of the response to go via equalities legislation and think in in wider terms. Obviously, understanding that each group-specific experience has its own history and reality to contend with. But there’s something to be said about solidarity. I mean, Universities UK, recently came out with a report on tackling institutional racism, which is endemic here in the UK. And so given that reality, is there not a way to be thinking about equality, diversity and inclusion commitments that are cross-communal, cross-ethnic, cross-racial cross-religious, that that should be a stronger basis for improving the kind of campus climate and atmosphere we find ourselves in. Why are we falling back in a way on these forms or tactics? I just also wanted to add that, Jacqueline, your question or the comment about ‘is this is this avoiding the question of Palestinians?’, I think that the canary in the coal mine is to look at what happened in Germany, right now, this weekend. I mean, look at the response of cultural activists to how the German state deals with questions of Israel and Palestine. What is legitimate and what is illegitimate? Look at the arts cover story, look at the New York Times coverage of it. This is in reality silencing speech, and it has closed down discourse and conversation. What’s happening in Germany should be a very clear sign of what will happen elsewhere, if we’re not thinking expansively.
Please say a bit more about what’s been happening in Germany, because not everybody will know.
There’s been a series of pressure campaigns, for example, the former head of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Peter Schaffer, very acclaimed scholar of ancient Judaism, we had a situation in which a kind of educational initiative around criticism of ways we might learn about Israel Palestine, so thinking differently around it, was told by the German state that this was out of the bounds of acceptability and that people have not been able to host events that there’s been a really toxic atmosphere around what is permissible and not permissible on speech. This has led to a push back by heads of cultural organizations who launched an open letter and a campaign across several different institutions to say this is not acceptable. You can’t live in a society where this kind of policing of speech happens. I think that this is an extreme case or version of how this plays out. But I think we shouldn’t kid ourselves to believe that doesn’t have wider implications beyond the German context.
Can I add one quick thing, because I think that’s another dynamic, particularly on the campus, at least in the US, [which] is that there’s a culture that basically says that students shouldn’t be disturbed. That includes words that can be said or not said, the idea of safe spaces, the idea of trigger warning, some of which have some good ideas behind them, but in the implementation, it’s really trying to say, Let’s protect people from being disturbed, and that has encouraged groupthink as opposed to individual agency. So I think part of what we want to do not only is oppose this type of bright line of an IHRA definition of what can and cannot be said, but I think campus itself needs to be revitalized as an intellectual exercise to say it’s a good thing to hear speakers with which you disagree, that bringing in opposing views and even views you find reprehensible doesn’t mean endorsement, it means using it for critical thinking.
Okay, I’m beginning to hear, I think, quite a strong distinction between the emphases between the different speakers, because I think Kenneth what you’re talking about repeatedly, is the need for freedom of speech and the need for all opinions to be heard and the need for vulnerabilities not be protected. And of course, that incidentally has a strong connection with what Salma said, about the need to cause offence. The fear of causing offence should not be what’s dictating what can and can’t be said. On the other hand, I think Seth has just on a very strong line between what’s happening in Germany and the silencing of speech and cultural manifestations of critique and of art exhibitions and BDS projects and a real silencing of the atmosphere, which for Salma would be to do with stopping the recognition of something whose acknowledgement would be offensive to the Jewish people. But it is offensive per se, because of what’s being done to their rights, what’s being done to their life. So there’s one way of looking about this in terms of, you know, don’t protect people from offence. There’s another one is saying the offences are unevenly distributed, and the rights are unevenly distributed. And one of the arguments has been in response to what Seth has just said, which is the ratcheting up and his warning that this is what’s coming here. Is it actually, that it is Israel’s increasing vulnerability to these critiques given the passing of the National Law, two years ago, I think it was, that said only the Jews have a right to self-determination in the land of Israel and so on? That actually there is a fear of vulnerability and critique that is leading to these projects of tightening and making harder to say certain things. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it’s very political. And whether it can be covered by just everyone should feel free to say what they’re saying, or silencing is to do with the political reality that is being foreclosed. I think there’s a slight difference between the speakers here. We have so many questions now. It’s very, very hard to mediate between them. But we have Henry, I will pass to you if there’s a question that you would particularly like to come in at this point, as you’ve had your eye on the questions much more than me.
Henry Stewart 0:46
I’ve got one from Harold Immanuel. Do you agree with the definition of antisemitism used in the UK by the Board of Deputies, namely antisemitism, discrimination, prejudice, hostility against Jews? Why do you think they use this as their own working definition but are at the forefront of promoting the IHRA to be adopted by everyone else? Is that accurate? I don’t know. Anybody want to comment on that?
I don’t feel able to answer that but, Jacqueline, while Henry is looking for a question, could I just add something quickly and say something. Which is just that I very much agree with the way you’ve characterized us just now, perhaps a distinction between especially mine and Kenneth’s approach to this, regarding the right to offend, I mean, I must admit, I really agree with what Ken was just saying about the danger of that to what’s happening on campuses and safe spaces and not being able to offend. But I would say many Palestinians don’t view this as a question of our right to offend rather than we view it as our right to tell the truth. Even if the truth offends. And the point there is that the offense is being caused not by the manner in which we are, it’s not being caused by us as a messenger, it’s being caused by the facts, as we tell them, which should be offensive to people because they are offensive. But you know, I must have said this in the past, pregnant women having to give birth at checkpoints, Israeli checkpoints, because an Israeli soldier won’t let an ambulance through – that is offensive, and I am trying to defend our rights to tell the truth. Our capacity to tell the truth is integral to our capacity to struggle for the implementation of our rights. It’s not just a question of a free kind of marketplace of ideas. Let’s all be able, let’s have the right to be controversial and to offend us. For us it’s a question of a power imbalance, which we’re trying to redress as Palestinians by being able to tell the truth. The counter measures that Israel has taken against our capacity to tell the truth are integral to Israel’s ability to impose, to dominate over us and to continue our subjugation. So I see this much more as a question of power, rather than just as a question of free speech.
Kenneth Stern 1:24:13
Just very quickly, on the campus, which is what you know, where I really focused on when I started with my book, I decided that I had to put the Palestinian narrative and the Zionist narrative. And a very good reader said it’s really important to decide which one you want to go first, because that makes a statement. And I had to think about that, and I put the Zionist narrative first. But before the Palestinian narrative, I had a long footnote. And I basically said, if you’re a Jewish person for whom Zionism is important, just imagine if I had started with the Palestinian narrative first, that the Palestinians were there and Jews, you know, were conducting Zionist movement and so forth, and Jews were there as a secondary character that were really there to oppose Palestinian, you know, self-determination and self-perception. How would you feel about that? And the problem for most Indians is that that’s, you know, they feel like their narrative is being subsumed by the Zionist one. And I think that’s a fair point. The point in education is that you should be able to look at both of those things and the contradictions as opposed to prioritizing one over the other and think about it.
Seth Anziska 1:25:20
I just wanted to add, I mean, I understand, the distinctions between the academic debates and the university setting, and the fact that we’re at a moment of political inflection. But we are not having this conversation in a vacuum. It was only two weeks ago that the current US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was fine found himself in Psagot Winery in a West Bank settlement, saying publicly in a press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu that BDS is antisemitic and having the State Department tweet out that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. So this is not theoretical. There is a reality that has become embedded in at least the current American administration, which now may or may not be undone but has serious implications for human rights groups, look at what’s happening with the State Department’s list of groups that will now be deemed antisemitic. These are groups that are fighting for not only Palestinian rights, but other rights more broadly, that are now going to be exposed on the basis of this discourse. So I think there is a link between what Salma saying what Ken is saying, which is that these are not abstruse debates in a classroom, these are being used in real ways to shut down and close off particular forms of speech that have to do with advocacy for rights.
Jacqueline Rose 1:26:44
Okay, I’d like to come in here because there’s an extraordinary moment in your book, Kenneth, where I really feel you’re on this territory, although there are the differences that we’ve stressed between what you’re saying and say what Salma is saying, and your stress on hearing both sides of the story and the other narrative of a truth that needs to be said. It’s the moment of the long footnote on page 171, where you’re talking about Donald Trump, and it follows on from Seth’s point about Pompeo, and it was indeed a terribly shocking moment when he said that in the winery, but you’re saying there is something very upsetting that’s been going on when Trump’s support seen as a pro-Israeli President, then the racist things he said about Charlottesville, about Nazism, Jews, including the anti-black racism, get ignored. The reason why I think this moment is so important, is because it’s not just about what can be said and what can’t be says he’s pro-Israel, so we’ll overlook this dreadful racism, which in moments is antisemitic, but it’s about an orchestration of what is speakable at this political moment, which suggests that this way of thinking that Seth has just summed up is terribly damaging to Jewish people. They’re not just damaging the woman who was killed at Charlottesville, and the blacks who are being killed on the streets of America and the Palestinians, they are damaging the Jews’ ability to think critically about themselves, because everything is subordinated to support for Israel. So you might, and I’m going to push this, you might want to say, that is the unequivocal support from Israel which will not allow these things to be spoken, that is damaging the cause of the Jewish people. It is that that is antisemitic. You might want to say that – notice I said you might – but I think that moment in your book is very, very strong and really contributes to what we’re trying to talk about here.
Kenneth Stern 1:29:00
Thank you. When I talk to Jewish audiences about contemporary antisemitism, I say I’m much more concerned with the Trump administration’s vilification of Muslims and immigrants than I am with what he says about Jews because antisemitism thrives best in an environment where the idea of political leadership stoking this, seeing an “us” and a “them”, and the “them” is going to attack us — that is the environment in which antisemitism arrives, and we saw it in Pittsburgh, where somebody was worried about “invaders” coming from Mexico. But the people at the White House Hanukkah party a year ago, were saying, this is the best thing that Trump has ever done in terms of signing the executive order. Not even speaking up about the things that we know, but I want to make one other point. I mean, I fully agree with what I said there and your point here, but I’ve seen on both sides, Israel is such a blinding thing inside the Jewish community, on both sides of it, that people are willing to give a pass to antisemitic things that happen with people that agree with them on Israel. I see it on the right and I see it on the left too sometimes. I think it’s important for us to keep an eye on the on the ball with antisemitism again is conspiracy theory about Jews, explaining what goes wrong in the world. I would argue that if we see it inside our own community, we even have a stronger obligation to speak out about it. It’s easier to point the finger to the other side. But both are important.
Okay, I have one more question. We’re slightly over time but there’s one question that’s been sent through to me, which I think people are keen for me to ask. One is, I’d be really interested to know if anybody has a thought about this. Why is this definition being pushed now? with legal and government backing of this type? I wonder if Seth as you’ve been insisting on the context within which these debates are taking place, if you have any sense of that, although as say you’re in the UK, but you’re not from the UK? Salma I wonder if you do? And Ken I be intrigued know whether you do in relationship to the States? I mean, why is this happening now? Does anybody want to have a stab at that question?
Part of me wants to ask it to Ken as an author of it, you know, because I think I think one of the things that I’m struck by is that this this piece of writing, which had a purpose, that was not where we see it at today, has taken on this life of its own, and a part of me can understand how and why it’s happened. You’ve explained somewhat tonight, how this is the case, but it seems to be this hill that people are going to die for or to die on. And it strikes me as a bad piece of writing a bad definition, a bad tool. Why?
I think that, you know, I don’t know that one single answer, but there are a bunch of different things coalescing. One is that I think there was an attempt, a successful one, in 2016, driven by an official of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to institutionalize a working definition through the IHRA framework and to promote it that way. So I think there was that push. I think, in some ways, too, and Salma has talked about this, too, it’s become sort of a sacred symbol. And Seth, you mentioned it as well. It becomes like rallying around the flag. It becomes something to say, this is supporting Jews and supporting Jewish students and we have to do that. That was some of the pushback that I got back in 2011, when I wrote saying it’s fine for discussions in the classroom, but don’t use it for Title Six purposes. The reaction was, ‘Why are you harming Jewish students?’ So it’s become this sort of symbol. And I think it’s too easy a thing. I mean, if Jewish organizations in the US in the UK, you know, wanted to do the harder things and campuses wanted to do the harder things, then maybe the more expensive things to actually combat antisemitism, to do the surveys on campus to do the revising the teaching, to talk about how government institutions could better handle antisemitism, those are more difficult things, it becomes a lot easier and frankly, cheaper for Jewish organizations to point to a rule and say adopt it, and it makes them be able to fundraise and so forth. So I think all those things are coming together. But the point is, it harms the Jewish community, it harms Jewish students, it harms the academy and I think it harms democracy. For all those reasons I share everybody concern and I think we have to push back against as strongly as we can.
Salma Karmi-Ayyoub 1:33:56
I just wanted to say in terms of why it’s been adopted so widely, I think, I don’t have the in depth knowledge it can have about the definition itself, then all of the machinations around it, but I mean, I just find it very, very hard to separate the promotion of the definition from a more general Israeli State-backed to campaign to get the definition in fact endorsed in order to clamp down on Palestinian campaigning, especially BDS campaigning. So if you look at the trajectory of things, at least in the UK, to me it’s pretty clear that the promotion of the IHRA definition coincided with the arrival of Mark Regev as Israel’s ambassador to the UK and his stated ambition and this is something he didn’t make the secret of. The Israeli government hasn’t made a secret of it either through its Ministry of Strategic Affairs. It had a stated ambition which was to break up the pro-Palestinian activist movement that was happening in the UK, that was partly connected as well to Corbyn, having won the leadership of the Labour Party and you see a very clear trajectory of events from that moment onwards and that is not me being conspiratorial. I’m saying, just looking at it empirically, there seems to be state backing for the adoption of the IHRA definition by different agencies in the UK and I imagine in other countries as well.
Jacqueline Rose 1:35:20
Okay, thank you. I think you watch what’s emerged very clearly from here is that there is such a powerful backstory to the way this definition has been promoted. The discussion about the meaning of the definition is crucial. But it has to be understood as part of a larger narrative about what’s thinkable and cerebral and possible in relationship to Israel-Palestine. A couple of chats that have come up that I’m just going to end with, one said, ‘Freedom is never give, it’s only taken,’ which I thought was very strong, and the other one was saying, ‘we also need and if we’re going to have definitions, we need an anti-Palestinian definition to also be part of our discussion.’ I’m also reminded, by way of conclusion, of Edward Said’s writing, who has described the Palestinian as the victims of the victims, not because he was equating their histories of suffering, but because he wanted it to be understood that there was suffering that led to the Palestinian suffering for which he was one of the strongest spokespeople in the world, when he was alive. So I think we’ve really covered a great deal. There’s a lot to think of, some of the questions were really fabulous, my sincere apologies, one that breakout rooms didn’t work and two that I couldn’t pick up a fraction of the amazing questions I’ve been trying to follow on chat as I was listening to our incredible speakers. I don’t think we could have had more heartfelt and informed and engaged contributions than we had from Kenneth Stern, Salma Karmi-Ayyoub and Seth Anziska. So I know we won’t be able to hear ourselves applaud. But I would like to ask everybody to thank them.