University staff protest Tory attempt to undermine academic freedom and stifle criticism of Israel

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The Tory government is trying to force UK universities to adopt a “flawed” definition of antisemitism.

The Canary wrote in December 2020:

Conservative education secretary Gavin Williamson is reportedly trying to force universities to sign up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism by the end of the year, or face funding cuts. But student opponents of the colonisation of Palestine are worried that it will silence criticism of Israel.

An alternative definition of antisemitism has been put forward by Independent Jewish Voices.

48 out of 133 UK universities – including Oxford and Cambridge – have bowed under government pressure and adopted the IHRA working definition. This is despite a recent statement by UK legal experts calling Williamson’s ultimatum “legally and morally wrong”.

The Canary has spoken to students and staff at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), where a decision has not yet been made about adopting the definition, and where there is considerable resistance from both staff and students.

“a threat to the fundamental right for Palestinians to describe their lived experience”

The IHRA’s working definition states that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” is antisemitic. However, according to a joint statement by hundreds of UK students:

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We believe that the IHRA definition is a threat to the fundamental right for Palestinians to describe their lived experience of oppression. The discredited definition, and specifically its illustrative examples, conflates anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the laws, policies and constitutional order of the State of Israel.

The statement concluded:

We call on UK Universities to unequivocally protect our right to describe the facts of Palestinian oppression, to describe Israel’s laws, policies and actions as racist or as constituting apartheid; to criticise the political ideology of Zionism and to call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel as nonviolent measures of accountability to bring about its compliance with its obligations under international law and its respect for Palestinian rights.

Calls to “reject government attempts” to “undermine” academic freedom

Dr Peter E Jones, a member of the University College Union (UCU) at SHU, has told The Canary that the union has passed a motion calling on the university not to adopt the IHRA definition. Jones told us:

Whatever view we take of the value of the IHRA definition, universities have a duty to resist and reject government attempts to undermine or weaken their institutional autonomy and academic freedom by the imposition of ministers’ own political or ‘moral’ preferences or perspectives on them; The universities mainly know this already – hence the general failure met by Jo Johnson’s attempt, in his previous capacity as minister for HE, to persuade universities to adopt the [IHRA] definition. The vast majority did not. But Williamson has come back to this with actual upfront threats to university funding and instead of standing firm in their support of university autonomy and academic freedom, many institutions seem to be buckling under the pressure.

Jones is a Reader at SHU, and a former elected staff member of the Board of Governors.

Academic autonomy needs to be “reaffirmed”

Jones feels that SHU and other universities need to stand firm and protect their autonomy. He continued:

This is shameful and a dereliction of duty on their part. It is precisely when ideologically motivated governments try to interfere materially with your business that the principles of academic freedom and autonomy need to be loudly and proudly re-affirmed and defended! And this is not just an issue of what happens in universities: accepting the IHRA definition has implications for the wider political and cultural atmosphere in the country and helps to undermine legitimate argument and action in support of the Palestinian people.

IHRA definition “badly flawed and highly controversial”

Jones set out his objections to the IHRA definition in detail:

The IHRA working definition is both very badly flawed and highly controversial because of its general inadequacies in framing a coherent description of antisemitism in the definition section proper and, more particularly, in the examples which are largely concerned with a state actor (Israel) and thereby imply, encourage or foster the conflation of antisemitism with critical views on the state of Israel and, thereby, with actions as well as argument in support of the Palestinian cause.

For these reasons the definition has met with a huge wave of critical blowback and resistance from all civil society sectors internationally, most prominently and importantly from the Palestinian people – the immediate victims of the existence and actions of the Israeli state in question – but extending very widely to mainstream legal and scholarly opinion, including from within Jewish communities and organizations. The definition cannot, therefore, be a unifying vehicle or rallying point for a united, collective response to antisemitism but consistently a source of political and cultural division and contestation. To attempt to impose such a divisive and politically misguided definition on universities, the academic community at large and social and political life more generally is an outrage and a crime.

Palestinian voices are already being stifled

SHU Student Union Palestine Society released a statement calling on the university not to adopt IHRA last year. The statement pointed out that the Society already felt that it was not being listened to at the university, and that it’s social media accounts had been suspended:

We are deeply worried that Sheffield Hallam University may already have fallen victim to the chilling political attempts to conflate legitimate opposition to Israel and Zionism with the gruesome crime of antisemitism. The University maintains its refusal to meet with student and academic members of its community to discuss its business partnerships with several firms that profit from Israeli war crimes against the Palestinian people.

In addition, Twitter has recently suspended our student account through which we campaign for Palestinian human rights, despite our commitment to maintaining “a safe environment” for its users and never participating in any sort of abusive behaviour.

Students are concerned that if the university adopts IHRA, pro-Palestinian voices will be silenced even more.

“The Tories also have their sights on education more broadly”

Jones feels that this attack on academic autonomy is only the beginning. He said:

At the same time, the Tories also have their sights on education more broadly, with attempts to delegitimise or criminalise anti-capitalist, socialist and anti-colonial accounts and perspectives within the school curriculum. So this is the thin end of a wedge of ideological reaction which this criminally irresponsible government is pushing hard. Sheffield Hallam Governors have, as one of their foundational duties, to uphold academic freedom in the university; they CANNOT, therefore, accept this government imposition and should – indeed must – reject it.

Decolonise our universities

Jones went on to add that the government was trying to stifle criticism of Israeli colonialism, when really what is needed is a decolonisation of our universities.

Decolonising our universities means deconstructing colonial bias and white supremacy within the curriculum, and opposing university funding and partnerships which support colonisation, for example those that support Israeli apartheid.

Jones concluded:

The adoption of this definition runs directly counter to the current powerful movement amongst students and academics in the UK and around the world to de-colonise the university and the university curriculum. The movement is gaining in force and scope and making itself felt very strongly in the university sector, including at Sheffield Hallam. It is a grotesque irony, then, that the government’s response to this movement is to attempt to foist on universities a duty to protect one particular colonial state – Israel – from legitimate opposition and critical scrutiny. The de-colonisation movement must put Palestinian freedom at the front and centre of its activity since this is where colonialism – as a still active relationship of oppression and exploitation – is most clearly and violently represented today.

Government pressure on UK universities to adopt the IHRA definition is an attack on academic freedom. If the Tories are successful in forcing academics to toe the government line on this issue, it could end up being just the tip of the iceberg. University staff and students need our support to resist this government pressure to follow the government’s colonial agenda.

Tom Anderson is part of the Shoal Collective, a cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. 

Featured image via Pixabay

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Get involved

  • Check out Independent Jewish Voices definition of antisemitism
  • Learn about how IHRA’s definition has been used to silence critics of Israel globally
  • Read the letter from 240 UK staff and students urge universities not to adopt the IHRA definition. And add your signature if you are a university member of staff or student.
  • Watch this video about how Gavin Williamson is trying to force UK universities to accept IHRA’s definition

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