Guest contributor Sharon Cohen argues against the UCU motion to revoke the recent adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism at KCL.
On the 27th November, a motion was submitted to the King’s College London branch of the University and College Union (UCU) to call for the university to revoke its adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Following the IHRA’s publication of the working definition of antisemitism in 2016, it is no secret that many critics and controversies emerged.
However, twenty countries including the US State Department, the United Kingdom, France and Germany decided to adopt or recognise it. In the British House of Commons, 641 of the 643 MPs personally signed the definition. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick then publicly announced that “all universities and local councils that have not already done so, must adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism”. King’s College London was one of the first universities in the UK to do so without too many issues.
It is now disappointing to see its own academics attempt to overturn this progress. More so as it is with hindsight and perspective that they have judged unbearable the idea of being imprisoned in their will to question Israel’s legitimacy to exist. The motion submitted on Friday states that KCL should reaffirm its “commitment to academic freedom, including freedom of speech, critical of capitalism, critical of white privilege, and critical of Zionism and Israel”.
Firstly, the association of capitalism and white privilege with Zionism and Israel in the same sentence, implying correlations of thoughts between all these concepts, is of very bad taste. But such innuendos that aim to demonise Israel and the Jewish people are a topic for another day.
Coming back to our subject of interest, the claim that KCL denied its commitment to academic freedom in adopting the IHRA definition is simply not true. The initial press release of the IHRA which presented the definition explicitly clarified that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.
In its anticipation of the forthcoming criticism, the institution shed the light on the difference between questioning the right of Israel to exist – and thus of the Jewish people to self-determination – and examining the Israeli Government or its policies, which is far from being antisemitic.
The UCU motion’s main concern over the definition’s threat to freedom of speech is thus easily disproved. The definition only prevents threats and questionings of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, not criticism of Israel’s policies or actions. While those filing in this motion argued that the definition was of breach of the Equality Act, the UK’s Board of Deputies of British Jews indicated that it is “this regressive motion [that] is an attack on equalities”.
A Jewish member of the union’s King’s College London branch told the Jewish Chronicle that the motion made them feel “uncomfortable”. I not only feel uncomfortable about this motion, but threatened and insulted. To know that members of the UCU, the institution that represents the authorities above me as a student, call my country’s legitimacy to exist and my right to self-determination into question hurts me. Especially as they are questioning a measure already implemented and that was fought for not long ago.
I often get in conflicts of ideas like this with other students, people my age and with similar levels of education and experience, and ignorance and hatred frequently surface. I was however surprised that the presence of such ignorance and hatred do not correlate with age or academic hierarchy. I should have remembered the UCU’s history of antisemitic tendencies.
In 2008 for example, the UCU breached its own equality rules in order to debate a motion that, if passed, would have forced Jewish and Israeli academics to explain their politics as a precondition to normal academic contact. What is left for me and other students concerned is just the hope that our university itself does not shift its position by moving backwards on their path to equality for both students and academic staff.
Sharon Cohen is the President of KCL Israel Society.