ANU Decides Not To Adopt Controversial Antisemitism Definition

CW: Discussions of antisemitism and Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
ANU, Campus

Vice Chancellor Brian Shmidt has confirmed that the ANU will not adopt the controversial working definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The decision comes after an inter-party organisation, the Parliamentarian Friends of the IHRA, penned an open letter to universities urging them to adopt the IHRA definition.

Both ANUSA and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), released a formal joint statement in support of the ANU’s decision. They expressed their concern on the potential for the definition to be “misused to suppress research and teaching activities critical of the actions of the state of Israel.”

The IHRA working definition is as follows:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

It goes on to illustrate examples:

“Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Although both organisations emphasised that all forms of racism and intolerance are unacceptable, they maintained that the definition could inhibit academic freedom and university “discourse on political and human rights issues.”

The IHRA’s definition has become increasingly controversial in recent years, with one creator of the definition arguing that “rightwing Jews” have “weaponised” it. In Britain and Australia, a number of student, activist and media organisations have criticised it as banning a meaningful discussion of what Amnesty International termed an “apartheid” against Palestinians.

The ANU assessed the definition through a specialist working group, settling on the view that the University “has sufficient protections and measures in place to help prevent and respond to any form of discrimination within its existing policies and procedures.” In conjunction with the guides of relevant legislation, a spokesperson from the University assures that this will adequately ensure that the “University will tackle such [discriminatory or racist] behaviour decisively should it occur.”

In their statement, the NTEU and ANUSA supported this as a “measured approach”, which they believe “will avoid unnecessary tension and needless controversy.”

Woroni reached out to ANU Jewish Students Society, an organisation which “represents a diverse membership of Jewish students, with a range of beliefs, levels of observance and experiences.” The society asserted that most of the IHRA definition was uncontroversial, except for the example of criticism against the Israeli state, which intends to “merely … show what antisemitism could look like, taking into account ‘the overall context’.”

They maintained a distinction between legitimate and constructive criticism of Israel and its government, and the “deeply offensive” calls for the “eradication of Israel because of its demographic composition” which is a notion “not often repeated when discussing any other ethnic majority states.”

The Jewish Students Society highlighted a need for further consultation with Jewish students, given that they are the ones who experience antisemitism firsthand. They state that unlike the ANU’s Code of Conduct, the IHRA’s definition would provide specificity and examples, helping to show “Jewish students that experiences of antisemitism matter and would be taken seriously.” Moreover, they believe that the ANU Code of Conduct is too broad, and that antisemitism is underreported at the ANU.

The ANU did not answer Woroni’s question of whether the University consulted any Jewish students or staff in making its decision.

For ANUSA and the NTEU, ANU’s decision to pass up on the definition might hopefully encourage other universities, such as Melbourne University, to reconsider. Meanwhile, the ANU Jewish Students Society, calls on the ANU “to do more to address racism in the University”, including that which targets its members.

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