Tuesday, March 5th | 25 Adar I 5784

October 28, 2020 5:35 am

Why Can’t Universities Define Antisemitism?

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avatar by Mitchell Bard


An anti-Israel ‘apartheid wall’ on display at Columbia University during Apartheid Week in 2017. Photo: Facebook.

Aren’t academics supposed to be able to define a word? How is it then that university professors and administrators are incapable of defining “antisemitism?” They can’t do this — but also refuse to do it, because they would have to acknowledge the extent of antisemitism on their campuses.

The academic world cannot even manage to apply Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” definition of pornography to antisemitism. Instead, they allow antisemites to determine the definition.

Moreover, unlike every other form of bigotry, the university permits antisemitism under the masquerade of academic freedom. The concept itself has been rendered meaningless by failing to require anything seeking this shield to be “academic,” and selectively applying this freedom based often on political correctness.

If the US Department of Education (DOE) announced it was going to be taking steps to crack down on racism directed at Blacks on campus, it would be applauded. When it focuses on antisemitism, however, hysteria ensues in large measure because of the inability and unwillingness to define the word.

The United Kingdom is taking a position long overdue in the US. That country’s education secretary accused universities of disregarding antisemitism and threatened to suspend funding if they do not adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism by the end of the year.

UK politician Gavin Williamson called out British universities for doing exactly what the Americans are doing, “dragging their feet” in responding to antisemitism on campus. He could have been speaking to administrators in the United States when he wrote, “The repugnant belief that antisemitism is somehow a less serious, or more acceptable, form of racism has taken insidious hold in some parts of British society.”

The Union of Jewish Students said only 29 of the 133 schools of higher education have adopted the definition, and 80 said they would not do so, under the pretense of — you guessed it — academic freedom.

Consider that the IHRA has been adopted or endorsed by 27 governments, including most recently Muslim Albania and earlier by numerous democracies that are no less committed to freedom of speech than the United States. For those unfamiliar, the IHRA says:

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.

What drives the antisemites crazy, and has allowed them to convince university officials to keep their heads in the sand, is the IHRA adding that “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” even as it acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Again, using the academic freedom rationalization, opponents of the IHRA insist they, not the 33 members of the Alliance, and governments that have adopted the definition, are the judges of what constitutes antisemitism. They cannot accept the IHRA determination that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is antisemitic because that is precisely what they do.

As in the US, British university officials say they do not tolerate discrimination and yet they cannot and will not accept the definition of antisemitism on which to determine whether Jewish students are indeed being harassed. Like their American colleagues, the Brits are willing to allow the antisemites to be the arbiters of what constitutes Jew hatred. Not surprisingly, they propagate the fiction that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.

It is long past time for universities to admit they do not know antisemitism when they see it, and do not act on it because they do not have a definition for it. Universities should not need to be coerced to adopt the IHRA definition, but they clearly do, so the US DOE should follow the UK’s example and threaten to cut aid to universities that insist the word cannot be defined.

Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

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