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UK Jewish Students Defend Antisemitism Definition as Edinburgh Union Seeks Repeal

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

The Lauriston Campus of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Photo Credit: Jorge Franganillo, Flickr.

The UK’s Union of Jewish students pushed back on Thursday against a faculty union effort at the University of Edinburgh to rescind the school’s adoption of a leading definition of antisemitism.

In a letter sent Thursday to the university’s administration, the University and College Union (UCU Edinburgh) charged that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of antisemitism had a “the harmful and adverse effect of silencing critique of Israeli state practices and therefore protecting them from critical intellectual inquiry.”

“The definition was adopted by the University without an institution-wide discussion of antisemitism, without considering the University’s anti-racist obligations, and without consultation of University scholars who have expertise on Israel/Palestine and racism,” the faculty group added on Twitter.

Shiri Wolff, head of communications at the UK-wide Union of Jewish (UJS), later called the letter “disturbing.”

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“Their primary protestation, that relevant groups were not consulted in this process, is entirely hypocritical as it fails to include the very Jewish students that the definition seeks to protect,” Wolff told The Algemeiner on Thursday. “At the UJS conference [in December 2021], Jewish students from across the UK and Ireland, including Edinburgh, voted unanimously to support the IHRA definition.”

“Jewish people are the only people who should be consulted on issues of anti-Jewish racism and the consensus is clear: Jewish students want the IHRA definition of antisemitism,” Wolff continued.

Adopted by the University of Edinburgh in July 2020, the IHRA definition identifies antisemitism in part as a “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and cites examples including Holocaust denial, blaming Jews for unfortunate events, and holding Jews responsible for Israeli policy.

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

It has been adopted by at least 100 universities in the UK, according to the UJS, overwhelmingly in England.

The UCU also blamed the university’s adoption of the definition on “political pressure,” citing former Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson’s urging universities last October to adopt it during a rise in antisemitic hate crimes.

Responding to the faculty union effort, a University of Edinburgh spokesperson told Scottish outlet The National, “We have been clear from the start that the university must interpret and apply the definition of antisemitism in a way which is consistent with the right to freedom of expression on campus.”

“The university’s statement on freedom of expression further underscores our long-standing commitment to facilitating an environment where everyone is able to inquire, study, and debate in a respectful manner,” the official said.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities argued the UCU “should devote its energy to dealing with those amongst them who have shamefully supported the perpetrators and giving unqualified support to the victims of antisemitism.”

“The IHRA definition is widely supported across the Jewish community, including the Union of Jewish students, and has been adopted by both the Scottish and UK governments,” he said. “The definition was originally devised by the EU Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia and unambiguously protects criticism of Israel as protected speech.”

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