Dishonest Virginia AAUP Critique of IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

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I received the following email from the Virginia chapter of the American Asssociation of University Professors (of which I am not a member, btw):

1. The VA-AAUP Resolution on Antisemitism and Racism

The VA Conference of the American Association of University Professors (VA-AAUP) recently passed the attached resolution on Antisemitism and Racism. This resolution is in response to Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order #8 to establish the Commission to Combat Antisemitism.

1. The VA-AAUP Resolution on Antisemitism and Racism

The VA Conference of the American Association of University Professors (VA-AAUP) recently passed the attached resolution on Antisemitism and Racism. This resolution is in response to Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order #8 to establish the Commission to Combat Antisemitism. At issue is the IHRA “working definition” of antisemitism that includes political critiques of Israeli state actions, including discrimination and violence against Palestinians. The VA-AAUP calls upon our elected representatives in the General Assembly, the Governor, and all leaders of academic institutions in the Commonwealth of Virginia, to:

1. Reaffirm that the freedom to teach and freedom to learn are inseparable facets of academic freedom;

2. Reaffirm that academic excellence requires rigorous critical examination of all sides of an issue and the freedom to hypothesize and study new and different ideas even if they are not politically popular;

3. Oppose adoption of the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of antisemitism;

4. Oppose any political interference in the conduct of the Commonwealth’s institutions of higher education; and

5. Oppose, prohibit, and condemn in the strongest possible terms, any actions that would ban, limit, or distort the teaching of history, social studies, and/or related academic subjects.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism is controversial. It includes the following as examples of antisemitism:

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.

Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.

Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

I don’t fully agree with this definition. In particular, I think one can argue that Jews, like other minorities such as Kurds, should just suck it up and not have their own country. One could hold this opinion because one is an Islamist, opposes nationalism in general, thinks Israel’s presence is too disruptive to the Middle East, or think that Israel is a bastion of Western imperialism–none of which is an inherently antisemitic opinion to hold.

Moreover, in general I find that it’s less problematic to philosophically question whether Israel should have been created but accept its de facto existence (as, last I heard, such very harsh critics as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein do) than to have no philosophical objection to Israel’s existence, as such, but support Israel’s destruction because Israel gets in the way of Palestinian nationalism, pan-Arabism, or Islamism. Those in the latter camp tend to support Israel’s destruction regardless of what that would mean for the fate of the Jews who currently live in Israel. Being okay with genocide is much worse than merely, e.g., arguing that Israel is a racist endeavor but we need to find a way toward a two-state solution.

All of which is to say that my problem is not with AAUP-VA’s criticism of the IHRA, as such. The AAUP-VA could reasonably object that the definition is overbroad in some respects, and though adopting the IHRA definition does not in itself suggest that anyone’s speech would be penalized or suppressed (and in fact it’s explicitly not meant to be legally binding), it could have a chilling effect on faculty afraid that certain types of criticism of Israel would lead to them being denounced as antisemites. Or, the AAUP-VA could simply suggest that what constitutes racism or any form thereof, including antisemitism, is a matter of intellectual debate regarding which a state government should not be taking a position.

Instead, the AAUP-VA claims that the IHRA definition condemns as antisemitic “political critiques of Israeli state actions, including discrimination and violence against Palestinians.” But there is nothing in the IHRA definition that would deem a statement along the lines of “I condemn Israeli discrimination and violence against Palestinians” as antisemitic. Indeed, the IHRA definition specifically states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Other countries are criticized for perceived discrimination against minorities or violence against enemy peoples or nations, sometimes fairly, sometimes less so, all the time.

So in the name of opposing the “distortion” of social studies, AAUP-VA is distorting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, by suggesting that it condemns any critiques of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. (I also don’t think that AAUP-VA should be implicitly editorializing about “discrimination and violence against Palestinians,” which kinda undermines its position of a being a neutral advocate of academic freedom.)

The underlying problem is that those most opposed to the IHRA’s definition within the academy can’t provide an honest critique of the definition, because they don’t simply want to criticize Israel is some reasonable, normal fashion. Rather, they object to the IHRA definition precisely because they want to condemn the idea of having a state for the Jewish people as inherently racist, apply double standards to Israel, use images of a classically antisemitic nature to attack Israel, and analogize Israeli policy to Nazis, without being accused of antisemitism. (All of these criticisms, by the way, are protected by academic freedom, even though antisemitic.)

For the AAUP-VA to play along with this charade is shameful.

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