What’s in a definition? The challenge to curb antisemitism on campus

In the wake of universities minister Chris Skidmore’s intervention to stamp out antisemitism on campus, universities are being challenged to re-examine whether their institutions are places of safety and belonging for Jewish students.

The minister has directly called on institutions to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism and has asked that students not be burdened with security costs if they are organising speakers on campus. The minister’s rationale for the latter directive is that this extra obligation could amount to indirect discrimination and refers to guidance developed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on freedom of expression as the basis for his instruction.

The Minister’s measures have been broadly welcomed by Jewish groups and student societies. It has also served as a catalyst to think more holistically about the experience of Jewish students in higher education – who represent an estimated 8,500 person strong community.

The definition in context

For Daniel Kosky, campaigns and advocacy manager at the Union of Jewish Students, it is a source of much confusion that the IHRA definition has not already been enthusiastically embraced by the university sector. As he explains, “adopting the definition is not curtailing freedom of speech.” In fact, it should work to, “strengthen a culture of inquiry” about both historical events as well as contemporary policy. He laments that the definition has been politicised in recent years and that its principal objective – which is to eliminate hatred towards the Jewish population – has been forgotten.

The definition must be considered with respect to its context, argues Mark Gardner – who is deputy chief executive at the Community Security Trust. Mark says the definition welcomes criticism of Israel but to do this in a way that does not invoke harm and injury to the Jewish population. He believes that those higher education institutions who have not yet adopted this definition are, “unclear on its purpose, content, or applicability.” An issue which he believes could be easily overcome if decision makers in institutions exchanged perspectives more frequently with their Jewish students and local community groups.

Universities UK, in its 2016 Taskforce Report on Hate Crime in universities, Changing the Culture, acknowledges that there is a lack of understanding about Jewish identity and antisemitism in the sector. At the time, the report identified the need for, “improved understanding of the broader ethnic and national dimension to Jewish identity,” – which appears to be of even more relevance now. A spokesperson from the Equality and Human Rights Commission adds that, “though there is no legal requirement for universities to adopt the IHRA definition,” that in the spirit of promoting inclusion and fostering good relations between different groups of students, universities may find that adopting this definition is a helpful thing to do.

Clarity on complaints

For both individuals I spoke to, the added peculiarity here is the number of universities that already draw on this definition in how they handle complaints on issues of antisemitism but don’t explicitly refer to it in their policies and code of conduct. And it is here where a more significant issue emerges – that relating to a lack of clarity in how student complaints are investigated and acted upon.

Daniel describes that a substantial amount of student concerns to the Union of Jewish Students relate to students not being clear on the steps universities are to undertake in investigating their complaint, the time taken to achieve a resolution, and the consequences that are enforced when there is evidence of misconduct. He says that some universities take as long as ten months to conduct an investigation and where they provide no explanation: “this only exacerbates the anxieties of a student complainant.” The most brief examination of the student misconduct policies of institutions supports Daniel’s concerns. They vary considerably institution to institution and no doubt lead to different outcomes for students.

What also greatly varies institution to institution is the degree to which universities take seriously the experiences and concerns of Jewish students. And for Mark, this inconsistency in approach is simply not good enough. He says that universities range from being, “really, really keen to do the right thing,” all the way through to “denying that they have a problem.” He explains the extent to which a university wishes to take action or not can depend on the powerful interplay and influence of media, student groups, parents, academics, and those in positions of authority. It is why he is so supportive of the Minister’s interventions and hopes that it leads to a consistent, sector-wide approach to the understanding of Jewish issues.

Broadening understandings

Daniel points to pioneering work conducted by the Holocaust Educational Trust, who supported by the Ministry of Housing and groups like the Union of Jewish Students, took senior leaders and student union officers from 47 universities to the former Nazi concentration and death camp in Auschwitz-Birkneau. He recalls this experience as defining in helping reshape understandings of the Holocaust, and in inspiring those that attended to eliminate all forms of hate on campus.

Both Daniel and Mark are in agreement that by and large, Jewish students are happy and thriving in higher education. The challenge for both these individuals and indeed the sector, is how broader public discourse on Jewish issues has sometimes manifested itself in uncomfortable and destructive ways on campus. Adopting the IHRA definition could arguably be an important first step in having a helpful debate on controversial issues without causing serious disruption to the wellbeing of students.

One response to “What’s in a definition? The challenge to curb antisemitism on campus

  1. Surely anti-semitic comments by other students would be covered by most institutions’ existing definitions of poor behaviour to be used in bullying, harassment and/or disciplinary procedures. Why would it warrant specific (additional) attention as opposed to say, Islamophobia or other forms of discriminatory behaviour? You would hope that hate speech and other behaviour would be covered by those policies.

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