How a flawed bureaucratic document has been transformed into a sacred text
The Farcical Attack on the UCU For Voting Against Use of the EUMC ‘Working Definition’ of Antisemitism
There’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth from those sickened by the Universities and Colleges Union’s decision to ban use of the European Union Monitoring Centre’s ‘working definition’ of antisemitism. At the UCU’s annual congress in Harrogate a large majority supported Motion 70 that resolved:
that UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints)
that UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which UCU is involved
that UCU will campaign for open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.
The stated reason for this decision?:
Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.
Critics of the UCU’s decision are having none of this. Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council said: ‘After today’s events I believe the UCU is institutionally racist’. His view was echoed by Jon Benjamin, the chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who said ‘the UCU has . . . simply redefined “anti-Semitism” itself. . . The truth is apparent: whatever the motivations of its members, we believe UCU is an institutionally racist organization’. Martin Bright, the political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, tweeted: ‘opens gates to campus antisemitism’. Paul Usiskin, chair of Peace Now UK, said: ‘The UCU legitimises and perpetuates the evil of antisemitism.’ The Fair Play Campaign Group issued a statement that ended: ‘The truth is apparent: whatever the motivations of its members, we believe UCU is an institutionally racist organisation’. Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel, delivered an emotional speech opposing the motion. He said the union had crossed a red line, and ‘only antisemites would disassociate themselves from the EU Working Definition and vote in favor of the resolution’. John Mann MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, is taking the charge of ‘institutional antisemitism’ against the UCU so seriously that he has stated that the claim ‘should be investigated independently, ideally by the EHRC [Equality and Human Rights Commission]‘.
Despite these furious reactions, the motion does not say the UCU must now ignore instances of antisemitism. On the contrary, it acknowledges that there is a ‘genuine antisemitism’ that must be fought, and that the UCU must continue ‘to combat all forms of racial and religious discrimination’. But the critics make it clear that they don’t trust the UCU; that by making it impossible to call to account, on the basis of the EUMC’s ‘working definition’ of Israel-linked antisemitism, critics of Israel who are seen as crossing a line into antisemitic discourse, licence is effectively being given to antisemites in the UCU to express antisemitic sentiments.
It’s hard to believe that the EUMC ‘working definition’ is the only bulwark preventing the UCU from giving free rein to its alleged institutional antisemitism or, deliberately or otherwise, from encouraging and then turning a blind-eye to campus antisemitism. Yet this is undoubtedly what the union’s critics seem to be arguing, often in a language that borders on the apocalyptic. But to be fair on the critics, the language of some of those who have campaigned to distance the UCU from the EUMC ‘working definition’ is also pretty extreme and unbalanced.
And surely, therein lies the problem. Reading the live blogging from the congress, the speeches, recriminations, reactions and past reports on this long-running battle, which essentially began when the union initially voted on an academic boycott of Israeli universities back in 2005, the sense that much of this is taking place in a hothouse that has tenuous links to reality is rather powerful.
First, in the wider world of discussion about antisemitism, the notion that civilisation as we know it is about to come to an end because the UCU has distanced itself from the EUMC definition is quite absurd. It’s true that the status of the ‘working definition’ has changed significantly. The EUMC no longer exists and has been replaced by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), which seems to have more or less abandoned the ‘working definition’. The FRA appears not to believe that the definition is a useful working tool. An FRA official told Richard Kuper: ‘Since its development we are not aware of any public authority in the EU that applies it’. Moreover, ‘The FRA has no plans for any further development’ of the ‘Working Definition’, the official said. And in its latest publication on the topic (August 2010) it doesn’t even mention the ‘working definition’.
Nevertheless, if the FRA were intending to go further and reverse the current status of the definition among national and international agencies, whether governmental or non-governmental, as well as among antisemitism research institutes and monitoring bodies, it would almost certainly encounter an impossible task. For despite the fact that it was called the ‘working definition’ and that the contentious clauses exemplifying different ‘ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel taking into account the overall context’ were not described as a priori antisemitic, the EUMC document has virtually become the definition for such organizations, with practically the status of a holy text. The US State Department treats it as gospel in its antisemitism reports. The influential All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Antisemitism urged the British government to adopt it formally. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) employs the definition. The European Forum on Antisemitism, founded in 2008 with participants from 15 European countries as well as the USA and Israel, but effectively a front organization for the American Jewish Committee, seems to exist primarily to promote use of the working definition. The Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre back it, as does the European Jewish Congress and numerous official national Jewish representative bodies and Jewish communal defence groups. (Mark Gardner, communications director of the Community Security Trust, which describes itself as ‘protecting the Jewish community’ in the UK, mounted a vigorous defence of the working definition just days before the UCU vote.) Set against this phalanx of international support for the ‘working definition’, the UCU vote is but a mere pinprick.
And it’s a sad fact that the existence and extensive promotion of the ‘working definition’ has done as much as anything to legitimise the discourse of the ‘new antisemitism’, the notion that Israel has become the Jew among the nations and that therefore extreme criticism and anti-Zionism are a new version of the antisemitism that existed prior to the establishment of the state. Rather than make it easier to identify antisemitism, the promotion of the ‘working definition’ and the entrenchment of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’ have so extended the range of expressions of what can be regarded as antisemitic that the word antisemitism has come close to losing all meaning. And it therefore makes agreement on what is and what is not antisemitic more fraught and more contentious. It’s a simple fact that until the early 1990s, before the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ gained acceptance and before the ‘working definition’ was introduced, there was broad agreement on the nature of contemporary antisemitism. Today, scholars and commentators writing on current antisemitism are bitterly divided among themselves.
Second, the responses (quoted above) from Jewish community officials and representatives and other defenders of the ‘working definition’ show a complete lack of balance. If Ronnie Fraser is correct and only ‘antisemities’ would dissociate themselves from the ‘working definition’, this places a significant number of highly respected Jewish and non-Jewish academics working in the field of antisemitism research in the dock. And it would mean that the FRA officials, who have clearly sidelined the original EUMC document, are also antisemites. John Mann MP should thus be clamouring for these Jew-haters to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights, just as he wants the UCU to be investigated by the EHRC in the UK.
Typifying the tenor of these responses is the myth, succinctly articulated by the Board of Deputies chief executive Jon Benjamin, that it’s the UCU that is redefining antisemitism. In fact, it’s the EUMC that redefined antisemitism. What the UCU seems to have done is seek to revert back to the time when a common sense consensus about the nature of antisemitism existed. Even Mark Gardner, in his CST blog piece, acknowledges that there has been such agreement:
The “working definition” is not so necessary in Britain perhaps, where antisemitism is generally well understood and defined by politicians, courts, Police and Jews
(although he rather cheekily omits mention of academics, since it would undermine the tone of much of his piece, which casts certain academics as villains). As Richard Kuper writes in an updated analysis of the ‘working definition’ just published on openDemocracy, Benjamin, Fraser and others
[make] you wonder what happened before “the definition” was propagated in 2005 (when presumably no-one had a clue as to what antisemitism was, and without this particular document no-one now would have either).
Given that hardly any discussion of contemporary antisemitism takes place today without Israel, Zionism or anti-Zionism cropping up, it was probably unrealistic of the UCU anti-EUMC definition protagonists to think that we can all just return to the status quo ante. But it’s not a redefinition that’s required, rather a clarification of how certain forms of discourse on Israel can fall into the classic definition of antisemitism around which academics and researchers can reach agreement – and indeed we have such a clarification in the form of Dr Brian Klug’s article ‘The collective Jew: Israel and the new antisemitism’ (which he recently updated for his book Being Jewish and Doing Justice). And what’s interesting about Klug’s article is that it figures prominently in the EUMC’s report, Manifestations of Antisemitism in the EU 2002-2003, published in 2004, the report credited for being the impetus for the framing of the ‘working definition’. According to Mark Gardner and others: The Monitoring Centre compiled the ‘working definition’ because this was a central recommendation of its own 345 page report ‘Manifestations of Antisemitism in the EU 2002-2003.’
A convenient story, but untrue. If the ‘working definition’ had really emerged from this report, it’s hardly likely to have diverged so radically from Klug’s formulation of a consensus definition of antisemitism that the report quotes from so favourably, but diverge it most certainly does.
The truth is that it was the first report on manifestations of antisemitism in the EU compiled by researchers at the Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung (Centre for Research on Antisemitism) at the Berlin Technical University, completed in 2002 but never published by the EUMC, which led to the framing of the ‘working definition’. It was the Board of the EUMC that took the decision not to publish and a huge controversy erupted when the whole affair became public.
The official reason given by the Centre was that the methodology was flawed and its findings deemed to be biased. But it’s widely believed that the real reasons for the suppression of the report were somewhat different. Some members of the Board were unhappy that hostility to Israel was included and that the report laid the blame for much of the post-2000 upsurge in antisemitic incidents in Europe on young Muslims and pro-Palestinian perpetrators. Jewish members of the Board linked to the European Jewish Congress based in Paris were angry and leaked the report to the press, complaining that appeasement of Europe’s large Muslim population was behind the decision not to publish. The resulting bad publicity severely embarrassed the EUMC and its director, Beate Winkler, damaged its reputation and left Winkler in a state of depression.
Enter the American Jewish Committee in the form of its Director of International Affairs, Rabbi Andy Baker, who had been active in Europe for many years, making and maintaining connections with Jewish communities, Jewish leaders, national politicians, EU politicians and the Council of Europe, and taking a special interest in antisemitism. Baker knew Winkler and met with her in the aftermath of the controversy. He saw that she was weighed down by the criticism levelled at her and the EUMC and that she had no plan as to how to restore the organization’s reputation.
Baker’s diagnosis was that the problem arose because the EUMC had no definition of antisemitism that would satisfy Jewish leaders, activists and researchers and he proposed to Winkler that she move quickly to convene a meeting of such people from Jewish circles to draft such a definition. Baker was clear in his own mind that the essential element in such a definition would be singling out certain forms of criticism of Israel and Zionism as antisemitic. I doubt whether he told this to Winkler, who was persuaded of the value of the course of action Baker had proposed. But he knew that those invited to the meeting would need to be broadly sympathetic to the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’ and since Winkler was not well-versed in the names of people working in the area of antisemitism research, he was able to determine who attended.
I believe the initial meeting took place in summer 2003. In fact I got wind of it – and this was long before I learned the details I’ve just recounted, details told to me directly and triumphantly by Andy Baker in, if memory serves, 2005 – at the time from Pascale Charhon, who was then running CEJI (Centre Européen Juif d’Information), a Brussels-based body linked to the Anti-Defamation League. I believe that Charhon had been consulted by Baker on who to invite though was not privy to Baker’s particular agenda. She sounded me out as to whether I could attend an EUMC discussion on antisemitism, which was due to take place within a week or two. I said I would try to come (I was on vacation abroad at the time). But Andy Baker knew about my opposition to the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’ so, not suprisingly, I never received an invitation.
At this point, my story meshes with Richard Kuper’s account in his openDemocracy article, when he describes the meetings that then took place, from which those who were not sympathetic to the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis were excluded and at which the AJC itself, in the form of Kenneth Stern, the organization’s principal expert on antisemitism, took the leading role. I understand that a draft of the ‘working definition’ was circulated more widely before it was finally released and it may have been as a result of feedback then received that the formulations of Stern and his colleagues, which contained no qualifiers – so that, for example, ‘Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’ would always be antisemitic – were altered to read ‘could’ be antisemitic, ‘taking into account the overall context’.
Andy Baker’s ‘personal’ initiative – but one that was fully in tune with the AJC’s increasingly hard-line, pro-Israel agenda, its aim to be a major player in Europe, influencing European action on antisemitism and appearing to command a leading ‘advisory’ role on the European Jewish stage in order to appeal to its domestic American Jewish constituency from whom the organization raises the many millions of dollars required to keep it afloat – has proved remarkably effective. I doubt very much whether he expected what he proposed to Beate Winkler as a fix for the EUMC and a feather in the cap of his organization to achieve the iconic status it now occupies.
But the truth is that, given the genesis of the ‘working definition’, which in my view was a scandal, the fulminations of the Jewish establishment, the CST, Engage, John Mann MP, the World Union of Jewish Students etc. over the UCU vote are farcical. Certainly, the UCU activists who pressed for the adoption of Motion 70 are not angelic philosophical types approaching this issue with nothing but defence of the purity of academic research in mind. They have a political agenda in relation to Israel-Palestine and they’re fighting for it and their tactics are not pretty. It’s not an agenda I share, but as Professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University, who spent a few years in the UK combating proposals to institute a boycott of Israeli academic, concluded, it’s a political fight that needs to be fought with political arguments, not with accusations of antisemitism.
The critics of the UCU decision don’t seem to understand this. They think nothing of accusing Jews who see things differently from them of being antisemitic. At one moment they tell us the ‘working definition’ is ‘the EU definition’ (which it isn’t and it never was). The next moment they tell us it’s only advisory and is a work in progress. They manipulate the findings of the report of the Macpherson inquiry into the killing of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence and falsely claim it decreed that only members of the group who experience racism can define what that racism consists of – so that anyone who denies Jews exclusive rights to define what is and what is not antisemitism – i.e. the UCU – is antisemitic.
If only the UCU vote did indeed signal the demise of the EUMC ‘working definition’. It would open up far more possibilities for rational discussion about the nature and danger of antisemitism today, discussion that would not be rendered moot by those who are determined to politicise the subject. But I’m not holding my breath.