Sunday, June 26, 2011, 05:54 PMAlthough the UCU repudiation of the EUMC Working Definition on antisemitism is rather old news now, I thought I’d post something I wrote about it at the time, yet in the end condensed to a much shorter letter to send to the THES:
Posted by Administrator
Posted by Administrator
All forms of discrimination are complex, and each has its own special characteristics which may mutate over time. Sometimes it is difficult to be sure whether words or actions are discriminatory or not. A lot depends on the overall context. Certain sorts of compliment might be welcomed in a romantic setting, but would seem decidedly sexist in a professional environment.
In some cases there seem to be tensions between different groups. In trying to prevent discrimination against one community, another may feel intimidated. This can be seen in the recent debates over homophobic posters proclaiming a ‘Gay Free Zone’ in the East End. Gay rights campaigners suspected that their concerns were being brushed aside in order to protect Muslim sensitivities. Muslims, on the other hand, felt that anxieties about the posters were being used to whip up Islamophobia. Both sides could point to evidence to back up their case.
Members of minority groups are generally going to be more sensitive to the forms discrimination against them can take. Recently I read someone point out that a charge of ‘narcissism’ was often levelled against homosexuals. I have since spotted examples of this word being used quite gratuitously in just this context, something I had previously never noticed. It is surely a good thing for us all to become more aware of these more subtle ways in which prejudice manifests itself.
For those wishing to recognize and avoid anti-Semitism, the Working Definition produced by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) is a useful tool. It includes manifestations of anti-Semitism which hardly need to be pointed out, for example ‘calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion’. But it also includes more subtle forms of anti-Semitism, many of these linked to anti-zionism, such as ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’. It should surely be possible, for example, to criticise Israel’s policy towards Gaza in the strongest terms without needing to invoke the Warsaw Ghetto.
The working definition notes that, with all these possible diagnostic criteria, the overall context must be taken into account when making a judgement. One probably isn’t going to fret too much about the ‘overall context’ of a call to genocide. But it is true that some of the criteria are calculated to help identify rather less threatening cases, including the accidental use of an antisemitic trope, which – just like a single chance use of the epithet ‘narcissistic’ to describe a homosexual – should probably be overlooked. But where there is a whole cluster of subtle innuendos in a single article the Working Definition can help pinpoint a real problem. For in order to be truly useful any guidelines for helping identify prejudice must go beyond the obvious. For example, burning a mosque is pretty clearly Islamophobic, but what about criticising Halal slaughter? Here, as with antisemitic tropes, there would be a need to look at the overall context. The issue of Halal food is certainly often manipulated by anti-Muslim bigots – but that fact shouldn’t be used to close down debate about animal welfare.
There is a similar tension, potentially, between antisemitic discourse and criticism of Israel. Given the inevitable intersection between hostility towards Israel and antisemitism it is of course going to be hard to police the boundary between fair criticism and racism. These debates notoriously attract those with extreme views – ranging from those who think antisemitism and anti-Israel feeling are pretty much synonymous, to those who believe they don’t overlap at all. The Working Definition may well help resolve such differences, but it isn’t like a piece of litmus paper which will automatically tell you whether a person or a statement is or is not antisemitic. It is hard to think of meaningful guidelines for any ‘ism’ or ‘phobia’ which wouldn’t generate debate about how exactly they should be applied in a given case.
Given its value as a tool for combatting discrimination, it might seem rather odd that the University and College Union should have decided to repudiate the Working Definition, particularly since the union has never acknowledged or adopted it. This motion has been passed by the UCU Congress in Harrogate.
“Congress notes with concern that the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’, while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status, is being used by bodies such as the NUS and local student unions in relation to activities on campus.
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.
1. that UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints)
2. that UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which UCU is involved
3. 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.”
It seems quite bizarre for the union to proscribe any consideration of the Working Definition, to dismiss the whole document, and to resolve to disassociate itself from the definition in any relevant public discussion. And is this really a priority for members when Higher and Further Education are being faced with unprecedented cuts and a radical overhaul of fees?
It is interesting to look at, to use the Working Definition’s phrase, the ‘overall context’ of this motion. The UCU has a longstanding preoccupation with the academic boycott of Israel, even though it has received legal advice that such a boycott might well be discriminatory and illegal.
Many members have resigned over this matter, and others have expressed great disquiet. The UCU has refused to deal with members’ concerns, and in 2009 voted down a motion to investigate these resignations. Last year it invited a speaker, Bongani Masuku, to speak at a seminar to discuss a boycott of Israel, even though the South African Human Rights Commission had deemed that his statements amounted to hate speech against South Africa’s Jewish community. Clearly the union has not itself been inhibited to any worrying degree by the Working Definition. Given this overall context, it is not surprising that more members are being driven to resign.