The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has no place on Australian campuses

Amid Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, the definition has been used to stifle academic freedom and freedom of expression.

People participate in a demonstration in support of Palestinians in Gaza, in Melbourne, Australia on November 23, 2023 [AP/Joel Carrett]

In universities across the world, the definition of anti-Semitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has been used to silence critical commentary on Israel’s human rights violations and war crimes. In Australia, the definition has been having a chilling effect on campuses across the country.

Amid Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza, which has killed nearly 16,000 people, including more than 6,000 children, students and staff who have organised in solidarity with the Palestinian people have faced pressure and intimidation.

At the University of Melbourne, the highest-ranked institution of higher education in Oceania, the university’s administration has openly embraced the official Israeli narrative and refused to condemn what legal experts have called a textbook case of genocide. 

While students and staff have tried to resist attempts at censorship and silencing, what is happening at the university is a good illustration of how the IHRA definition hurts academic freedom on campus and helps propagate colonial violence.

The problem with the IHRA definition

In November 2022, the Parliamentary Friends of IHRA group was created, consisting of members of the Australian parliament. One of its first tasks was to write to all Australian, universities, urging them to adopt the IHRA definition.

Following this announcement, the peak body for Palestinians in Australia, the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, asked to be included in university deliberations on the subject but its call was unheeded.

Since then, five Australian universities have adopted the IHRA definition, while seven, including high-profile Australian National University and the University of Adelaide, have publicly rejected the call.

The University of Melbourne was the first to publicly announce the adoption of the IHRA definition in January 2023. This was framed as the first step in its new antiracism initiative, with consultations to follow among Muslim staff and students in respect of a statement on Islamophobia.

This approach highlighted the anti-Palestinianism at the heart of the university’s adoption of the IHRA definition as it implied that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is sectarian in nature.

Both Palestinian and Jewish academics have argued that the adoption of the IHRA definition undermines the fight against racism and have pointed to the context in which it was carried out – to impede campus activism challenging Israeli apartheid.

As a group of university scholars in Australia have written: “[The] IHRA definition is not only vague but also not grounded in contemporary anti-racism scholarship or practice. It treats antisemitism as if it occurs in isolation from other forms of racism and disconnects the struggle against antisemitism from the struggle against other forms of racism.”

Particularly in Australia, a settler colony, fighting racism must begin with – and be grounded in – solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Kenneth Stern, author of the definition, has explained that it was never intended to be used for this purpose of limiting what can be said at universities. Using it in this way, he wrote, is deeply harmful for all.

The IHRA is a problem not just in Australia, but across the Global North. In response to a report compiled for the #NoIHRA project, prepared by Independent Jewish Voices, Amos Goldberg, Professor of Holocaust History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem noted “how powerful, cynical and vicious the weaponization of the fight against antisemitism for silencing critique of Israel and Zionism has become”.

Censorship on campus

Even before the IHRA definition was adopted by the University of Melbourne, there were already attempts at intimidation and silencing of those who speak out against Zionism on campus.

In May 2022, the People of Colour department at the University of Melbourne’s Student Union (UMSU) passed a motion, rigorously supported by evidence gathered by international human rights organisations, that criticised political Zionism and called for participation in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Threats of a costly lawsuit from a Liberal Party member intimidated UMSU into rescinding their motion.

This tactic of lawfare has had a chilling effect on campuses, restricting political freedom. A Palestinian master’s student described to us the impact of such actions on his student experience: “I’ve been made to feel that my life and that of my people is less worthy and less valuable than that of Israeli and Zionist students on campus.”

The adoption of the IHRA definition has only further encouraged the trend of curbing the freedom of expression on campus.

For Palestinian and Muslim students and staff whose criticism of Zionism is silenced by accusations of anti-Semitism, not only is their expertise challenged but their experiences of racism are often dismissed. As one academic described to us:

“I have lived experiences of racism and Islamophobia. I know first-hand how much these actions hurt. So, I don’t take it lightly to be accused of hate or racism…. It is unfair and traumatic that those of us who have been subjects of racism are now being silenced through accusations of racism.”

Both Palestinian and Jewish students and staff are harmed by the IHRA definition’s mischaracterisation of their lived experiences. As a Jewish academic noted to us: “In the past I’ve had frivolous complaints from Zionist students about my lectures, and given what we know about complaints under IHRA overseas (that they are plentiful but “unreasonable”) there is a concern about the effects for all, most particularly Palestinians, with rising complaints. This is not the way to address anti-Semitism.”

Other academics feel a similar pressure in the classroom. One in the School of Social and Political Sciences shared that “it’s always challenging teaching in the area of political violence and it’s not always comfortable for students to critically reflect on governments or nations they might identify with, but now I am worried about having to tailor my teaching so it’s less critical to avoid being targeted and smeared with charges of anti-Semitism”.

The risks to students include the future of their education. A law student involved in a recent Gaza fundraiser that was targeted by Zionists on campus shared concerns about possible disciplinary action: “We were all apprehensive about the potential consequences organising the fundraiser would have on our enrolment at the university.”

Speaking against Israel’s justifications for the ongoing massacre of Palestinians is now cited by precariously employed academics at the University of Melbourne as yet another reason for work-related stress and anxiety.

The pushback against the IHRA definition

While students and staff at the University of Melbourne and elsewhere have been facing the added pressure of the IHRA definition, they have not stayed silent on the brutal Israeli war on Gaza.

On October 25, Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell issued a statement “concerning the Israel-Gaza war” in which he presented Israel as the injured party defending itself against an “act of terrorism committed by Hamas”. He expressed no criticism of Israel’s actions, which have been defined as amounting to genocide by legal experts.

The statement caused outrage across campus. An open letter was drafted in response and signed by more than 2,500 staff, students and alumni.

“We express our grave concern about how this misrepresentation of Israel’s genocidal attack against the people of Palestine will contribute to further loss of life in Gaza and harm to Palestinian students, staff and alumni of the University,” it stated.

The open letter also invited signatories to include a statement in their university email signature that calls on the university to rescind its adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

The public list of names in the open letter challenges the censorship instilled by the IHRA definition and aims to defend academic freedom on campus. Beyond the letter, other groups on campus also spoke up.

The criminology discipline at the University of Melbourne, for example, unified in their stance against the vice-chancellor’s statement, collectively issued a response, tweeting:

“We are particularly concerned by the conflation of criticism of Israel’s policies and actions with antisemitism, and the policing of solidarity with Palestine. As Criminology activists and scholars, we stand united against the criminalisation and silencing of the right to speak truth to power.”

It is telling that the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which has increasingly been representative of low-income casual workers, joined over 100 trade unions in Australia that came out to unequivocally condemn Israel’s bloodiest assault on Gaza.

As Palestinian trade unions call on workers internationally to escalate economic pressure by leveraging their labour power, there is an urgency for higher education workers to also go beyond verbal condemnation.

As Israel’s indiscriminate killing of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as the West Bank, continues, the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is emerging as a clear obstacle to critical scholarship and action in resisting and denouncing such atrocities. The use of this definition has no place on Australian campuses.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.