The decision of the Academic Board at University College London (UCL) to demand that the institution rescind its adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is tragedy and farce in one. A tragedy because the first English university to admit Jews has now positioned itself as an international beacon of antisemitism denial and promotion. A farce because the whole one-year procedure has resulted in exactly what everyone knew would be the outcome all along.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism has been endlessly debated, and it has been years since anyone has been able to come up with new arguments in the matter. In this particular case, the pointlessness of the entire exercise, which one hesitates to call a fig leaf lest one insult fig leaves, was reflected from the outset with unusual clarity in the name of the working group “on racism and prejudice”: antisemitism did not even feature.
One of the greatest problems currently faced by those who seek to combat antisemitism results from the commonplace but erroneous assumption that antisemitism is a form of racism — which it is not. As early as the 1940s, the pioneers of serious research into antisemitism stressed the crucial distinctions between antisemitism and racism, and this distinction has underpinned some of the most important and original research in the field — all of which the working group has not engaged with or tried to refute, but simply ignored out of hand.
The misunderstanding that antisemitism can be treated as a form of racism results in part from the preoccupation of the Nazis with race. It results in part from the fact that relevant legislation lists religions and “races” as the only two protected categories that can reasonably be used to decry antisemitism. Consequently, Jews tend to fall through the cracks, given that they rarely fit neatly into either of these categories. It results in part from the fact that we live in a world in which many would have us believe that race explains everything, and few things are capable of arousing outrage and harnessing support in the same way as recourse to race.
While those actually intent on combating antisemitism none too surprisingly have a hard time trying to find the right medication while misdiagnosing the ailment, for those with other intentions, insisting on the veracity of that misdiagnosis is an excellent way of obstructing attempts to confront antisemitism.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism — which always means the vague general formula in conjunction with the specific examples that come with it — does exactly what it says on the tin. It establishes some absolutely basic standards for the identification of antisemitic acts (utterances are always also acts). It is basically the equivalent of a set of house rules that suggests you ought to wash your hands after using the bathroom and should preferably refrain from striking your housemates in the face or burning the house down — standards, in other words, that should go without saying but, unfortunately, do not.
In short: there is nothing inherently controversial about the IHRA definition of antisemitism. That it succeeds in annoying people to such an extent that they devote their time to campaigning against it confirms how much we need it, and shows that it is doing its job pretty well. The moment one tries to engage with its opponents’ claims about the definition’s supposedly problematic nature, one has already lost half the war.
In the context of antisemitism, “the term ‘problem,’” to quote Adorno, “is taken over from the sphere of science and is used to give the impression of searching, responsible deliberation. By referring to a problem one implicitly claims personal aloofness from the matter in question — a kind of detachment and higher objectivity. This, of course, is an excellent rationalization for prejudice. It serves to give the impression that one’s attitudes are not motivated subjectively but have resulted from hard thinking and mature experience.”
Needless to say, antisemites have no problem with being antisemites. Many do, however, have a problem with being called antisemites.
It is worth pointing out what a remarkable historical anomaly this is. Western and Islamic civilization alike have a rich history of defining truly moral conduct and best practice in contrast to “the Jews.” Only since the Shoah has there, temporarily, been a suggestion that what we might now bracket under the umbrella term antisemitism is not an acceptable opinion, but a particularly problematic position best kept under wraps.
This taboo is now rapidly eroding, but as long as it is still partially in force, most antisemites continue to feel the need to keep protesting against the contention that they are antisemites. Against this backdrop, outright expressions of antisemitism have lost a great deal of their spontaneity, and educated antisemites in particular never tire of trying to demonstrate that their ostensible sophistication sets them apart from a position as crude as antisemitism. Hence the need to set up a working group and publish a long report to justify what its authors and their colleagues knew they thought all along. Yet, to quote Hannah Arendt, “We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives … For politics is not like the nursery.”
Only at the point at which antisemites object to being called antisemites, does the issue of free speech come into this whole debate. It is the antisemites who want to curtail free speech, namely, the rights of those who would call them out on their antisemitism. Sartre was spot-on, when he stated categorically that, “I refuse to characterize as opinion a doctrine that is aimed directly at particular persons and that seeks to suppress their rights or to exterminate them. … Antisemitism does not fall within the category of ideas protected by the right of free opinion.”
Lars Fischer is a scholar of antisemitism and runs The History Practice in Berlin.