Dear Vice Chancellor, don’t let Robert Cohen bully you into failing to adopt IHRA

Dear Professor Schofield

RE: The Secretary of State’s request that Lancaster University adopts the International Holocaust Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

You have received a submission from Robert Cohen, a part-time mature student at Lancaster. Mr Cohen asks you ‘not to be bullied by Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, into adopting the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism’.

Before I critique Mr Cohen’s submission, you need to be aware of his background. He may have been born Jewish but his links with the established Jewish Community and Jewish practices are at best tenuous and possibly non-existent.   Married to a Christian Vicar, he is happy to work for the Co-Op which has a virtual complete boycott of goods from Israel, the world’s only Jewish majority nation.  Such is his drive to vilify Israel that he is even willing to besmirch the memory of Anne Frank to promote his personal Crusade.  And – appallingly – he blames Israel for antisemitism. Israel does not cause antisemitism. Antisemites cause antisemitism. If Israel had been created ten years earlier, millions of Jews might have been saved from going to the gas chamber.  Israel is a refuge from antisemitism. Only an antisemite says that Israel causes antisemitism! No wonder that Cohen opposes the IHRA Definition.  Suggesting that ‘Israel causes antisemitism’ is a blatant violation of the Definition: It is in breach of this IHRA example:  Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective.

Professor Schofield, every minority has the right to specify what offends it.  The IHRA Definition is widely accepted by Jewish representative bodies, both in the UK and internationally.

A critique of Mr Cohen’s objections to IHRA follows:

  • Mr Cohen picks up on the IHRA’s description of the Definition as ‘working’. He claims that means ‘not to be considered final or definitive in any way’.  This is nonsense. ‘Working’ in this context means a definition that institutions can *work* with, a definition that *works*. The eleven examples are included in the Definition precisely for that purpose. If the Definition had only been the first 38 words (‘Antisemitism may be expressed as hatred towards Jews’) it would be a worthy but *unworkable* tautology.
  • Mr Cohen resorts to a hackneyed argument so beloved by Corbynites: that the Definition does not include the eleven examples. That’s simply a lie.
  • Referring to the IHRA’s statement that applying the examples should take into account ‘the overall context’ Mr Cohen criticises the supposed ‘failure to evaluate any context’. But that’s the whole point about ‘context’, Professor Schofield.  It’s impossible to predict what a specific ‘context’ might be – it’s a matter of using one’s judgement in a specific case.  Take for example the person who believes there should be one government for the entire world. If s/he called for the end of the State of Israel along with all other nation states, that would obviously not be antisemitic.
  • Mr Cohen criticises this IHRA example:

    Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.

    Mr Cohen asks ‘Is national self-determination a protected right for every individual?’ Easy. Yes – provided it commits to recognising the right of its neighbours to exist and to live peacefully with them.

    What happens if its application denies another group its own national self-determination?’ he asks.  If Mr Cohen is suggesting that Israel does not permit Palestinian self-determination, this is a lie. The Palestinians have been offered a State four times including over 95%  of what they wanted at Camp David in 2000 (see Dennis Ross ‘The Missing Peace’).

    Mr Cohen asks ‘Are we confusing categories by making criticism of Jews and criticism of a nation state synonymous? To change the context, would we be comfortable saying it’s wrong for a native American to describe the creation of the United States as a racist endeavour? And if they did, would it automatically mean they are being racist towards individual Americans?

    Again it’s down to Jews to define their oppression – not down to Mr Cohen. Israel is the world’s only nation embedded in Judaism. More Jews live there than anywhere else. Religious Jews mention Israel in their prayers four times a day. Mr Cohen’s analogy regarding American Indians is irrelevant and anyway invalid.
  • Mr Cohen suggests that IHRA prevents a Palestinian studying at a British university from recounting their history. A ludicrous suggestion. IHRA simply says it’s antisemitic to deny Jews the right to self-determination in Israel; that applying double standards to Israel is antisemitic; that likening Israeli policy to Nazism is antisemitic; and that to malevolently lie about Israel is antisemitic. It is perfectly possible for a Palestinian to recount their history without crossing the line into antisemitism.
  • Mr Cohen’s next criticism can be similarly dismissed (‘Understanding of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel cannot be the exclusive right of Jewish people’).  In truth it’s ludicrous. There is no ‘official’ Jewish view of the creation of the State of Israel. Regarding the number of Arabs who were forcibly driven from their homes in 1948, for example, you will find wildly different histories, comparing Professor Karsh with Professor Pappe. That’s not what IHRA is about. Obviously.
  • Mr Cohen lied to you that Kenneth Stern was the sole author of the original IHRA text. He wasn’t. It was drawn up by the European Union Monitoring Committee on Racism and Xenophobia in 2005. The subcommittee that framed the Definition comprised national representatives of each EU Member State together with representatives of Jewish NGOs. Stern was just one member. Stern has no problem with the text of IHRA, simply with giving it legal status.  Professor Schofield, no-one is suggesting that IHRA should become law!
  • Mr Cohen suggests that the adoption of IHRA will cause ‘academics and students to self-censure themselves’.  But that’s not bad, it’s good – they should not be crossing the boundary into antisemitism, should they, Professor Schofield?  He cites as evidence a 2017 meeting at the University of Central Lancashire that was cancelled by the university administration.  Let’s look at that meeting.  It was part of ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ which is itself an antisemitic title: non-Jews have full rights in Israel. It featured as speakers Ben White who supports the dismantling of the State of Israel, itself an antisemitic policy; and Huda Ammori who is part of a group, Palestine Action, which breaks the law in order to attack Israeli-owned targets. 

    Does Mr Cohen seriously think that such a meeting should have gone ahead, in the interest of ‘free speech’?

    Maybe as part of his studies at your University he will lean about Article Ten of the European Convention of Human Rights. It states that free speech ‘carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
  • Mr Cohen suggests that the IHRA is being championed by ‘professional advocates for the State of Israel around the world’. My cheque must have got lost in the post.
  • Finally, Professor Schofield, Mr Cohen draws your attention to ‘many other concerned Jewish voices on this matter, and they write with considerable authority and expertise.’
    Let’s take a look at them, shall we? Brian Klug first (whose name Mr Cohen misspells).
  • The Toronto speech by Klug to which Mr Cohen links has a fundamental error. In discussing the sentence in IHRA which states that  ‘However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic’ Klug states that ‘it implies that excessive criticism of Israel is, in and of itself, antisemitic’.  Wrong. It’s nothing to do with the volume of criticism. It’s to do with those criticisms which are a normal part of discourse. For example, it’s not antisemitic to say that ‘the Israeli football team is rubbish’ (though it’s wrong, Scotland only won on penalties). 
  • The September 2018 paper by Anthony Lerman to which Mr Cohen links does not help his cause, because it is mostly not a criticism of IHRA.  Rather it is a history of how IHRA came to be so widely adopted.  It is also very misleading.  Lerman states that ‘Only 6 of 31 governments whose countries are members of IHRA have formally endorsed/adopted the definition.’ But the UN reported that as at August 2019, 18 countries had adopted it. By mid-2020 the total was up to 27.  (UPDATE: Around 20 October the total rose to 28 as Albania adopted).

    Lerman states ‘the UK Government adopted the definition but not the list of examples’. Simply a lie. The examples are part of the Definition and the UK has adopted it in full. Ditto his assertion that the European Parliament only adopted the first 38 words of the Definition and not the examples. A lie. Lerman asserts that the examples are not part of the Definition. A lie.
  • Lerman adduces in his support four lawyers: Hugh Tomlinson QC, Sir Stephen Sedley, Sir Geoffrey Bindman and Geoffrey Robertson.
    • Tomlinson was paid for his Opinion by opponents of the Definition – Free Speech on Israel; Independent Jewish Voices; Jews for Justice for Palestinians and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.   Hardly surprising that his Opinion opposed the Definition….
    • Sedley suggested the completely unworkable definition that “Antisemitism is hostility towards Jews as Jews”. His criticism of IHRA effectively amounts to the Livingstone Formulation. (This is the lie – beloved of antisemites – that ‘anyone who criticises the Israel government’s policies towards the Palestinians is denounced as antisemitic.’)
    • Bindman’s criticism is here.  He states ‘the IHRA definition should only be adopted if qualified by caveats making clear that it is not antisemitic to criticise the Israeli government without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent’. Of course – and it is in the Definition! (‘ …criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic’.)
    • Robertson’s Opinion was funded by the Palestine Return Centre. I fisked it here.  It  was rapidly deleted. Its worth can be deduced from Robertson’s demonstrably false statement that Israel was created  ‘to compensate for the Holocaust’.
  • Of course Lerman fails to communicate the fact that the Campaign Against Antisemitism published a supportive legal opinion regarding IHRA!
  • The third so-called ‘expert’ that Mr Cohen cites. Professor Schofield, is Professor Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. Feldman has been a longstanding opponent of the IHRA Definition and its predecessor, the EUMC Definition. He said in a lecturethere is confusion over what anti-semitism is’ and attempted to prove his point by citing a poll which found that 52% failed to agree that ‘hating Israel and questioning its right to exist is antisemitic’.   But that was 52% of EVERYONE, not just of Jews, Professor Schofield. Whereas of course it is the right of Jews to say what offends us – just as it is the right of any minority to define prejudice against itself. And the same poll says that taking only Jews, only 6% of them failed to agree that ‘hating Israel and questioning its right to exist is antisemitic’. Moreover this 6% did not disagree – they were neutral.
  • Finally Mr Cohen cites a critique of IHRA by ‘the Canadian branch of Independent Jewish Voices’. This publication is a disgrace. It contains multiple Livingstone formulations, thus:
    • the IHRA Definition is ‘a handy cudgel with which to beat back criticism of Israel
    • Seven of its [IHRA’s] eleven examples label criticism of Israel or Zionism as antisemitic.
    • The primary goal of those promoting it [the IHRA Definition] is to ban or criminalize criticism of both Israel and Zionism, along with support for Palestinian rights.
    • Labelling critics of Israel’s laws, policies or actions as antisemites is designed to divert attention from the fact that Israel is an oppressive military superpower that is occupying Palestinian lands and subjecting Palestinian citizens of Israel to a range of discriminatory laws.
  • And it contains lies as follows:
    • in 2017, the European Parliament called on all European nations to adopt the definition, but without its examples.
    • It is unclear whether the examples and notes are meant to be an integral part of the definition, or simply additional materials.
  • And look at how Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) defines antisemitism: ‘as hostility, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews because they are Jews.That is absolutely NOT what antisemitism is, Professor Schofield.  It is discrimination against Jews because they allegedly control the international banking system or allegedly sell the body parts of dead Palestinian terrorists or allegedly test weapons on Palestinian children or allegedly poison wells or allegedly bake Matzos with the blood of Christian children.  It has many manifestations and those manifestations change over time.  I refer you to this brilliant piece by Anthony Julius and Deborah Lipstadt in The Times.

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There you have it Professor Schofield. My critique is even longer than Mr Cohen’s submission to you, but I make no apology for that. The factors that determine the choice of a university by Jewish students should include things like the course content, the quality of the teaching, the reputation of the institution and the location.  They should NOT include the amount of antisemitism that s/he might encounter. But at present that is undoubtedly a factor. Fifty years ago when I was applying Manchester was the most popular choice for Jewish students. No longer. It is a matter of deep shame that Jewish students have to consider the extent of antisemitic abuse they will receive when it comes to choosing a university.

I trust that Lancaster University will soon adopt IHRA and that Mr Cohen’s submission will be filed somewhere appropriate. Happy to advise further.

Sincerely, Jonathan Hoffman MA (Oxon), MSc (LSE)
Former elected member, Defence Division, Board of Deputies of British Jews
Former Vice Chair, Zionist Federation

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Update: Useful clarification of Ken Stern’s role in the framing of the EUMC Definition (January 2021)

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