Why Labour should not adopt the full IHRA guidance – by its author

As the Labour Party weighs up whether to write the IHRA guidance on antisemitism into its legally enforceable code of conduct, it might like to know that there have been two attempts to write the IHRA code into American law. Both failed.

They failed largely because Kenneth Stern, the main author of what became the IHRA guidance, urged members of Congress not to adopt the Anti-Semitism Awareness Bill which would put his code on the statute book.

Here’s what he wrote in his evidence to Congress:

“I write as the lead author of the [IHRA’s] definition of antisemitism to encourage you not to move the Anti-Semitism Awareness Bill which essentially incorporates that definition into law for a purpose that is both unconstitutional and unwise.

“If the definition is so enshrined, it will actually harm Jewish students and have a toxic effect on the academy.

“The worst way to address [antisemitism] it is to create a de facto hate speech code, which is what this Bill proposes to do.

“In 2011 I co-wrote an open letter (together with the President of the American Association of University Professors and on behalf of the American Jewish Committee) outlining how the definition was being abused .. in an attempt to restrict academic freedom and punish political speech. I remain convinced that the arguments advanced in it were correct.

“The definition was never intended to be used to limit speech on a college campus; it was written for European data collectors to have a guideline for what to include and what to exclude in reports.

“Some [of those] who urged the University of California to adopt the definition were clear that they saw it as a vehicle to stop anti-Israel speech, including promotion of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.

“I disagree with BDS,.. but it is wrong to say that BDS is inherently a form of antisemitism. Even if it were, it would be improper to try to censor pro-BDS campus activity, which is political speech and should be answered by more speech and education, not by suppression.

“If this Bill is passed, its proponents will have the ability to threaten [US Government] funding at colleges and universities where political speech against Israel occurs, and where administrators then don’t try to stop it, or fail to put the university on record [as] calling such speech antisemitic.

“Think of the precedent this would set.

  • If denying the right of Israel to exist is enshrined as antisemitism by law, would Congress then pass parallel legislation defining opposition to a Palestinian state as anti-Palestinianism?
  • Would it adopt a definition of racism, perhaps including opposition to affirmative action?
  • Would it pass laws defining Islamophobia, anti-LGBT animus, anti-immigrant bias, anti-white bias, etc.?
  • And if campus political speech cannot employ “double standards,” does this mean that political speech against China or Russia or the US which doesn’t employ parallels against other countries might someday be legally suspect too?

“I have been writing about how to address campus bigotry for over 25 years and trained more than 200 college and university presidents on how to engage [with] this issue on their campuses. In my view, this legislation – which is a direct affront to academic freedom – will make the situation on campus worse.

[In a footnote he suggested it would be a better approach for a university to conduct surveys of students, review their curriculum, hold more classes on antisemitism, on hatred, on how to discuss difficult issues, on how to engage [with] the conflicting narratives about Israel and Palestine, etc]

“This legislation is intended to have a negative impact on academic freedom and free speech. Pro-Israel activists will suffer in the aftermath, because they will be seen as trying to suppress speech with which they disagree.”

“There are many things a university can and should do to address antisemitism and other forms of hatred. Imposing a definition of antisemitism makes those steps less likely to be taken, because administrators will default to discouraging and suppressing speech, fearful that if they don’t outside groups will pressure them to do so, using [anti-discrimination legislation] as a threat or a weapon.”

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