Two of Britain’s leading experts on antisemitism clashed last night during a fiery Limmud debate on the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.
Over 350 participants watched John Mann, the Government’s Independent Adviser on Antisemitism, spar with David Feldman, the director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism.
Feldman opened the debate, arguing that the definition was “effective symbolically but in all other respects ill-conceived and outdated”, pressing the need “to do better than this”.
He argued that as a “working document” where the perception of the accused is critical, the IHRA definition “provides weaker protection than equality legislation”, which by comparison relies more on the victim’s perception.
The Birkbeck College professor added that the working definition “carries a danger”, since its supporters “cannot agree what it says”, which leaves it open to opposition.
The definition also “omits significant aspects of contemporary antisemitism and is silent on the threat from the Far Right,” he noted.
John Mann countered, arguing that the “very strength” of the IHRA definition was its “non-legal status”.
“Simply relying on criminal law sets too high a threshold for dealing with any form of discrimination. The point of the working definition is that it allows cases to be looked at in their context, without having to go through formal disciplinary procedures or involving the police.”
The former Labour MP cited the example of a university lecturer singling out the only Jewish student to ask them why Israelis were attacking disabled Palestinians in the West Bank.
“That’s not illegal, but it doesn’t make it acceptable,” he noted.
Mann also retorted Feldman’s claim that free speech was being stifled, arguing that there had not been a single case of academic freedoms being curtailed by an institution which had adopted the IHRA definition.
Since 2016, the IHRA working definition of antisemitism has been adopted by 25 countries, including the UK Government, as well as numerous football clubs, universities and political parties.
During a lively Q&A, chaired by JW3’s chief executive, Raymond Simonson, James Harris, the UJS President, asked about the role of Jewish students in deciding whether the IHRA definition should be adopted.
Both figures agreed that what Jewish students thought about antisemitism was important, though Feldman argued that “since IHRA cannot be decisive, the numerous subjective views will lead us into chaos”.
Mann disagreed, however, stating that “self-identification gets to the heart of why some people don’t like the definition- it empowers someone to identify as a proud Zionist.
“That’s a strength of the IHRA definition, which seems to upset some people.”
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