AAUP errs in taking sides on defining antisemitism (opinion)

The American Association of University Professors for a hundred years has protected its political neutrality by not taking positions on controversial topics unrelated to academic freedom. Academics on both sides of current political debates could thus see the organization as a defender of the core principles undergirding the academy, not as an advocate for a position that would otherwise divide its membership. But the organization has recently compromised the tradition that has served it well for so many decades. Worse, the very AAUP committee that has guarded and sustained that tradition—Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure—has now taken sides on a hotly contested topic it should have scrupulously avoided: the definition of antisemitism.

For more than a decade, the AAUP has had both national staff and faculty appointees with strong views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but both staff and faculty leaders have largely avoided actions or statements that aligned the organization with their personal political views. No more. In the guise of opposing intrusive legislation, Committee A has needlessly decided to reject the widely adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, especially as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a completely superfluous stance to the actual problem of interference. The national AAUP as a result has now officially endorsed the political assault on the IHRA definition.

Committee A’s March 2022 statement “Legislative Threats to Academic Freedom: Redefinitions of Antisemitism and Racism” frames its critique as an objection to efforts to restrict teachings on antisemitism and critical race theory in universities, citing Florida legislation as a key example. The project of protecting the university curriculum from intrusion is both laudable and entirely in keeping with AAUP tradition. We agree with Committee A that state legislatures should refrain from interfering in school curricula at any level, and that the IHRA definition should not be written into law. But Committee A’s decision to link the very different topics of antisemitism and critical race theory is misguided and appears to serve an ideological goal the committee should not have advanced.

The committee inaccurately claims that the IHRA definition “equites criticism of the policies of the state of Israel with antisemitism.” In fact, the IHRA definition unambiguously specifies that criticism of Israeli policies comparable to those levied against other democratic nations is not antisemitic; IHRA only stipulates that demands the Jewish state be eliminated can qualify as antisemitic, depending on the exact circumstances. Eliminationist demands, of course, address Israel’s right to exist, raising issues of self-determination, not its government policies.

Committee A adds that IHRA “privileges the political interests of the state of Israel and suppresses discussion and activism on behalf of Palestinian rights.” That is untrue. There are nearly infinite human rights abuses throughout the world that are available for comparison and potential application to Israel and other Middle East nations under the IHRA principle. In any case, the IHRA definition itself was never intended to be law, but only an educational aid. The debate about Palestinian rights is not inhibited by IHRA’s examples of the many forms contemporary antisemitism can take.

Committee A further asserts, without links or citations, that the IHRA definition has led to the “cancellation of university courses and conferences” and “targeting faculty members in Middle East studies.” If true, that would be a basis for objecting to the weaponization of the definition (as we do), but not a valid criticism of the definition itself. Any statement of principles can be misused by extremists.

The 2019 Florida statute that the AAUP statement centers on does include elements of the IHRA definition, which we agree is an inappropriate exercise of governmental enforcement power. But the AAUP goes beyond criticizing the legislation, attacking the IHRA definition itself as “overly broad” and discriminatory.” The slippage is more than ill-advised. It is also deceptive. The IHRA definition has been adopted by more than 800 entities worldwide, including a number of governments and universities. The AAUP does not explicitly oppose university adoption of IHRA, but by falsely implying the definition itself restricts academic freedom, the AAUP has made its opposition clear.

The AAUP’s politicization is underscored by its endorsement of the “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism,” a recent document opposing IHRA that, as one of us has argued elsewhere, validates anti-Zionism. The AAUP’s stated preference for the Jerusalem Declaration is gratuitous at best. Opposition to constraints on university speech does not remotely necessitate or justify approval of the Jerusalem Declaration or any other contending definition of antisemitism. The Florida statute would presumably be equally objectionable had it enshrined the committee’s preferred Jerusalem Declaration, rather than the IHRA. The committee does allow that the “growth of antisemitism is a severe threat”—in a single, half sentence—but concludes, without explanation or reasoning, that it should not be considered “a special form of discrimination.” Whether due to ignorance or indifference, the committee opines that antisemitism “can and should be addressed under existing civil rights laws as religious or race discrimination,” an observation that goes far beyond its expertise and has no bearing on academic freedom.

The committee’s statement makes no reference to legal prohibitions on discrimination based on national origin, a choice that excludes consideration of discrimination against Israelis. But that also results in discrimination directed against Jews as a people. If Jews are not a people, their aspirations for a state of their own are largely discredited. More broadly still, recognizing that antisemitism is a conspiratorial theory that purports to explain the world—the course of modern history, the hidden manifestations of Jewish power, the relations between nations, the struggle between good and evil—is impossible if discussion is limited to issues of race and religion. Even understanding Nazi antisemitism with its emphasis on race requires understanding the breadth of other theories the Third Reich weaponized against Jews.

Even putting aside the unique history of antisemitism in Western culture, it should be obvious to a well-informed scholar that most forms of anti-Jewish discrimination in the United States do not fit neatly into either the religion or race categories found in most legislation. Indeed, a federal court held in 2019 that a nonpracticing Jew—a category that includes more than a million Americans—was not covered by Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of “sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.” The court went on to rule that Jews are protected by Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, but only because Jews were considered distinctly distinct in that era, a categorization that was later adopted by the Nazis and later repudiated in the United States.

There is a further problem with the committee’s objection to laws treating antisemitism as “a special form of discrimination.” Until the US Supreme Court’s Bostock decision in 2020, it was unclear whether gay and transgender people were covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex” but does not specifically address sexual orientation or gender identity. In the interim, many states and municipalities admirably enacted statutes and ordinances specifically protecting gay and other LGBT+ individuals from discrimination in housing and employment. By the committee’s reasoning, states should have refrained from addressing such “special form[s] of discrimination” until the courts caught up to our contemporary understanding of equality. In fact, anti-LGBT+ routinely made arguments almost identical to the committee’s view of antisemitism, objecting to what they consider “special rights” for LGBT+ people.

The risk in the AAUP’s polemic against IHRA, however, is not only that it disables historical understanding but that it also blocks understanding of the contemporary world. That would have to accommodate a broader account of the boycott, divestment and understanding movement than the generous and sympathetic one the AAUP offers in characterizing it as a “peaceful form of economic and cultural protest.” One might point out that BDS advocates support academic boycotts, which the AAUP still officially opposes.

The IHRA definition has its shortcomings, as do all statements on complex issues. Readers can disagree with it on the merits, while still recognizing that the AAUP has overstepped its role by weighing in on the issue. Committee A’s stated mission is to protect academic freedom and tenure. Opposition to restrictive legislation, whatever its form or substance, is well within that remit. Asserting a position on the definition of antisemitism, however, extends far beyond its warrant.

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