Academics criticise rectors’ anti-Semitism resolution

A resolution adopted by German university heads condemning anti-Semitism at higher education institutions has come under fire for allegedly jeopardising academic freedom and acting as a pretext for banning public criticism of Israel’s Palestine policy.

Prompted by an incident involving a right-wing extremist attack on a synagogue in Halle in east Germany in October, the German Rectors’ Conference or Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (HRK), representing the heads of German universities, adopted a resolution at its members’ assembly in Hamburg welcoming the “working definition” of anti-Semitism presented by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)*, recommending its establishment “at all university locations”.

The IHRA defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and-or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

A “working definition” based on that of the IHRA, that was recently chosen by Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, adds that “the State of Israel, understood as a Jewish collective, can be the target of such attacks”. This additional statement is also quoted by the HRK, although the IHRA itself explicitly only refers to its content as an illustration of how anti-Semitism could express itself, not as part of its definition.

An open letter from Norman Paech, University of Hamburg retired professor of law, supports the HRK’s condemnation of anti-Semitism but maintains that it has “taken the wrong course” in adopting the IHRA’s working definition of the term.

Paech notes that the definition does not, as the HRK claims, provide “a clear and straightforward basis to recognise hatred against Jews”. He argues that it fails to clarify what perception of Jews it is referring to, and is also critical of the second sentence in the definition, which, he maintains, can for example serve to “classify a critique of finance capitalism as anti-Semitic, given that Jews have historically always been identified with the financial system”.

Paech points out that the reference to Israel in the “working definition” adopted by the HRK ignores that 20% of Israel’s population are not Jewish, and he criticises that it implicitly condemns criticism of Israel’s government and its policy on Palestine.

“It is particularly the anti-Semitism definition now adopted by the HRK that acts as a pretext for the increasingly intolerable banning of events and refusals to make public (including university) rooms available for critical debates on the Palestine conflict,” Paech writes.

In another open letter addressed to HRK President Peter-André Alt and titled “Einspruch” (Objection), Georg Meggle, founding president of the German Society for Analytic Philosophy and now visiting professor of philosophy at various universities in Cairo, fully agrees with the HRK that in Germany universities should be “centres of democratic culture and places of dialogue and diversity” where there should be “no room for anti-Semitism”, and that they bear a “special, historic responsibility to combat all forms of anti-Semitism”.

However, Meggle sharply rejects the HRK’s welcoming of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism and recommending having it established at all institutions.

Definition ‘inadequate’

Apart from criticising the HRK for prescribing to its members which definition of anti-Semitism they are supposed to apply in debates on the issue, Meggle refers to the definition itself as “at best inadequate”. And he claims that the convention of speech the HRK prescribes is in direct violation of the role as places of dialogue that it assigns to universities in the resolution itself.

“For, as the application of the controversial ‘working definition’ as a means of justifying bans on discussions and lectures in public facilities demonstrates, its chief purpose is definitely not that of opposing any form of anti-Semitism, but primarily of delegitimising any more fundamental criticism of Israel’s occupation policy, especially when such criticism is guided by human rights and international law considerations”.

Meggle’s ‘objection’ has received backing from numerous university professors in Germany.

* The IHRA non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism states: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and-or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The first of the examples that the IHRA provides to serve as illustrations states: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

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Reader's Comment

I read with considerable concern the article entitled “Academics criticise rectors’ anti-Semitism resolution” dated 6/12/19. The article quotes two German academics who appear to be German philosophers. All academics, myself included, subscribe to academic freedom and as citizens of democracies we all enjoy freedom of speech, too. Furthermore, people around the world should strive for freedom. However, as Germans we also have a historic responsibility to call out anti-Semitism in all its forms. This applies particularly in Germany where there is rising anti-Semitism, which is regrettably currently occurring in other European countries as well.
Professor Juergen Reichardt, Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, James Cook University, Australia.