Adjust size of text


Follow us and continue the conversation

Your saved articles

You haven't saved any articles

What are you looking for?

Academic freedom is a red herring when discussing antisemitism

Philip Mendes
Print this
israeli flag swastika

Published: 25 January 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Attacking the IHRA definition undermines empathy for the Jewish experience of racism, writes PHILIP MENDES.

The attack by a small group of mostly Jewish Australian academics on the IHRA definition of antisemitism is disingenuous.

It attempts to twist a debate about the most effective strategies to combat antisemitism into a debate about the separate and contentious issue of political views on Israel/Palestine.

As a number of recent Australian and global debates have showed, the intent of such attacks upon the IHRA is to undermine empathy for Jewish lived experience concerns regarding racism and prejudice.

To give one local example, the recent pro-BDS vote by a group of National Tertiary Education Union counsellors attacked the IHRA definition as an alleged threat to ‘free speech, academic freedom, and peaceful political expression’.

What nonsense. The real unstated concern of the BDS advocates was to reframe the debate away from combatting antisemitism to advancing an unrelated political agenda, that being the Palestinian nationalist cause. Their statement ignored the oft-convergence of anti-Zionism with traditional racial stereotypes of antisemitism (particularly within Corbyn’s British Labour Party) as extensively documented by a number of radical Left critics.

Another example involved the attempt by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) to publish a statement condemning antisemitism that was directly sabotaged by a coalition of Palestinian NGOs and the UK-Palestine Social Work Network.

Instead of constructively using this debate as an opportunity to educate Palestinian and Arab social workers on the need to oppose the many manifestations antisemitism in the Arab and Islamic worlds, they argued that Jewish concerns about antisemitism should be ranked as having lower priority than other arguably more deserving examples of oppression such as the Palestinians.

The red herring of the IHRA definition was introduced to imply that the BASW statement would in some way undermine the free speech of pro-Palestinian advocates, even though the BASW statement had explicitly defended legitimate criticism of Israel.

The academics who oppose the IHRA definition do not appear to have consulted with Jewish academics and students who have experienced forms of anti-Jewish discrimination and hatred. They provide no evidence that recognising and addressing those concerns will undermine academic freedom in teaching and research.

Surely if these academics think the IHRA definition is an ineffective tool for responding to antisemitism, they have a responsibility for developing positive strategies via co-design with key Jewish and other stakeholders that build on and improve that existing framework. All progressive academics, Jewish or otherwise, should ally with the victims, not the perpetrators, of antisemitism.


Academics reject antisemitism definition (The Jewish Independent)

Mebourne University has adopted IHRA antisemitism definition: This is why it’s right to do so (The Jewish Independent)

Opponents of antisemitism definition fight back (The Jewish Independent)

Photo: Protesters in the US display an Israel flag distorted with a swastika (American Jewish Committee)

About the author

Philip Mendes

Professor Philip Mendes is teaches Social Policy and the Welfare State at Monash University. He is the author or co-author of 13 books, including Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance, and Boycotting Israel is Wrong, co-authored with Nick Dyrenfurth.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

Enter site