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La Trobe University strikes a compromise on IHRA definition 

Michael Visontay
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La Trobe Uni strikes a compromise on IHRA definition

Published: 15 August 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

La Trobe has struck out on its own, neither fully adopting the antisemitism definition nor fully rejecting it.

La Trobe University has decided to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism - but without the definition’s 11 examples.

The university fears the examples “could pose potential limitations to academic freedom and reasonable political debate which could be misclassified as antisemitic behaviour”.

The examples are controversial because they include language about Israel which the definition classes as antisemitism, such as comparing Israel’s policy to that of the Nazis or requiring behaviour from Israel not expected of other democratic countries.

La Trobe’s decision follows a raft of other decisions by Australian universities this year in relation to the IHRA definition. It is the first to adopt the definition in a modified form.

In a letter dated August 10, La Trobe Vice-Chancellor John Dewar said that in addition to the IHRA definition, the university would also adopt the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) guidelines, “which the university considers will best support academic freedom and reasonable political debate”.

The Jerusalem definition also contains examples of Israel statements considered antisemitic but also specifically excludes criticism of Israel or calls for boycotts as examples of antisemitism.

Professor Dewar was responding to an approach by Robin Margo, on behalf of three Jewish advocacy groups - Partners for Peace, Australian Jewish Democratic Society, Jewish Voices for Peace & Justice (NSW). Margo made his initial approach to La Trobe in January.

“At the heart of the university’s consideration of this matter was our wish to publicly condemn antisemitic behaviour and support those who may experience antisemitic behaviour, while simultaneously upholding our obligation as a public institution to preserve free speech and academic freedom across our campus network,” Professor Dewar wrote.

He said La Trobe would also “review previous allegations or concerns of antisemitic behaviour and assess [its] ability … to respond”, and “develop an anti-racism strategy, and through this process explore the adoption of definitions of islamophobia, cultural safety and freedom of speech or expression”.

La Trobe’s decision regarding the IHRA definition echoes the response of a prominent English college – Goldsmiths College at the University of London. “[This college] elected to adopt the IHRA definition without the examples, while also adopting the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia,” Professor Dewar wrote to Robin Margo in January.

“[It] chose to adopt the two definitions of antisemitism to reflect the views of the college’s academic community, and to provide greater scope when considering potential issues of antisemitism,” he said.

In January, the University of Melbourne became the first institution to publicly announce it would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition.  Monash University, Macquarie University, Sunshine Coast University and the University of Wollongong  have since adopted the definition.

In April, the University of Adelaide said it would not adopt the IHRA definition. In a statement released to announce its decision, the university said “we proudly encourage critical thinking and respectful debate. Freedom of speech is a right everyone holds, subject to the law. The right to express lawful views about controversial matters is at the heart of a robust democracy. It is also the essence of academic freedom.”

The Australian National University also decided not to adopt the IHRA definition, saying it felt that “it has sufficient protections and measures in place to help prevent and respond to any form of discrimination within its existing policies and procedures”.

The University of Sydney has not yet made a decision.

What does City University of New York controversy say about antisemitism, censorship? (Al-Monitor)
Strong pro-Palestinian activism at the school has prompted an ongoing debate over antisemitism and criticism of Israel. One antisemitism expert says the rhetoric of pro-Palestinian activists is not necessarily bigoted.

About the author

Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is the Commissioning Editor of TJI. He has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years. Michael is the author of several books, including Who Gave You Permission?, co-authored with child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks, and Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West.

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.

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