AAUP errs in taking sides on definition of anti-Semitism (opinion)

The American Association of University Teachers for a hundred years has protected its political neutrality by not taking a position on controversial issues unrelated to academic freedom. Academics on both sides of current policy debates might thus see the organization as a defender of the core principles that underpin the academy, not as an advocate of a position that would otherwise divide its members. But the organization has recently compromised the tradition that has served it well for so many decades. Worse still, the very AAUP committee that has kept and upheld this tradition—Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure—has now taken sides on a hotly debated topic it should have scrupulously avoided: the definition of academic freedom. anti-Semitism.

For more than a decade, the AAUP has had both national staff and faculty appointees with strong views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but staff and faculty leaders have largely eschewed actions or statements. who aligned the organization with their personal political views. No more. Under the pretext of opposing intrusive legislation, Committee A unnecessarily decided to reject the definition of anti-Semitism widely adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), particularly with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a completely superfluous position in relation to the real problem of legislation. interference. As a result, the national AAUP has now officially endorsed the political assault on the IHRA definition.

Committee A’s March 2022 statement titled “Legislative Threats to Academic Freedom: Redefinitions of Antisemitism and Racism” casts its critique as an objection to legislative efforts to restrict teachings on antisemitism and critical theory of racism. race in universities, citing Florida legislation as a key example. The plan to protect the university curriculum from legislative intrusion is both laudable and very much in keeping with AAUP tradition. We agree with Committee A that state legislatures should refrain from interfering in school curricula at all levels and that the definition of IHRA should not be enshrined in law. But Committee A’s decision to link the very different topics of anti-Semitism and critical race theory is misguided and appears to serve an ideological purpose the committee should not have advanced.

The committee erroneously claims that the IHRA definition “equates criticism of the policies of the State of Israel with anti-Semitism.” In fact, the IHRA definition makes it unambiguous that criticism of Israeli policies comparable to those exercised against other democratic nations is do not anti-semitic. The IHRA only states that the Jewish state must be eliminated can labeled as anti-Semitic, depending on the exact circumstances. Eliminationist claims, of course, are about Israel’s right to exist, raising questions of self-determination, not its government policies.

Committee A adds that the IHRA “prioritizes the political interests of the State of Israel and suppresses discussion and activism in the name of Palestinian rights.” It’s wrong. There are almost endless human rights violations around the world that are available for comparison and potential application to Israel and other countries in the Middle East under the principle of the IHRA. In any case, the IHRA definition itself was never intended to be a law, but only a teaching aid. The debate over Palestinian rights is not inhibited by the IHRA’s examples of the many forms that contemporary anti-Semitism can take.

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

The 2019 Florida law on which the AAUP statement focuses includes elements of the IHRA definition, which we agree is an improper exercise of government enforcement power. But the AAUP goes beyond criticism of the legislation, attacking the IHRA’s definition itself as “overly broad” and discriminatory. The slippage is more than misguided. It’s also misleading. definition of the IHRA has been adopted by more than 800 entities worldwide, including a number of governments and universities. AAUP does not explicitly oppose the adoption of the IHRA by universities, but in erroneously implying that the definition itself restricts academic freedom, the AAUP has made its opposition clear.

The politicization of the AAUP is underscored by its endorsement of the “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism,” a recent document opposing the IHRA which, as one of us has argued elsewhere, validates the anti-Zionism. The AAUP’s stated preference for the Jerusalem Declaration is gratuitous at best. Opposition to legislative constraints on academic speech in no way necessitates or warrants endorsement of the Jerusalem Declaration or any other contested definition of anti-Semitism. Florida’s statute would likely be just as reprehensible had it enshrined the committee’s favorite Jerusalem Declaration, rather than the IHRA. The committee admits that “the growth of anti-Semitism is a serious threat” – in a single half-sentence – but concludes, without explanation or reasoning, that it should not be considered “a particular form of discrimination” . Whether due to ignorance or indifference, the committee believes that anti-Semitism “can and should be treated under existing civil rights laws as religious or racial discrimination,” an observation that goes well 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 precludes consideration of discrimination against Israelis. But it also means eliminating discrimination against Jews as a people. If the Jews are not a people, their aspirations for a state of their own are largely discredited. More broadly, recognizing that anti-Semitism is a conspiracy 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 the discussion is limited to questions of race and religion. Even to understand Nazi anti-Semitism with its emphasis on race, one must understand the extent of the other theories that the Third Reich weaponized against the Jews.

Even setting aside the unique history of anti-Semitism in Western culture, it should be obvious to a knowledgeable researcher that most forms of anti-Jewish discrimination in the United States do not fit neatly into categories of religion or of race found in most legislation. Indeed, a federal court ruled in 2019 that a non-practicing Jew — a category that includes more than one million Americans — was not covered by Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination based on “sex.” , race, color, national origin and religion”. The court then ruled that Jews are protected by Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, but only because Jews were considered racially distinct at that time, a categorization that was later adopted by the Nazis. then repudiated in the United States.

There is another problem with the committee’s objection to laws treating anti-Semitism as “a special form of discrimination.” Until the United States 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. based on sex” but does not specifically address sexual orientation or gender. identify. In the meantime, many states and municipalities have admirably enacted laws and ordinances specifically protecting gay men and other LGBT+ people from discrimination in housing and employment. According to the committee’s reasoning, states should have refrained from addressing these “special forms[s] discrimination” until the courts catch up with our contemporary conception of equality. In fact, anti-LGBT+ activists regularly made arguments nearly identical to the committee’s view on anti-Semitism, opposing what they saw as “special rights” for LGBT+ people.

The risk in the AAUP polemic against the IHRA, however, is not only to disable historical understanding, but also to block understanding of the contemporary world. This understanding should take into account a broader account of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement than the generous and sympathetic one that the AAUP offers in labeling it a “peaceful form of economic and cultural protest.” It could be pointed 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 may disagree with her on the merits, while acknowledging that the AAUP has overstepped its role in weighing in on the issue. The stated mission of Committee A is to protect academic freedom and tenure. Opposition to restrictive legislation, whatever its form or substance, falls squarely within this mandate. Stating a position on the definition of anti-Semitism, however, is well beyond its mandate.

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