At a heated Union members’ meeting on Monday 21 January, students voted by a margin of 212 to 78 to reject the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism after an attempt at compromise was scuppered by Union regulations.
The first matter of the meeting was a Q&A with UCL Provost Michael Arthur, which was followed by a vote on prohibiting the use of iPads during student elections — a measure previously rejected at a Union meeting last January. After a debate in which no-one other than proposer Zakariya Morhan spoke, the vote still failed to reach the 75% threshold of support for an amendment to the Union’s governing documents, though the motion garnered a sizeable majority. This somehow didn’t stop the Union chair from announcing it had passed anyway. He announced his mistake at the end of the meeting.
Then came the debate on the anti-Semitism motion. Lasting a little over an hour, the atmosphere was frequently tense, at times combative, and mostly produced more heat than light.
Particular low points included the pro-IHRA speaker who claimed that the Israeli-Palestinian situation was a ‘low casualty, low-key conflict,’ and the anti-IHRA speaker who questioned why ‘we need to mention Israel when we’re talking about discrimination against Jewish people’.
Proponents of the IHRA definition argued that, in a climate of increasing hate against Jews, the lack of a codified definition of anti-Semitism left Jewish students on campus without adequate protection.
One speaker claimed that the presence of ‘certain anti-Semitic speakers who have publicly and unapologetically attacked Jews’ had led to Jews feeling unsafe on campus. He named as an example Miko Peled, an Israeli-American activist who had previously compared Zionists to Nazis, spoke on campus in November 2017 at a Friends of Palestine event. Drawing comparisons between contemporary Israeli policies and the Third Reich is considered a form of anti-Semitism under the IHRA definition.
For opponents of IHRA, the problem is that the examples of anti-Semitism in the definition are too restrictive. The example which states that calling a state of Israel a ‘racist endeavour’ amounts to denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and is therefore anti-Semitic, was a particular bone of contention. Activists claimed these examples would restrict free speech: shutting down legitimate criticism of Israel and restricting speakers that student societies could host.
Before the meeting, UCL Friends of Palestine posted to Facebook ‘The IHRA definition thus conflates anti-semitism with any criticism of the state of Israel … any criticism at UCL will be an offence,’ as part of a post encouraging its members to attend the meeting and vote against the motion. However, the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism specifically states ‘criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’
It didn’t help the debate that the room was so starkly physically divided — supporters of IHRA in one bank of seats, opponents filling out another — or that the Union-appointed impartial chair seemed more fixated on adhering to the one-minute time limit for speakers than allowing for a constructive, detailed and respectful debate.
At one point, it appeared a compromise might be reached. Speakers from both sides of the debate huddled to try to agree a definition that could be accepted by all. Eventually it was put to the chair as an amendment but, because of Union debating rules, only procedural amendments were permitted and no substantive changes could be submitted as amendments. Back to square one.
In the end it was an atmosphere more akin to a football match than a student meeting. More than once, speakers were booed and hissed for going over time. The chair’s announcement of the result, that the Union would still have no working definition of anti-Semitism, was greeted by a barrage of cheers and whoops — a surreal and somewhat grotesque end to the meeting
In the aftermath of the vote, UCL Jewish Society told The Cheese Grater that it was ‘deeply saddening’, and that ‘it should be Jewish students and Jewish students alone that define what it means to be anti-Semitic’. Representatives from UCL Friends of Palestine who spoke against the motion did not acknowledge a request for comment.
But things do not end here. Next week, the Academic Board will debate adopting the IHRA definition as a university, although UCL Council will have the final say. Should UCL adopt the definition, the Union will in effect have to adopt it too as Union and society events are held on UCL property. By all accounts, this seems likely. What isn’t clear is what practical changes this would mean in the way the Union deals with societies and external speakers — if any at all.
Additional reporting: Sasha Baker and Peter FitzSimons
Featured image: Julian Coleman
A version of this article appeared in CG 65.