I met my husband long ago at Cornell University Hillel events. One event celebrated what looked like the success of the Israel-Palestinian peace process. It was part of the Oslo Accords and, in October 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. It was a sunny, warm day, but things have shifted often since then. These are thorny political issues, but one can hope.
I recently completed studying the talmudic tractate of Pesachim. When finishing a tractate, one says a prayer called Hadran. It ends with Kaddish, much like what’s said at any Jewish service. It ends with praying for peace. We have lots of prayers for peace.
Meanwhile, my husband, now a biology professor, asked me to look at a motion from his faculty union. It claimed a deep concern with academic freedom. The motion proposed rejecting the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. (The IHRA stands for International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.) This motion theoretically responded to a student union motion that supported the IHRA’s definition. Many countries, including Canada, have adopted the IHRA’s working definition.
The politics behind this are tangled. Many on the political left suggest that to truly support truth and reconciliation and BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Colour), one must support all Indigenous movements worldwide. According to this argument, Palestinians must be supported as the sole true Indigenous people – against the colonial-settler narrative of Israel. There are issues with this position. One is that Britain is the colonial power whose actions helped lead to the creation of Israel. Also, Jews have been indigenous to, or lived in what is now, Israel for thousands of years.
There are practical consequences when universities debate these topics. North American Jews are a minority. This vote, which affects us, is one where we have no majority voting power. We rely on non-Jews to advocate for us and support anti-discrimination guidelines. We often must confront those who feel these definitions threaten them intellectually – while we’re feeling threatened in reality.
Jewish students on campus feel attacked. Jewish academics are forced to step up and speak out. In some cases, Jewish professors and students face discrimination as a result of this advocacy.
Just before Passover this year, at a special meeting, the faculty union put forth its agenda. The meeting agenda was to consider this motion that opposes the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism. Those attending the meeting wouldn’t approve the agenda. (Note that approving the agenda is usually not a big deal.) Without an agenda, the motion couldn’t go forward. There was no vote.
Some attendees suggested that the entire union membership should vote. First though, they said, this motion should be considered by the cultural diversity and academic freedom committees. In the end? This meeting’s outcome just puts off the problem for the Jewish community.
Multiple professors in relevant fields spoke out against this motion, which opposed using a working definition of antisemitism. Behind the scenes, the local Jewish federation got involved. The motion was problematic – and it’s still out there. It could be voted on at another meeting, potentially one with even less notice or publicity.
It’s particularly troublesome that those voting on whether one can use the IHRA definition at this university in teaching or research aren’t all relevant experts. Most aren’t professors in religious studies, Jewish studies, Holocaust studies, Near Eastern studies. Most of the voting representatives won’t be Jewish. In their argument to maintain “academic freedom,” they’re proposing to limit the freedoms of colleagues. This limits others’ right to use whatever definitions they prefer when they speak about anti-Jewish discrimination.
There’s a bigger argument here. If Canadian universities want to show ally-ship with Indigenous communities and to be partners in truth and reconciliation, the way is clear. It starts much closer to home. Stand with Canada’s Indigenous peoples on the issues that matter to them. For instance, pressure the government to provide all Canadians with clean drinking water. Support Indigenous students at universities. Hire and appoint Indigenous peoples (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) to academic positions. The list is long. To start, read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 calls to action.
None of these feuds are new. My husband and several other Jewish professor friends spent a lot of time on how to address this motion. This is “their” problem because they’re Jewish, but not because this is in their fields of research.
This gut-wrenching position is familiar. Does supporting academic freedom mean that antisemitism is up for discussion? It shouldn’t mean this, but antisemitic incidents are on the rise. Freedom of speech shouldn’t mean danger to minority students and professors.
Complexity isn’t resolved easily. Delving into these issues without lots of prior knowledge reflects badly on this faculty union and, by extension, the university. Smart people know there aren’t easy answers to entrenched political problems. Motions such as this one show a lack of rigour.
Canadian university professors should be sophisticated enough to know that complex issues aren’t resolved by simply opposing a working definition. It’s useless virtue signaling. Just as it shouldn’t be up to Black people or Indigenous people to fight every battle without allies, we, as Jewish people, shouldn’t have to keep fighting these battles alone over how to define antisemitism.
My husband and I met with a hope for peace. We care about human rights, but this union issue just seems to be wasting time during a pandemic. Opposing this working definition that protects a minority population, because it could possibly affect free speech? This really isn’t what a biology professor wants to be doing at work – even if he’s Jewish.
If Canadians care about peace, truth and reconciliation, and about the well-being of all people, we shouldn’t be attacking one group to elevate others. We shouldn’t have to keep fighting over definitions about discrimination against minorities.
Perhaps, we can leave the global political issues and their definitions up to the relevant experts. For us, it might be simple: we should show up to care for one another with respect instead. Advocate for better conditions close to home: safety without discrimination, fresh food, clean water, housing security, and economic and social supports. Even at their preschool, my children learned about key Jewish concepts like “Shalom Ba-bayit.” In other words, peace and tolerance start at home.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.