Sheffield SU’s Palestine Society are seeking support to challenge the University’s proposed adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance  (IHRA) definition of antisemitism on the grounds that it could infringe on other minorities’ rights to freedom of expression.

In a statement, the Palestine Society criticised the University for “rushing” through the adoption of the IHRA definition and shortening the consultation period that was promised to the Jewish community and other stakeholders. 

The University of Sheffield Students’ Union already adopted the definition in 2018. Now, Jewish students are looking for the natural progression of events to be the University’s adoption. 

The Palestine Society statement reads: “We strongly believe that the document makes a poor contribution towards tackling antisemitism; it generates further marginalisation and discrimination rather than tackling it; and is a threat to freedom of speech and of scholarly inquiry.

“While some of the IHRA’s ‘illustrations’ of antisemitism are easy to understand and unambiguous, others, which relate to Israel and Zionism, refer to highly contested historical and political issues. 

“We believe that these illustrative examples, if adopted by our University, will lead to serious implications for, as previously stated, freedom of speech, academic study, as well as the ability for Palestinian students to express their identity, understand their historical heritage, and campaign for their political and national rights.

“We do not deny the benefits of adopting a definition of antisemitism, nor do we deny that anyone should want the possible protection that a definition could provide, we believe that it is the right of minority groups to be able to define the nature of the oppression they face. However, this should not be achieved in a way that silences the ongoing struggle for liberation of another minority group, in this case, the Palestinian people.

“We believe in the intersectionality of struggle for freedom, and value of all oppressed groups working together to address unfairness, prejudice and discrimination in all societies.”

The society insists that at the very least, there should be a reasonable time frame for consultation on the definition as was first agreed upon by the University. 

The statement continues: “By adopting this definition, the University would be silencing academics and marginalising students who seek to hold Israel accountable and advocate for the rights of Palestinians, and would be impacting the freedom of speech of many minorities on campus – a vital component of any respected university.”

Last year, Sheffield city recognised Palestine as a state, making it the first city in the UK to do so. The Palestine Society therefore believes that if the definition was adopted this would contradict the city’s longstanding show of support for Palestine by “silencing any legitimate criticism against the state of Israel.”

Zaid, a 21-year-old International Law and Global Justice student, said: “As a third-generational Palestinian refugee, I believe that societies such as ours, around the UK, are an integral voice to Palestinians all over the world.

“Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza do not have their issues given any attention in the respective territories. 

“Taking away the voices of activists here in the UK, by implementing the vague IHRA definition, will manage to silence Palestinians even further.

“We believe we must retain our right to criticize Israel’s military actions, as we could criticize any nation that is complicit in human rights violations and that the IHRA definition would make it difficult to do so.”

Caroline, a 24-year-old Politics and Philosophy student said: “My main concern is regarding the conflation of critique of the state of Israel and the human rights violations they commit, to antisemitic behaviour.

“As someone involved in political campaigning for justice for Palestinians I could have my right to freedom of expression limited.

“Therefore, what I have experienced as an observer in Palestine will not be accepted as legitimate critique of state policies but made into hate speech. That frightens me deeply.”

The Arab, Islamic, British Asian and Student Labour Society have all signed the statement in support of Palestine Society. 

A spokesperson for Islamic Circle Society said: “We have always supported the University’s policies of battling all forms of discrimination. However, prioritising the IHRA definition would mean that the University has breached its own policies as it would marginalise minorities and certain religious groups. Hence, we strongly support the Palestine society’s decision.”

But Jewish students are divided on the issue.

Ben Southern-Thomas, a Jewish student studying Politics and International Relations, told Forge Press: “I take antisemitism incredibly seriously and it is for this reason that I vehemently oppose the University’s proposed adoption of the IHRA definition. 

“No one seriously believes that the British Government, which presided over Windrush and Grenfell, has any commitment to anti-racism, so the attempt to force universities to adopt the IHRA definition must therefore have a political motive, that motive is to silence legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism. 

“The cynical deployment of ‘antiracism’ as a shield to advance specific political ends, undermines the real fight against antisemitism, something I know all too well from constantly having to explain the realities of antisemitism to my peers. 

“You can’t fix a lack of understanding by muddying the waters further and that’s exactly what the IHRA definition does. 

“The University is responding to political pressure brought by the Tory government and as such, make it clear that they care more about kowtowing to Boris Johnson than genuinely fighting antisemitism.”

However The Jewish society, in a statement supported by the Union of Jewish Students, told Forge Press: “The IHRA definition provides a legal definition of antisemitism as it was adopted in 2016 by the Government of the United Kingdom, all major political parties and was further adopted by 26 other authorities and 35 UK universities.

“It does not infringe on freedom of speech, only protects the Jewish community from being victims of hate speech and racism. 

“Both the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK Human Rights Act 1998 state that freedom of expression may be subject to restrictions in the interest of public safety and the protection of rights of others.

“As Jews, we should be able to define antisemitism the same way any other minority defines their oppression and we support all other minority groups in combatting discrimination and racism on campus. 

“Universities are a place of debate and discussion, but also students have the right to feel safe on campus and the IHRA definition allows for both.”

A spokesperson from the University of Sheffield, said: “The University has been consulting widely on the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism ahead of a December deadline set by the Universities Minister. 

“During this consultation, feedback has been received from all the faculties via the respective Faculty Directors of the University’s Equality Diversity and Inclusion Committee (EDIC), the University Race Equality Steering Group, the University Chaplaincy, the Student Jewish Society, the Student Palestine Society, the Students’ Union, UCU and staff involved in research and teaching on the middle east, including on Israel and Palestine.

“Alongside this, a working group set up by EDIC has started a listening process on equality, diversity, inclusion and religion and belief identities with our community, including our Jewish staff and student groups, which will continue into March 2021. Important findings from this group will be used to inform the development of a University strategy and action plan in relation to religion and belief. 

“The University of Sheffield is committed to tackling anti-semitism and all forms of discrimination. When developing new policies, processes and structures, Sheffield takes an approach that fully engages our student and staff communities to foster an inclusive environment where new policies can be fully implemented while still preserving freedom of expression.”

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