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Union Council votes for JDA definition of anti-Semitism

In a Union Council meeting held in the evening of 18th November, Union councillors for uea(su) have voted in favour of adopting the JDA definition of anti-Semitism, replacing the currently-used IHRA definition. 28 councillors voted to approve the motion, 7 voted to reject the motion, and 17 abstained.

Proposed by Sustainability Society Council Rep Sophie Ciurlik Rittenbaum and seconded by People of Colour Student Officer Serene Shibli Sexton, the motion suggested the SU should “adopt the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA) definition of anti-Semitism in order to prevent and categorise anti-Semitism against Jewish students and staff”. 

In an email sent to 82 Union Councillors before the meeting, student Jasmine San stated she was “writing on behalf of the UEA Jewish Society, the representative body for Jewish students at UEA, to ask [for support] in the union council meeting”. San considered the meeting to be “insulting and incredibly inappropriate”, saying “it is disgusting that this is even being debated and that non-Jewish people feel they have the right to tell us, the Jewish community, what antisemitism is”.

The decision over whether to include the email sent by San as a formal speech against the motion was approved by councillors, with other speeches in favour provided by Ciurlik Rittenbaum and Shibli Sexton. Speeches for the motion pointed to the fact that Jewish voices had been heard in the creation of both definitions of anti-Semitism, and that the JDA would allow a wider platform for a range of opinions to be heard in the debate. “To assume that Jewish people are a monolith is in itself anti-Semitic”, pointed out Ciurlik Rittenbaum. These speeches also referenced the impropriety of sending this email before the meeting, as opposed to publicly campaigning as permitted by the uea(su) byelaws, in addition to the Union Council Chair, Laura Taylor, pointing out that Jasmine San had not yet been voted in as a committee member for the Jewish Society, and could therefore not send an email on their behalf. 

Following the closing speech, there was some debate as to whether further points would be allowed to be made by San, having misinterpreted the Chair’s declaration that this would be the final chance to speak before the vote was taken. The Chair clarified “the opportunity for saying something has gone now because we’ve had all of the questions and summations. The summation is the last thing said before the vote… we called for speeches for and against and nobody said anything”. San said she thought she wasn’t allowed to give a speech at this time, believing she could only ask questions, then later confirmed she “misunderstood” the process. Then, a back and forth conversation ensued in which San asked to speak multiple times. Finally, the Chair stated: “the Chair’s ruling is final, you were given the opportunity to say whether you wanted to speak and nobody took that opportunity”, after which point the audio for both San and the Chair was cut off.

Expressions of outrage over the perceived “silenc[ing]” of San and other Jewish voices present at the meeting were made in the Teams chat. In line with Union Council housekeeping rules stated at the beginning of the meeting, in which it was made clear the chat could only be used for requests to speak or emoji reactions to previous comments, these were not discussed by the Chair. Further to the fact that they came after the closing speech of the motion, these were not acknowledged any further, and critics of the decision were invited to submit this formally to the Chair. 

Previous discussions on this issue have taken place within the UEA community, with Decolonise UEA Society and a number of other societies advocating for the adoption of the JDA earlier this year. The student groups highlighted the fact that scholars who worked to write the initial IHRA definition had advocated against its use to shut down anti-Zionist or pro-Palestinian views.

The JDA was commissioned in 2020 in response to concerns that the IHRA definition does not allow as much space to hold diverse views about the Israeli state without these being considered anti-Semitic. Around 200 academics from a wide range of institutions, backgrounds and who hold a number of views on the Israel and Palestine debate, have supported this new definition, as have other British universities including UCL.

In contrast, the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition is an established one used by a number of countries and international organisations. The working definition states that Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”. It comes with a list of examples of anti-Semitism as seen in the modern world. However, these have been contested by critics who claim they can be interpreted as restrictive for Palestinians as it may prevent them expressing their feelings or lived experiences through fear of being considered anti-Semitic.

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Emily Kelly and Dolly Carter

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