Extremism, antisemitism and our universities

Yesterday the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, Prof. Mark Scott, sent out a communication to all staff and another to all students, both stating, “during the current conflict and at all other times, we support the rights of students and staff to engage in political discourse, including by making pro-Israel and pro-Palestine statements or commentary, but we will not tolerate any pro-terrorist statements or commentary, including support for Hamas’s recent terrorist attacks.” Let’s just pause there. Breath. Even if Hamas were not listed on the Australian Government’s list of foreign terrorist organisations, which it is, there is no doubt or dispute that Hamas carried out a horrific terrorist attack targeting civilians on October 7th. Anyone promoting a narrative that seeks to condone the Hamas attacks, excuse them, or seeks to ignore them as the context to the current war, is facilitating a climate of hate and fear. They are facilitating not only extremism, but the complete breakdown of society.

Part of what shocks us with the University of Sydney statement is that the bar has been set so low. The idea that “political discourse, including by making pro-Israel and pro-Palestine statements or commentary” should be protected by freeedom of speech and academic freedom is something we fully support. That discourse, however, cannot be used as a shield for hate speech. Too many of our universities have, at the urging of certain pro-Palestinian activists, taken a very narrow understanding of antisemitism. Their understanding is so narrow, it gives a complete exemption to pro-Palestinian statements and commentary, refusing to recognise that when they incorporate antisemitic language they become antisemitic statements. It is only in this context, where antisemitism appears to be permitted, that a line is suddenly needed between advocacy and supporting terrorism. It’s absolutely vital other universities enforce at least this line, but so much more is needed.

To give another example where the line should have been clear but it took some a long time to see it: On 19 September 2023 the Adelaide Student Union finally removed the online version of an article published almost a year earlier in their magazine which called for “Death to Israel”. They also removed the social media posts sharing the article which included statements saying “Glory to the Intifada” and “Glory to the resistance”. These communications were both antisemitic and a direct promotion of terrorism. We thank them for acting, but why on earth did it taken this long? Back in January the new editors told OHPI they would be removing it. This was followed by delays and resistance as they bowed to pressure from those wanting to keep it online in the name of political advocacy. They were not willing to enforce the line between acceptable political advocacy and hate speech in the face of opposition. We need to be clear that antisemitism is never acceptable. Never. Then we need to be clear on what it is.

There is a reason 43 countries, hundreds of universities, and many other organisations have adopted the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. It is clear. It is precises. It puts the line in the right place. It’s first example of antisemitism is “Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.” That is the type of antisemitism the Vice Chancellor of Sydney is trying to call out. It is the line that was cross at Adelaide University. Some of our universities have adopted the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, some have not. The IHRA defition is the best and most widely used tool available to identify antisemitism. Whether they have adopted it or not, our universities have an obligation to get it right on antisemitism. Not adopting the IHRA definition just makes their task more difficult.

Some Australian universities, in the name of protecting free expression, have allowed a slow creep of more and more overt antisemitism. They have allowed a climate to develop in which students feel not only unsafe, but back confidence in the administrations willingness or ability to protect them. As that free expression crosses into support and justification for terrorism, and effort to protest against Israel seek to excuse or ignore the context of Hamas’ terrorist attack, the line that was crossed into antisemitism being permitted on campus can be seen far in the rear view mirror.

Update (November 3, 2023)

La Trobe university has now also sent a communication to all students and another to staff following the removal of problematic content distributed and posted on campus. The university refered to “offensive materials that could not be characterised as being part of respectful debate or political expression” and said they “do not tolerate any kind of racism, including antisemitism and Islamophobia”.

The university states they will remove content that “Depict imagery of a traumatic or graphic nature that may impact the mental health of students or staff” or “Contain language or imagery that may be considered racist or likely to incite hatred”.

The communication comes a week after Waseem Razvi, the Founder and President of Islamic Research & Educational Academy (IREA), delivered the Jumah khutba, the sermon accompanying Friday prays, at the La Trobe Bundoora campus.

Waseem describes himself on Facebook as a “Student of Knowledge (Islamic sciences & Comparative religion studies), Promoter of Peace”. In a new briefing we highlight how Waseem Razvi has refered to Jews and “apes and pigs”, posted classic antisemitism including deicide, engaged in Holocaust distortion, and sought to shield Hamas from criticism. Here’s a few examples from it:

  1. Attacking the Australian Prime Minister for expressing support for Israel after the Hamas terrorist attack

2) Engaging in a “Jews control the media” antisemitic comspiracy rant where he claims the media is a “propaganda machine” that is “fully activated by the Zionist Israeli handlers” to dismiss claims of the terrorist attack:

3) Engaging in Holocaust distortion

4) Refering to Jews as apes and pigs (a dehumanising insult that appears in Islamic scripture, e.g. al-Maa’idah 5:59-60)

5) Engaging in deicide (claiming the Jews killed Jesus).

He should not be invited back to La Trobe University, or any other university campus.