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Avi Shlaim slams UK government over 'shameful legacy' of support for Israel

Oxford historian says efforts to push IHRA antisemitism definition on universities are part of a long history of support for Zionism
Shlaim has called for British universities to resist the threat to their autonomy posed by government's efforts to push them to adopt the IHRA definition (AFP)

An "unbroken thread of moral myopia, hypocrisy, double standards and skulduggery" connects British policy on Palestine, from Lord Balfour to Boris Johnson, Avi Shlaim, a leading British-Israeli historian, writes in Middle East Eye on Monday.

Shlaim's seminal and authoritative essay, exploring more than a century of British support for Zionism and Israel and the corresponding erasure of Palestinian rights, is published at a time when universities in the UK are under mounting pressure from the government to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) controversial working definition of antisemitism.

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Shlaim, emeritus professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, describes the UK government's adoption of the definition in 2016 as squarely in the British tradition of partisanship on behalf of Zionism and Israel and disdain for the rights of Palestinians.

"The Conservative Party and its leaders are the standard-bearers of this shameful legacy of unqualified British support for Israel and indifference to Palestinian rights," he writes.

In 50 years as a university teacher, Shlaim says he has "not come across a more vacuous or useless definition" than the one proposed by the IHRA.

But it has not been innocuous, he notes.

The 11 examples of antisemitism provided by the IHRA alongside the definition, seven of which include references to Israel, made unwarranted assumptions about Israel and world Jewry.

They assumed that all Israelis adhered to the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, that Israel was a democratic nation, that it was not a racist endeavour and that all Jews condemned the comparison between Israeli policy and that of the Nazis, Shlaim writes.

“Many left-wing Israelis regard Israel as a racist endeavour. B’Tselem, the highly respected Israeli human rights organisation, issued a closely argued position paper in January titled 'A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid'.”

In fact, Shlaim notes, there is no law in Israel against calling it an apartheid state and progressive Israelis do all the time. Nor are comparisons with Nazi Germany proscribed by Israeli law.

Shlaim also notes opposition to the adoption of the definition on campuses by its lead author, the American lawyer Kenneth Stern, who has argued that it “will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself".

Intentional vagueness

The vagueness of the new definition of antisemitism is intentional, Shlaim argues. It enables Israel’s defenders to weaponise a definition and to portray what in most cases is valid criticism as vilification and delegitimisation of the State of Israel.

“Israel is the only member of the UN that enshrines its racism in law. It is therefore not antisemitic, but only right and proper, to expect Israel to behave like a democratic nation by giving equal rights to all its citizens.” Shlaim writes.

The clearest clue that the present Conservative government is wedded to this deeply flawed and non-legally binding definition was the letter sent last year by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, to university vice chancellors.

Williamson noted that the number of universities adopting the IHRA definition was "shamefully low", and claimed universities who ignored it were letting down their Jewish students.

Oxford, Shlaim's academic home since 1987, issued a statement in which they adopted the definition as a “guide”, but noted that since it did not change the legal definition of racial discrimination it did not change the university authorities’ approach to their legal duties and responsibilities.

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The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), Britain’s leading academic organisation for the study of the Middle East, issued a statement expressing its profound concern about the pressure applied on universities by the government to adopt the IHRA definition.

A  group of British academics who are also Israeli citizens sent a letter signed by 110 Israeli academics outside the UK, many of them in Israel itself, to university vice chancellors.

The letter was rejected or ignored by no less than 12 national newspapers and media outlets. 

“We were rather surprised and disappointed that not a single national paper saw fit to publish our letter or to report our initiative,” writes Shlaim.

He insists that universities in the UK must have autonomy to oversee and regulate all activities on their campuses, free from external interference. 

“The IHRA definition conflicts directly with this duty. I am old-fashioned enough to warm to the idea that a university is a pile of books and a community of scholars. In my kind of university, there is no room for colonial-style autocrats such as Williamson and his ilk,” he writes.