I was part way through my term as Publicity Officer of the Cambridge University Labour Club (CULC) when I wrote an article criticising the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. It appeared in The Cambridge Student on 7 May, and, to my knowledge, was the first (and perhaps only) critique of the University’s decision to adopt the definition published in the student press. I had initially tried to pitch the article to Varsity, but the pusillanimous editors told me that they disagreed with my argument and therefore would not publish it. (It was curious to me how they could run an opinion section while only publishing pieces they agreed with.) I would like to praise the then editors of TCS for their comparative courage and commitment to featuring a range of views.
My primary criticism of the IHRA definition was, and is, that it is ‘imprecise and vulnerable to political abuse’. The definition and the associated examples have been used time and again to stifle any public discussion of the crimes that are daily being committed against Palestinians: a recent illustration of this was the reaction to Amnesty International’s report on Israeli apartheid, which was denounced by Claudia Mendoza of the Jewish Leadership Council. ‘The IHRA definition of antisemitism is clear’, she said; ‘to claim that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavour is antisemitic, and unfortunately, it appears Amnesty International is doing exactly that.’ In other words, Amnesty’s report is antisemitic and can therefore be ignored. The definition is therefore incompatible with both free speech and any rational view of what constitutes antisemitism: it has no place at universities or elsewhere.
In any event, my article had barely been up for a day when the co-chairs of CULC emailed me to inform me I had been suspended effective immediately. On 11 May, I was sent the following motion calling for my expulsion:
On 7th May 2021, TCS published an article authored by the sitting Publicity Officer, Talal Hangari, titled ‘Why we should drop the IHRA definition of antisemitism’. In this article, he stated that ‘the government should drop the IHRA definition’ and criticised its use in universities.
In March, CULC passed a motion to add the IHRA definition into its constitution. This was done following conversations with the Jewish community, as part of CULC’s efforts to recognise and address antisemitism within the party. This definition has been adopted, in full, by both the University of Cambridge and the national Labour party. The adoption of the definition is recognised as central to the safeguarding of Jewish students and Jewish party members.
Section 3.ii.b.3 of the constitution states that ‘no member of the Club shall engage … in any act which in the opinion of the Executive Committee is grossly detrimental to the Club‘. This motion proposes that, in the opinion of the Executive Committee, the article written by Talal Hangari, as a member of the Club, is grossly detrimental to the Club’s efforts to implement the IHRA definition.
This motion proposes the following action to be taken by the Club:
– remove Talal Hangari from the Executive Committee
– remove his CULC membership
– restate the Club’s commitment to implementation of the IHRA definition, its efforts to address antisemitism on the Left and its efforts to build a strong relationship with the Jewish community
I had one week to prepare a written defence and submit it to the executive before the motion was debated in my absence. I produced a defence of over 3,000 words detailing CULC’s procedural violations, its disdain for free expression, and its defamatory accusations against me. I also organised supplementary statements from a variety of people, including a number of eminent Jewish and Israeli scholars and jurists, to add to my defence: Brian Klug (University of Oxford), Avi Shlaim (University of Oxford), Stephen Sedley (retired Lord Justice of Appeal), Roman Vater (University of Cambridge), Geoffrey Bindman QC, Rebecca Gould (University of Birmingham), Jonathan Rosenhead (on behalf of Jewish Voice for Labour), and, finally, Kenneth Stern – the lead drafter of the IHRA definition himself – contributed. This brought the defence up to over 6,000 words in total. (CULC’s co-chairs, seemingly overwhelmed, told me to cut it down to 500 words the day I sent it to them. Obviously I refused.)
Avi Shlaim wrote:
I write in strong support of Talal Hangari and against the motion to expel him from the Cambridge University Labour Club. I write as a Cambridge alumnus, a member of the Labour Party, a Jew, an Israeli, and an academic with fifty years’ experience.
I read carefully Mr Hangari’s article of 7 May in TCS on “Why we should drop the IHRA definition of antisemitism” and I agree with every word in it. The article is admirably clear, concise, cogently argued, and it makes a compelling case for dropping the IHRA working denition. The article summarises the views of experts, many of whom are Jewish, who all concluded that the definition is not fit for purpose. …
This motion says that, in the opinion of the Executive Committee, the article written by Talal Hangari, is grossly detrimental to the Club’s efforts to implement the IHRA definition. The problem, however, is not the article but the bogus definition. The real purpose of this definition is not to protect Jews against antisemitism but to protect Israel against legitimate as well as illegitimate criticism.
The motion goes on to restate the Club’s commitment to “its efforts to address antisemitism on the Left and its efforts to build a strong relationship with the Jewish community”. This is preposterous. There is not a scintilla of antisemitism in Talal Hangari’s article. Building a strong relationship with the Jewish community is a commendable aim but it cannot be achieved on the basis of the IHRA’s divisive and dishonest definition.
Kenneth Stern wrote:
I read your opinion piece about the definition. I don’t agree with some minor aspects, but as you likely know, I do agree with the main argument – that adoption of the definition on a campus does great damage to academic freedom (and, I maintain, to the interests of Jewish students and faculty too). I wrote a book detailing why this is so, and how the debate over the denition draws attention away from other, more eective, means of protecting Jewish students and the academy. (See http://kennethsstern.com/the-conflict-over-the-conflict/.)
You also shared the constitution of the Cambridge University Labour Club (CULC) with me, and the fact that you’ve been suspended from the executive committee and might ultimately be expelled for an “act which in the opinion of the Executive committee is grossly detrimental to the club.” That language, as you obviously recognize, is vague and very broad. But I hope your suspension is overturned and the matter dropped. Let me explain my thinking.
Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about the question of the definition’s use and abuse, particularly as it relates to the campus. The constitution of the CULC talks about members supporting the party’s “aims.” I suspect that the aim of the party is to reduce antisemitism, both within its ranks and without. In my view that’s different than the question of whether a particular tool is the best means to achieve that aim.
Once a decision is made, does that mean it is locked in stone, never to be revisited or questioned? That may indeed be CULC policy, but it strikes me as overly doctrinaire and dogmatic, almost like saying someone is a heretic for not sticking 100 percent with the party line once announced. And on a campus, where ideas should be debated – again here, not about aims of a political group, but tactics – a purge of someone who questions the perceived wisdom strikes me as offensive, draconian, and inherently undemocratic.
My efforts were to no avail. I was informed by CULC’s co-chairs on 19 May 2021 that ‘Following a meeting of the executive committee last night, the motion you were sent carried by 12 votes to 1, with one absence. This means that you have been removed from CULC’s Executive Committee and your CULC membership has been revoked.’
After all was said and done, I published an article in Tribune explaining what had happened. I remember being rather stressed through the episode, and the demands of preparing my defence in just a week interfered with my studies. But now I look back on the incident and can do nothing but laugh. CULC’s behaviour was absurd, characteristically so for a gang of politically correct ‘woke’ students committed to proving how virtuous they are by booting an Arab out of their club. In the end, my case is just another footnote in the history of Labour’s great purges. May CULC be remembered for its ignominious cameo in helping to turn the party away from rational disagreement and toward sectarian witch hunting.