University of Adelaide rejects IHRA definition of antisemitism over free speech concerns

Despite recent antisemitic and anti-Israel attacks, the university rejected the definition, saying ‘the right to express lawful views about controversial matters’ is at the centre of academic freedom.

The University of Adelaide has rejected the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism on the grounds that it would curtail free speech.

In a statement issued on April 11, the university emphasised the “right to express lawful views about controversial matters”, a veiled reference to its concern that the IHRA definition could be used to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism and curb criticism of Israel over its occupation of Palestinian territories.

The statement said: “We proudly encourage critical thinking and respectful debate. Freedom of speech is a right everyone holds, subject to the law. The right to express lawful views about controversial matters is at the heart of a robust democracy. It is also the essence of academic freedom.

“The University is committed to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Like most Australian public universities, we have adopted the Model Code recommended by the Hon Robert French AC in his 2019 Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers.”

“We proudly encourage critical thinking and respectful debate. The right to express lawful views about controversial matters is at the heart of a robust democracy. It is also the essence of academic freedom.”

University of Adelaide statement

The university’s rejection of the IHRA definition was described as “most unfortunate” by the Zionist Federation of Australia. “It’s reasoning shows an unwillingness to engage with what the IHRA definition is and isn’t,” ZFA President Jeremy Leibler said in a statement.

“The IHRA definition does not limit free speech. It merely defines what antisemitism is. And that definition is accepted by dozens of countries, organisations and universities around the world, as well as the South Australian Government.”

To date, two Australian universities – Monash and Melbourne – have adopted the IHRA definition. Six others have rejected it – ANU, ACU, Flinders, Griffith, the University of Divinity and QUT. Others, including Sydney and the UNSW, have not yet made a decision.

“The IHRA definition does not limit free speech. It merely defines what antisemitism is. that definition is accepted by dozens of countries, organisations and universities around the world.”

Jeremy Leibler, ZFA President

However, the decision by Adelaide carries an added, unspoken weight because of a spate of recent incidents of antisemitic and anti-Israel behaviour on campus.

In August, the university’s student magazine, On Dit, published an article calling for “Death to Israel”.

The magazine editor was subsequently removed from her position by the university student union over her behaviour in a meeting following the article, in which she taunted Jewish students. But she was not removed in relation to the article itself.

In the aftermath of the article and the meeting, Jewish students at the university told Plus61J they were avoiding campus and considering leaving the University due to an “antisemitic culture” they perceived on campus.

Mr Leibler referred to these incidents in his statement: “Given recent events, when Adelaide University took no action when a student put antisemitic rhetoric in the university newspaper, and where Jewish students have been reported as being too scared to attend campus, one would think the university would have wanted to better educate its student body as to how to avoid the bigotry the university says it detests. Instead, it has chosen to do nothing.”

However, the University’s decision was welcomed in an article published by the Pearls and Irritations website this week. “In a positive development, the University of Adelaide has rejected the adoption of the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism, because to adopt it would have been potentially counter to “the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech”, according to the University Council, wrote Paul Heywood-Smith.

Mr Heywood-Smith, an Adelaide KC, is a prominent pro-Palestinian advocate, and the author of The Case for Palestine, The Perspective of an Australian Observer (2014). In his article, he wrote: “The writer was and is not privy to the discussions occurring within [the university’s] Council. In his position as Patron of the Australian Friends of Palestine Association (AFOPA) he is, however, aware of the strong submission put by that organisation that the definition should be rejected.”

Plus61J Media approached the University Council for clarification about its statement but was referred back to the statement by a spokesperson.