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Conference on the “IHRA definition” of antisemitism launches new Institute

by Emmaia Gelman
The newly-formed Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ) will hold its inaugural bicoastal conference, Battling the “IHRA Definition”: Theory & Activism, on October 13-14. Through the lens of research on structural racism, state violence, and social justice movements, the conference will analyze political campaigns that seek to codify the “IHRA definition” of antisemitism, and efforts to oppose IHRA policies. This is the first research conference focusing on IHRA campaigns, which have been a feature of conservative strategy since 2016 and are linked to anti-Critical Race Theory campaigns. IHRA campaigns have been widely criticized as efforts to chill academic freedom, and to exclude groups from funding and civic life including human rights, peace, racial justice, and legal advocates, and Palestinian and progressive Jewish organizations.
Conference on the “IHRA definition” of antisemitism launches new Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism

October event welcomes broad support from academic and community organizations; resists attacks by conservative groups.

Oct. 5, 2023 - The newly-formed Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ) will hold its inaugural bicoastal conference, Battling the “IHRA Definition”: Theory & Activism, on October 13-14. Through the lens of research on structural racism, state violence, and social justice movements, the conference will analyze political campaigns that seek to codify the “IHRA definition” of antisemitism, and efforts to oppose IHRA policies. This is the first research conference focusing on IHRA campaigns, which have been a feature of conservative strategy since 2016 and are linked to anti-Critical Race Theory campaigns. IHRA campaigns have been widely criticized as efforts to chill academic freedom, and to exclude groups from funding and civic life including human rights, peace, racial justice, and legal advocates, and Palestinian and progressive Jewish organizations.

Battling the “IHRA Definition”: Theory & Activism is also the first conference under the banner of Critical Zionism Studies. Critical Zionism Studies studies Zionist politics and ideas in relation to forces including states, capital, race, and culture, and it examines power from the perspective of people experiencing its effects. The Institute supports the “research from below” that is central to Critical Zionism Studies.

The conference is sponsored by numerous academic centers and departments spanning critical race and ethnic studies, Near East studies, Arab and Muslim studies, culture, creative practice, and environment at New York University, the University of California Santa Cruz, and San Francisco State University. It is additionally sponsored by student groups at NYU and CUNY, academic freedom groups in the United States and Europe, and grassroots organizations. Panels and events will take place in New York City (at NYU and The People’s Forum) and Santa Cruz (at the Resource Center for Nonviolence).

“We have been thrilled with the outpouring of support for our conference, and for the establishment of the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism. There’s almost a sense of relief that it finally exists,” said Emmaia Gelman, director of the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism. “There have been decades of conservative investments in Israel Studies and Jewish Studies, which have helped create a repressive environment where it’s risky to critically examine Zionism. And yet we absolutely must study this political movement – how can a major political movement be off limits to study?”

“It’s clear enough that we need to study Zionism when we watch Israeli settlers literally steal houses from Palestinians, protected by Israeli soldiers. Critical Zionism Studies looks also at the lesser understood political work undertaken by Zionist organizations. In the U.S. for instance, Zionist groups have joined white Christian nationalists in opposing antiracist education. Shouldn’t we be trying to understand why that’s happening, researching the history, placing it in the context of research on race?” said Emmaia Gelman.

Conference panels will feature scholars of American studies, Arab studies, art and visual culture, Black studies, carceral studies, critical race and ethnic studies, feminist studies, film and media studies, geography, history, Indigenous studies, Jewish studies, law, Palestine studies, philosophy, politics, sociology, and more, in conversation with community groups targeted by IHRA campaigns. Sessions will explore the political history of terms and concepts including Zionism, antisemitism, racism, and “DEI”; the relationship between IHRA campaigns and global movements including Hindutva and white/Christian nationalism; interactions between IHRA and anti-CRT campaigns; and the material impacts of IHRA campaigns on K-12 education, higher education, and civic life. The conference will be opened by Emmaia Gelman (Sarah Lawrence College & Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism), Hatem Bazian (UC Berkeley/Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project, Zaytuna College, and American Muslims for Palestine), and Corinna Gould (Spokeswoman and Tribal Chair, Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone, and Sogorea Te Land Trust). The conference will be closed by Arun Kundnani (Author/scholar) and Kaleem Hawa (Palestinian Youth Movement.) A preview of panels and presentations is online at criticalzionismstudies.org.

Right-wing groups and media outlets have launched false and defamatory attacks at Battling the “IHRA Definition”: Theory & Activism and the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism since both were announced in July 2023. ICSZ’s statement on right-wing attacks is available at criticalzionismstudies.org/academicfreedom. The attacks seek to make university administrators afraid to defend the rights of scholars and students, and aim to derail the study of racism and state violence as well as efforts to oppose such violence. In the face of attacks, the conference and ICSZ have been defended by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, the faculty councils of every campus of the University of California, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, and the graduate student union of UC Santa Cruz (UAW 2865). Letters from Jewish scholars and educators and the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council additionally defend the ethnic studies faculty (including ICSZ scholars) subjected to parallel attacks by the same actors and using the same misrepresentations of antiracist scholarship.

“The work of the ICSZ is vital because it creates a collective space for scholars who face cynical and dishonest forms of repression, censure, and personalized attacks from those who treat Zionism as an exceptional system of beliefs and practices that should be insulated from critical analysis. I am relieved to observe that a growing global community understands that accusations of ‘antisemitism’ against critics of Zionism are misplaced, misinformed, and dishonest,” said Dylan Rodríguez, a professor of Black Study and Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside and former president of the American Studies Association. “Now is the time for scholars of principle and seriousness to lend their skills and labor to the work that is required to address the political and ideological history of Zionism as well as its concrete effects on Palestinians who must resist and survive massive state terror, supported by U.S. policy and militarism.”

ICSZ is a new institute that supports the development of Critical Zionism Studies with resources for academics and activists engaged in research. Its planned work includes fellowships, collaborations, conferences, and publications that expand the reach of scholars’ and activists’ research.
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