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‘I Was Expelled from my Labour Club for Disagreeing with the IHRA’

Last month, Talal Hangari was expelled from Cambridge University Labour Club over criticism of the IHRA definition of antisemitism – despite the definition's own author defending him. Here, he tells his story to Tribune.

On 18 May 2021, the Cambridge University Labour Club (CULC) executive committee voted to remove me from my position as Publicity Officer and expel me from the Club. The basis for this decision was an article I wrote for a student newspaper that criticised the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. The article argued that universities should reject the IHRA definition because it is ‘imprecise and vulnerable to political abuse’ and therefore a threat to free speech.

The motion tabled for my removal and expulsion alleged that my article was ‘grossly detrimental’ to the Club. I was given a week’s notice to write a defence which I submitted to the executive committee before its meeting. This included multiple supporting statements by eminent scholars and jurists, many of them Jewish, defending my article and calling for me not to be expelled. I have published several of these statements with permission here.

Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the IHRA definition, wrote that he ‘agree[s] with the main argument’ of my article and ‘hope[s]’ my ‘suspension is overturned and the matter dropped’. Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor at the University of Oxford, found the motion for my expulsion ‘preposterous’ and endorsed ‘every word’ of my article. Geoffrey Bindman QC was clear that ‘there can be no possible justification for suspending or sanctioning in any way the author of this article’. Retired Lord Justice of Appeal Stephen Sedley observed that the article ‘sets out a well-supported viewpoint which is in no way anti-semitic’.

These contributions had no effect on the thinking of the executive committee; the members present at the meeting on 18 May voted unanimously to expel me. I was prohibited from defending myself before the committee and, despite my requests, CULC has refused to make any record of the meeting available to me in the form of minutes. Beyond vague assurances, I have no idea what procedures were followed or whether my defence submission was even read by everyone who voted on my expulsion.

CULC alleged that the Club had inserted the IHRA definition into its constitution prior to my joining the committee and that my behaviour therefore contravened the constitution. But the definition is nowhere mentioned or cited in CULC’s constitution, my request for evidence that the definition had been adopted by CULC members was ignored, and no forewarning was ever given that criticising the definition would lead to expulsion.

Even setting these facts aside, the idea that no internal policy decision by a political club may be scrutinised by its members is surely, to quote again Kenneth Stern, ‘overly doctrinaire and dogmatic’. This attack on free expression was particularly egregious given its setting – a university, an institution whose raison d’etre is the pursuit of truth through reasoned discussion.

CULC has claimed on Twitter that my expulsion was ‘for insensitive comments made in the article that went beyond simply “criticising the IHRA definition”’. But neither the formal motion submitted for my expulsion nor CULC’s public statement clarifies what these ‘insensitive comments’ were.

Academics commenting on my expulsion felt it was a censorious overreaction. Dr Marc Mulholland of the University of Oxford observed that ‘[w]hether one agrees or not with everything in this article, it is obviously written coolly and with due scholarly consideration. There is nothing inflammatory in it. It’s quite incredible that it led to the author’s expulsion from Cambridge Labour Club’. The University of Warwick’s Dr Nicola Pratt considered my treatment ‘a serious violation of the right to free speech in universities’. The CULC executive committee objects to my argument that the IHRA definition stifles free speech, but in expelling me has vindicated it.

I have presented ten questions to CULC about the nature of the disciplinary process it followed in my case as well as the grounds for my expulsion. After pointing out the fact that according to CULC’s constitution a general (rather than executive) meeting must vote in a secret ballot to confirm my expulsion, I asked when this general meeting would be held and what would happen if members voted against confirming my expulsion. To this day, none of my questions have been answered.

I support CULC’s objective, as stated in its constitution, to build a society ‘where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect’. My article about the IHRA definition expressed a tactical disagreement about how, not whether, racism should be fought. Like many others, I do not believe that this specific definition is an effective or otherwise desirable tool for combating antisemitism. That CULC would sanction me over such a tactical disagreement itself seems detrimental to CULC’s aims – why were my views on this question denied ‘tolerance and respect’? Particularly when many academic and legal authorities share my perspective?

It is telling that, to date, no member of CULC’s executive committee has raised with me a single specific complaint about my article beyond the fact that it criticises the IHRA definition. The lack of rigour displayed by CULC in this ongoing debate, combined with the failure of its executive committee to actually scrutinise the IHRA definition or engage with its critics, is deeply unfortunate. Given that CULC claims to have adopted the definition, one would expect members of the executive committee to have some arguments in its favour. I have yet to see any.

The CULC executive committee’s support for the IHRA definition, and silencing of any criticism of it, has consequences beyond my own case. Beginning 6 May, Israeli forces violently repressed Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem as they demonstrated against the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. On 10 May, Israel embarked on a lethal assault against the besieged people of Gaza. Israel enjoys strong military and diplomatic ties with the UK government.

Yet no Cambridge University society associated with Britain’s major opposition parties (i.e., neither the Liberal Association nor the Labour Club) felt it appropriate to denounce Israel’s crimes until CULC published a lukewarm statement declaring its ‘solidarity’ with oppressed Palestinians on 1 June. Before that, searches for ‘Gaza’ or ‘Palestine’ on CULC’s Facebook page yielded zero results, despite the fact that in 2018, for example, Israel carried out what Amnesty International described as ‘a murderous assault against protesting Palestinians, with its armed forces killing and maiming demonstrators who pose no imminent threat to them’.

University students who promote the IHRA definition are, wittingly or unwittingly, helping to erase Palestinian suffering from our public discourse. The far-right government of Israel supports the IHRA definition precisely because of its potency in closing down critical discussion, hence in 2018 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed: ‘I urge all countries to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and to increase their efforts to combat anti-Semitism and its modern manifestation, anti-Zionism.’

Criticism of the IHRA definition has been voiced by a number of authorities across a range of publications; this includes criticism of the definition on the basis that it undermines the important fight against antisemitism. The adoption of the definition and its application must remain a topic of free discussion – the Left must uphold its traditional commitment to debate rather than shutting down the space for dissent.