Scholars urge universities drop controversial IHRA antisemitism definition

A prominent group of scholars has urged British universities to reject the controversial definition of antisemitism adopted by the UK government.  

The report, by the European Legal Support Center and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, warns that the definition of antisemitism set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), limits academic freedom and is used to target students and staff critical of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.

In 2020, the then education minister, Gavin Williamson, threatened to reduce funding for universities that did not accept the definition. As a result, 119 universities (almost 75% of UK universities) adopted some version of it.  

Opponents of the definition argue that some examples used to support the definition wrongly equate the critique of Israel with antisemitism.

The group says it’s committed to the struggle against antisemitism, acknowledging it is an issue in society and higher education.

“However, universities must do so in a way that does not discriminate directly or indirectly against others or undermine academic freedom and freedom of speech.”

This report says that accusations of antisemitism against students and staff in UK universities “are often based on a definition of antisemitism that is not fit for purpose and, in practice, is undercutting academic freedom and the rights to lawful speech of students and staff, and causing harm to the reputations and careers of those accused.”

It analysed 40 cases between 2017-2022 in which UK university staff and students faced accusations of antisemitism based on the IHRA definition. In all instances, except for two ongoing cases, the accusations of antisemitism were rejected.

“On the basis of these findings, this report recommends against the adoption and use of the IHRA definition in a higher education setting,” it said.

“However it is beyond the remit of the report to suggest alternative definitions while the Human Rights Act of 1998 and the 2010 Equality Act provide the necessary legal tools to combat antisemitism and hate speech more generally.”  

IHRA definition

In 2016, the IHRA adopted a ‘working definition of antisemitism,’ which was appended with a list of illustrative examples.  

The group says several examples conflate criticisms of Israel, its practices and political ideology with antisemitism.  

“These examples contradict the IHRA definition itself and reflect positions advanced by advocates of Israeli policies towards Palestinians,” added the report.  

The report shows that since its adoption by UK higher education institutions, the definition “has been used in ways that delegitimise points of view critical of Israel and/or in support of Palestinian rights, in violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech.”  

It notes that the UN’s Special Rapporteur on racism and xenophobia, E. Tendayi Achiume, has cautioned against employing the IHRA definition, ‘owing to its susceptibility to being politically instrumentalised and the harm done to human rights resulting from such instrumentalization.’  

The report highlights broad consensus among academics and legal experts, including Kenneth Stern who drafted the IHRA definition, that its application in universities impedes critical thinking and open discussion, critical tenets of higher education.

“Contrary to what many institutions seem to believe, it is simply not possible to use the IHRA definition to determine whether or not an individual incident or statement is antisemitic, whilst simultaneously protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom and preventing discrimination,” says the report.  

“To attempt to do so inevitably leads to damaging and iniquitous consequences for staff and students.”

A Department of Education spokesperson defended the IHRA and described it as a “vital tool in tackling antisemitism”.

“A report by the independent task force on antisemitism in higher education showed no universities that had adopted the definition said it had in any way restricted freedom of speech or academic research,” they said.


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