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British universities must stand firm against government's 'antisemitism' ultimatum

The ruling Conservatives have threatened to withhold funding from schools that do not adopt the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism
A union flag at a souvenir stall flies opposite the Houses of Parliament in London (Reuters)

The British Conservative Party pledged ahead of the 2019 general election to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. But the government has since threatened to withhold funding from universities that do not adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s working definition of antisemitism.

One university after another has capitulated in the face of this ultimatum. The government argues that universities need a definition of antisemitism in order to combat it, and, further, that it must be the IHRA’s definition. Do either of these claims bear scrutiny?

Even if we were to accept that universities require a definition of antisemitism, why should it be the IHRA's definition?

The government has presented no evidence showing that a formal definition is required, or even helpful, in the fight against anti-Jewish racism. Until recently, there was neither an official definition of antisemitism nor any pressing demand for one, including from Jewish organisations. Does the government seriously maintain that effective action against antisemitism was impossible before it adopted the IHRA’s definition?

Secondly, the government has not demanded that universities adopt specific definitions of homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, ableism or anti-Black racism. Why do we need a definition to combat one form of bigotry but not others?

Finally, there is no definition of “antisemitism” in UK law. If our legal system does not need such a definition in order to act against anti-Jewish discrimination, harassment and victimisation, why, then, do our universities?

Even if we were to accept that universities require a definition of antisemitism, why should it be the IHRA’s definition? The broad consensus among academic and legal experts is that this text is both hopelessly imprecise and vulnerable to political abuse.

The most comprehensive analysis yet undertaken, by a University College London (UCL) working group whose findings were published in December, determined that it is “not fit for purpose within a university setting and has no legal basis for enforcement”.

UCL’s academic board will vote on rescinding its adoption of the definition later this week.

In an open letter published on 4 February, 66 British academics with Israeli citizenship urged university administrations “to reject the governmental decree to adopt” the IHRA definition “or, where adopted already, to revoke it”.

The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) has likewise called upon universities “to protect academic freedom, to defend their autonomy against the government’s pressure to adopt the IHRA definition, and to retract the definition where it has been adopted”.

Problematic examples

The IHRA’s definition is principally commended not on its merits but on the grounds that it has been endorsed by “many other countries, institutions and organisations”. A number of UK delegates to the IHRA have likewise argued that its “significance … lies in the international cooperation that led to it … [This] is not a Jewish or non-Jewish definition - but an international definition”.

But is this true? The working definition was developed in 2004 primarily by pro-Israel Jewish organisations. It was circulated in draft form the following year by an autonomous agency of the European Union. Misuse and misrepresentation of this document by pro-Israel activists led to mounting criticism and, by 2013, the European agency’s successor body had effectively abandoned it. Pro-Israel groups then sought to have the definition reintroduced through the IHRA. 

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The IHRA grew out of a task force established by Sweden, Britain and the US in 1998 with the objective of promoting Holocaust education, research and remembrance. Its membership today comprises 29 European countries plus Israel, the US, Canada, Australia and Argentina. IHRA policy is agreed by consensus at biannual meetings attended by delegates from each member country.

The adoption of the non-legally-binding working definition of antisemitism was the outcome of one such plenary meeting in 2016 in Bucharest. It reads in full: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Endorsed alongside this definition were 11 examples of potentially antisemitic statements, seven of which concern discourse about Israel, such as “applying double standards” to Israel. This so-called example of antisemitism has been used to delegitimise everything from criticism of Israel by leading human rights organisations to the EU’s decision to accurately label imports from Israel’s illegal settlements.

Threat to free expression

The IHRA’s working definition has been adopted or endorsed by less than one-fifth of UN member states. More importantly, its content has been misrepresented. 

The UK government has repeatedly suggested, including in its ultimatum to universities, that the IHRA definition incorporates the 11 examples. Some UK delegates to the IHRA have likewise asserted that “[a]ny ‘modified’ version of the IHRA definition that does not include all of its 11 examples is no longer the IHRA definition”. 

In fact, the IHRA excluded the examples from its definition after some member countries objected to them. 

My research suggests that this controversy is not about fighting antisemitism, but about the right to voice criticism of Israel

An ambassador to the IHRA who participated in the Bucharest plenary meeting recalled: “The original draft text was cut into two, and only the first two-sentence part was to be the working definition to be adopted, while the other part, the examples, remained what they were: examples to serve as illustrations, to guide the IHRA in its work.” 

This account has been corroborated by a second delegation head who attended the May 2016 plenary. Two other members of delegations from different countries also confirmed their understanding that the IHRA definition comprised only the two-sentence passage reproduced above. It was only by separating the examples from the definition that the IHRA was able to reach consensus. 

MEE approached the IHRA to comment on the claim that the illustrative examples were separated from the working definition. It declined to do so.

Why, then, is the government trying to ram through this definition of antisemitism? My research suggests that this controversy is not about fighting antisemitism, but about the right to voice criticism of Israel.

A turning point?

The IHRA’s adoption of the working definition was orchestrated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an advocacy group which is supportive of the state of Israel and which has been active in denouncing legitimate criticism of Israel as "antisemitic". There is a risk that the IHRA definition will lend political, regulatory and ultimately legal authority to this assault on free speech.

Pro-Israel campaigners have themselves dismissed the actual two-sentence definition as “very generalist and vague” (Campaign Against Antisemitism) or even “totally neutered … [and] unmoored from any current reality” (Simon Wiesenthal Center). But it can still serve as an inoffensive cover under which to smuggle spurious examples of antisemitism that stigmatise any criticism of Israel.

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If there were any doubt on this score, here’s what a senior official at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “The IHRA definition is in itself a minimalist definition. What turns it into an essential definition in our eyes is the list of examples.” One leading pro-Israel organisation went so far as to insist that “essentially the definition is the examples”.

In practice, pro-Israel advocacy groups have wielded this definition of antisemitism with “the subtlety of a mallet” - I am quoting one of its authors - to stifle speech on campuses.

In the UK, multiple universities and at least one local council have already forced the cancellation of events on the grounds that they might breach the terms of this definition. When the University of Central Lancashire shut down a planned student event in February 2017, citing this definition in support, the definition’s “architect” applauded it as a possible “turning point in the struggle to curb the demonisation of the Jewish state at universities”.

If our universities stand firm on principle and reject the government’s ultimatum as infringing the democratic principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression, this could yet be, if not a turning point, then at least a first step on the path back to sanity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Jamie Stern-Weiner
Jamie Stern-Weiner is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. He is the editor of Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine's Toughest Questions (OR Books, 2018) and Antisemitism and the Labour Party (Verso, 2019).