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Major faults with UK government-endorsed ‘anti-semitism definition’

Image of the royal court of justice
Image of the royal court of justice

A legal opinion by a prominent barrister has found major faults with a UK government-endorsed ‘definition’ of anti-semitism that human rights campaigners say constitutes a threat to freedom of speech and Palestine solidarity activism.

In December 2016, the UK government ‘adopted’ a definition of anti-semitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Controversially, criticism of the state of Israel is included in the definition’s guidance.

The opinion was prepared by Hugh Tomlinson QC in response to concerns raised by a coalition of groups: Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Independent Jewish Voices, Free Speech on Israel and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

According to Tomlinson, the definition is badly drafted, creates scope for confusion and inconsistency, and potentially “chills” the debate around Israel/Palestine.

Importantly, Tomlinson clarifies that the definition is not legally binding and that public bodies are under no obligation to adopt it. Those that do must take care applying it or risk “unlawfully restricting legitimate expressions of political opinion in violation of statutory duties to ensure freedom of expression and assembly.”

Tomlinson makes clear that the definition cannot be used to judge criticism of Israel to be anti-semitic, unless that criticism expresses hatred towards Jews.

Properly understood in its own terms… the IHRA definition does not mean that activities such as describing Israel as a state enacting a policy of apartheid, as practising settler colonialism or calling for policies of boycott divestment or sanctions against Israel can properly be characterised as anti-semitic.

He added: “A public authority which sought to apply the IHRA Definition to prohibit or sanction such activities would be acting unlawfully.”

Campaigners have expressed concerns that the definition’s poor drafting and understanding by public bodies runs the serious risk of unlawfully restricting freedom of expression of political opinion. Earlier this year, the University of Central Lancashire cancelled an event as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, citing the government-endorsed definition.

The Opinion was launched in the House of Lords on March 27. Speakers included leading solicitor Sir Geoffrey Bindman of Bindman’s LLP, an expert on freedom of expression, and retired Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Stephen Sedley.

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