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Students urge UK universities not to adopt controversial definition of ant-Semitism

November 24, 2020 at 1:46 pm

Protest against the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in London, UK on 4 September 2018 [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

Over 300 students have signed a statement expressing deep concerns over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, calling on UK universities to unequivocally protect their right to highlight Israeli oppression against Palestinian.

The letter comes as the government ramps up pressure on universities to adopt the discredited and controversial definition of anti-Semitism. With seven out of 11 examples in the working definition conflating racism towards Jews with criticism of Israel, Palestinians have long warned that the IHRA supresses their right to speak freely about their experiences.

The definition, and specifically its illustrative examples, has been severely criticised by a range of bodies, including the Institute of Race Relations; eminent lawyers including ex-Court of Appeal Judge Sir Stephen Sedley; civil rights organisation Liberty; leading academic experts on antisemitism Antony Lerman and Brian Klug; 40 global Jewish social justice organisations; and more than 80 UK-based BAME groups. In addition, Kenneth Stern, an author of the definition, has expressed deep concern at its utilisation to suppress criticism of Israel on university campuses.

In their letter, the students point out that attempts to use the IHRA definition to prevent students from studying and disseminating information around Zionism or the constitutional order and history of the state of Israel, or calling for action from universities and other public bodies to address violations of Palestinian rights, would contravene their right to freedom of expression, protected under Article 10 of the European Convention for Human Rights.

READ: University backs lecturer on ‘free speech’ grounds following alleged anti-Semitism complaint

Commenting on the growing opposition to the IHRA, Lewis Backon, campaigns officer at Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “This open letter demonstrates the widespread opposition across the student body to the adoption of the IHRA definition, with its attendant examples. This opposition is shared by academics and by many groups and individuals across wider society. Universities must resist any pressure to act in a way that restricts the rights of members of their community to discuss the facts of the historic and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people, and to call for action, including via support for boycott, divestment and sanctions, to address that oppression.”

UK State for Education Gavin Williamson recently wrote to universities and warned that if they did not adopt the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism they faced cuts. More than 100 centres of learning are said to be “defying” the government’s repeated call to adopt the definition due to concerns over its stifling of free-speech. Williamson was criticised for using threat and coercion to force universities’ hands having failed to make a case for the IHRA.