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Foremost expert on anti-Semitism warns against adoption of IHRA

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

One of the foremost experts on anti-Semitism in the world has warned the British government against the imposition of the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism on universities.

Writing in the Guardian, Professor David Feldman, who is the director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London, said that the so called IHRA working definition "is confusing and divisive" and warned that "forcing its adoption will not help protect Jewish students and staff."

"We all know how the path to hell is paved," began Feldman in his stark message to the Tory government over the dangers of adopting the IHRA, referring to a popular saying that good intentions often lead to disastrous outcomes. The definition, and specifically seven of the 11 illustrative examples conflate racism towards Jews with criticism of the state of Israel. It has been severely criticised by a range of bodies, including the Institute of Race Relations; eminent lawyers; civil rights organisation Liberty; leading academic experts on anti-Semitism; 40 global Jewish social justice organisations; and more than 80 UK-based BAME groups.

Kenneth Stern, one of the drafters of the working definition, has also expressed deep concern over its misuse and warned of its "chilling effect" on free speech. According to Stern the code he drafted 15 years ago as the American Jewish Committee's anti-Semitism expert, is being used for a completely different purpose to the one he intended.

Feldman's intervention was sparked by UK Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson's recent warning to universities that if they did not adopt the IHRA's definition of anti-Semitism they risked having their funding cut. More than 100 centres of learning are said to be "defying" the government's effort to impose 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.

READ: The definition of anti-Semitism has been weaponised for Israel's benefit

The same concerns over the suppression of free speech were raised by Feldman who also maintained that the IHRA "was never intended to be a campus hate-speech code". Commenting on Williamson's pressure he said that "intervention not only threatens to provoke strife and confusion – it also places academic freedom and free speech on campus at risk."

Feldman, suggesting that the IHRA would lead to a hierarchy of racism, warned that imposing the working definition would "privilege one group over others by giving them additional protections" and that this would "divide minorities against each other".

Williamson's tactic for tackling anti-Jewish racism was based on "mistaken assumptions", said Feldman, pointing out that the government's view that universities that fail to adopt the IHRA definition were willing to tolerate anti-Semitism was untrue. He argued that there were sufficient safeguards already in place to protect minorities and moreover that Jewish students did not require added protection.

Feldman further warned that the IHRA had acquired a symbolic status, a kind of litmus test of whether or not an individual or an organisation really opposes anti-Semitism because of the row within the Labour Party. However he insisted that such symbolism "are no substitute for carefully constructed measures to combat antisemitism and other racisms".

Feldman concluded his lengthy opposition to the IHRA arguing that Williamson's intervention will divide Jews from other minorities and that in doing so, "he helps neither but instead risks splitting the struggle against antisemitism from the liberal values that have provided its most secure home. Let us hope he will think again."

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