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Controversial anti-Semitism definition undermines free speech, warn lawyers and judges 

January 8, 2021 at 2:46 pm

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in London, UK on 21 July 2020 [Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency]

A group of lawyers and retired judges have warned that the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism undermines freedom of expression. In a letter to the Guardian, they urged the British public to defend universities against efforts by the government to have the definition imposed on institutions of higher education.

Their intervention comes as Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson ramps up pressure on universities to adopt the discredited definition. The working document has 11 examples of anti-Semitism, seven of which conflate racism towards Jews with criticism of Israel. Palestinians have long warned that the IHRA suppresses their right to speak freely about their experience of Israeli occupation and humans rights abuses.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The lawyers cited this in their letter and argued that this right is embodied in English Law, and that the IHRA undermines those rights.

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

“The definition is often described as ‘the international definition of anti-Semitism’,” they explained, “but it has no legislative or other authority in international or domestic law.” They cited notable scholars on anti-Semitism who have also criticised the definition and warned against its adoption.

The Conservative government has threatened to punish universities with loss of income if they fail to comply with its demand to adopt the IHRA. This was denounced as “legally and morally wrong.”

Pointing out that the majority of examples cited in the IHRA do not refer to Jews as such, but to Israel, they said that it was being widely used to suppress or avoid criticism of the occupation state. “The impact on public discourse both inside and outside universities has already been significant,” warned the group, before calling on Williamson to withdraw the threat.

The British lawyers and judges are the latest to speak out against the IHRA, which has strong backing from a number of pro-Israel organisations. Groups and institutions opposing the definition include the Institute of Race Relations; eminent lawyers including ex-Court of Appeal Judge Sir Stephen Sedley; civil rights organisation Liberty; leading academic experts on anti-Semitism Antony Lerman and Brian Klug; 40 global Jewish social justice organisations; and more than 80 UK-based BAME groups. Moreover, Kenneth Stern, an author of the IHRA definition, has expressed deep concern at its use to suppress criticism of Israel on university campuses.