Efforts by Britain’s Conservative government to force universities to adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, and to cut their funding if they don’t, have suffered another blow. The academic board of one of the country’s most prestigious higher education institutions has produced a detailed study of the IHRA and urged University College London to rescind its 2019 decision to adopt the so called “international definition”, saying that it is “not fit for purpose”. UCL has been asked to “consider more coherent alternatives.”
The UCL working group reached its conclusion following a year-long process involving consultation with experts on anti-Semitism and eminent lawyers. The report finds that the IHRA definition is “not fit for purpose within a university setting and has no legal basis for enforcement.” The academic board is expected to make a final decision about accepting the working group’s recommendations later this month.
The report is scathing in its criticism of Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson’s threats to withdraw funding from universities if they do not adopt the IHRA, describing this as putting their autonomy under threat. An open letter by leading lawyers published last week denounced Williamson’s threat as “legally and morally wrong.”
Furthermore, the report finds that the IHRA definition is unhelpful in identifying actual cases of anti-Semitic harassment and is therefore a weak tool for effective university action. It said that the definition “obfuscates rather than clarifies the meaning of anti-Semitism, and may in fact make it harder to identify and understand how anti-Semitism works.”
Seven of the eleven illustrative examples given in the definition conflate racism towards Jews with criticism of the state of Israel. It has been criticised severely 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.
UCL’s Working Group reached similar conclusions. The IHRA definition risks conflating legitimate criticism of the State of Israel, or of Zionism, with anti-Semitism, thus threatening freedom of expression on campus. “By blurring these boundaries,” it says, “the IHRA working definition risks undermining academic freedom.”
Warning against the government’s effort to impose the IHRA, the UCL group concludes that, “If universities are not permitted to use evidence, scholarship, research and logic to rebut Ministers’ political demands, then our autonomy and independence are seriously in peril.”
Commenting on the issue, Ben Jamal, the Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “This study, the most systematic yet undertaken by a group of eminent academics, reinforces the concerns that have been expressed by a wide range of bodies since the UK government adopted the IHRA definition in 2016. The definition has been used to prevent both discussion of the facts of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and calls for action to address that oppression. It thereby undermines freedom of expression at Universities and more widely.”
Jamal added that Gavin Williamson needs to stop pressuring universities to adopt the definition. “Moreover, all public bodies considering its adoption need to address seriously the findings of this report.”
According to Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, “Concerns about the coercive attempts to force public bodies to adopt the IHRA definition are clearly shared by lawyers and academics alike. The Government must cease its pressure on institutions to curtail debate and restrict freedom of expression.”