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We 'seek to protect Jewish students and not the government of the State of Israel', insist IHRA supporters

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

A group of Jewish student leaders have dismissed mounting concerns over the adoption by British universities of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in the Guardian letters page claiming that they "seek to protect Jewish students and not the government of the State of Israel".

The letter, signed by 95 current and former student activists, came a week after Israel's most prominent human rights group, B'Tselem, published a position paper concluding that Israel was an "apartheid state" that "promotes and perpetuates Jewish supremacy between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River."

"Discussion of the definition's adoption by British universities should reflect the lived realities of Jewish students," the group said in their letter which was written in response to a letter published earlier this month in which a group of lawyers and retired judges claimed IHRA "undermines freedom of expression."

Their intervention comes as Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson ramps up pressure on universities to adopt the discredited definition. The letter from earlier this month by the group of lawyers and retired judges was followed by another stark denunciation by the academic board of UCL university who dismissed IHRA as being "not fit for purpose."

Opponents of IHRA include 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. Moreover, Kenneth Stern, an author of the IHRA definition, has expressed deep concern at its use to suppress criticism of Israel on university campuses.

READ: Controversial anti-Semitism definition 'not fit for purpose', concludes new report

In the letter published over the weekend the signatories, which include the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), claimed that "critics of the IHRA definition have sought to depict it as a diktat imposed by the education secretary that would inhibit freedom of speech."

The group accused critics of failing to understand the "lived realities of Jewish students" and insisted that they had been campaigning in "good faith" urging universities to adopt the IHRA definition. "We have done so because we seek to protect Jewish students and not the government of the State of Israel", the group argued, pointing out that "the definition explicitly states that criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against other states cannot be considered antisemitic."

The major bone of contention are the examples listed in the IHRA. Seven of the 11 illustrative examples conflate anti-Semitism with criticism of the state of Israel. Under IHRA, B'Tselem's latest position paper concluding that Israel was an "apartheid state" that "promotes and perpetuates Jewish supremacy" would be denounced as anti-Semitic.

In his criticism of the letter, UK Jewish blogger on Israel and Palestine Rober Cohen said UJS had got itself into "pickle" over the issue. "Why champion a document that's so divisive and contested?" he asked. "Its only success has been in generating new conflicts on campus. The problem with the argument that says 'you should only listen to Jewish students' when it comes to #IHRA adoption on campus, is that once you muddle antisemitism, Israel and Zionism in the definition, it's no longer an issue just for Jews. The 'lived experience' of others comes into play too."

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