The IHRA antisemitism definition chills debate without protecting Jews

The effective ban on any form of anti-Zionism or harsh criticism of Israel has had a detrimental impact on my life and career progression, says Clive Gabay

September 13, 2023
A woman hold a "zero tolerance to antisemitism" sign
Source: iStock

I have been called “y*d” from a passing car. I have had stones and rubbish thrown at me on my way home from my Jewish school. I have seen my identity debated, stretched, abased and projected by powerful figures, including journalists, television commentators and politicians. Reading prejudiced depictions of one’s group on social media and in the news is exhausting; it feels like being constantly targeted.

Notably, the dehumanising reduction of Jews to pawns by politicians is entirely absent from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which the UK government formally adopted in 2016 and later pressured universities across the country to adopt as well.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism expands its meaning from abhorrent conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the media, finance and governments, blood libel accusations, Holocaust denial tirades and dehumanising caricatures of Jews to include any form of anti-Zionism, as well as harsh but legitimate criticism of Israel. This has not only failed to protect me as a Jew but has also had a detrimental impact on my life and career progression.

A British-based academic journal refused to publish an article I wrote on Jewish identity and antisemitism, explaining that the question of antisemitism is “highly charged”. It was hard not to understand this as a reference to the then ongoing debates about antisemitism and the adoption of the IHRA definition in the Labour Party. In the end, I had to publish the article in a journal based in a different country, where the IHRA definition has not yet chilled public debate as it has in the UK.

Another British-based journal accepted an article I submitted for publication after three anonymous reviewers had written that it was a worthy contribution to knowledge and public debate. My happiness was short-lived, however, since the publisher’s legal team vetoed the article because of the apparently “litigious” behaviour of some of the article’s (anonymised) subjects. Ironically, the article was about the antisemitism of non-Jewish people who proclaim to be fighting antisemitism on the behalf of Jewish people. Once again, it was hard not to see this breach of my academic freedom as a result of the chilling effects of the IHRA.

Reading the first-ever report on the adverse impact of the IHRA definition on academic freedom following its adoption by 75 per cent of UK universities, it is clear that my experiences are not isolated. Nor have I been subjected to the thick end of the wedge.

The report’s seemingly logical statements that “No institution has the right to limit or forbid lawful criticism of Israel or anti-Zionist views” and that “the history and politics of Palestine, and the conditions of life of Palestinians, are also matters of institutional, national, and international public interest” run counter to what has been a creeping chilling of research and debate on university campuses in the UK.

Indeed, what becomes clear from the report – which provides an analysis of 40 cases between 2017 and 2022 in which university staff and students were accused of antisemitism based on the IHRA definition – is that those wielding the IHRA definition aim to drag academics and students who carry out research on Palestine or support Palestinian human rights through debilitating investigations and internal disciplinary processes.

As the report, which was published by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies and the European Legal Support Centre, makes clear, the fact that all of the cases resulted in exoneration – except for two cases that are still ongoing – is not the point. Many of the staff and students who were subjected to investigations reported that their research or studies had suffered. A Palestine student society lost nearly all its members because they were scared of being tarnished by the IHRA brush. Those subjected to investigations and disciplinary processes, which can stretch out for months and even years, are left with fears of careers and reputations in tatters, with major ramifications for their own and their family’s mental and emotional well-being.

Yet instilling such fears now seems to be the objective of those who wield the IHRA definition. It is classic McCarthyism. They want staff and students thinking of speaking out about Palestine to ask themselves: “Is it worth it?” Will their employer renew their contract if they do? Will they be promoted? Or will they be suspended? Will their mental and emotional health withstand the protracted uncertainty and public shaming?

This not only calls into question the compliance of UK universities with their legal obligation to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression. It is also leading universities away from their core mission of nurturing critical thought, facilitating unhindered research and encouraging wide-ranging debate.

Defenders of the IHRA definition counter that it is not “legally binding” and merely a guide for university committees. But this is irrelevant. It is being routinely used in a way that silences and discriminates against Palestinians and others who wish to teach, research or speak out against the oppression of Palestinians.

This is particularly troubling since antisemitism is alive and kicking in UK higher education and society more generally, as my own lifelong experiences illustrate. Fighting it is necessary and urgent. But adopting a definition of antisemitism that curtails free debate while simultaneously failing to protect Jews who are discriminated against is not the way to do so.

Clive Gabay is a reader in international politics at Queen Mary University of London.

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Reader's comments (1)

The article written by Clive Gabay reflects a misguided and one-sided perspective on the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance). Mr. Gabay's article is a clear example of bias that seeks to undermine the legitimate efforts to combat antisemitism while promoting a particular political agenda. His claims that the IHRA definition of antisemitism chills debate and fails to protect Jews are both unsubstantiated and misleading. Firstly, Gabay conflates demonization of Israel with academic freedom, which is a disservice to the important responsibility which society entrusts universities with. The IHRA definition does not stifle criticism of Israel; it merely discourages the use of antisemitic tropes or rhetoric under the guise of criticism. This is a necessary step in ensuring that debates about Israel and Palestine remain constructive and free from hate speech. Gabay's anecdotal experiences, while regrettable, do not provide a comprehensive view of the impact of the IHRA definition. It is unreasonable to expect a definition to eliminate all instances of antisemitism instantly. Antisemitism is a deeply entrenched problem that requires a multifaceted approach, and the IHRA definition is just one tool among many. Furthermore, the notion that the IHRA definition has a chilling effect on academic freedom is unsubstantiated. The definition explicitly protects lawful criticism of Israel and anti-Zionist views, ensuring that academics can continue their research and debates without fear of repercussions. It is worth noting that the vast majority of universities that adopted the IHRA definition do not experience any significant limitations on academic freedom. Gabay's comparison of the IHRA definition to McCarthyism is a gross exaggeration and an insult to the memory of those who suffered during that dark period in American history. There is no government-sponsored witch hunt or persecution of individuals for their political beliefs as there was during the McCarthy era. The IHRA definition is a tool to combat antisemitism, not to silence dissenting voices. Finally, it is disingenuous for Gabay to claim that the IHRA definition fails to protect Jews who are discriminated against. The definition serves precisely this purpose by providing a clear framework to identify and combat antisemitism in all its forms. The fact that some individuals may misuse or misinterpret it does not diminish its value in fighting discrimination. In other words, Clive Gabay's critique of the IHRA antisemitism definition is one-sided, misleading, and fails to acknowledge the critical importance of addressing antisemitism while preserving constructive free speech and academic freedom. What is truly chilling are the ideological blinders that the author of this article flaunts so proudly.