IHRA antisemitism definition ‘undermining academic freedom’

Authors of report examining complaints say definition has become ‘political tool’ used to silence criticism of Israel

September 13, 2023
Protestors outside a meeting to decide on the party's new antisemitism definition to illustrate HRA antisemitism definition ‘undermining academic freedom’
Source: Getty Images

Use in complaints against students and academics of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism, which the Westminster government has told English universities to adopt, is “undermining academic freedom and freedom of expression”, a report argues.

The report from the European Legal Support Centre (ELSC), established to “defend advocates of Palestinian rights across mainland Europe and the UK”, and academics in the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (Brismes), looks at “40 cases that were reported to the ELSC and in which UK university staff and/or students were accused of antisemitism on the basis of the ‘IHRA working definition of antisemitism’…between 2017 and 2022”.

Campus resource: A DIY guide to protecting academic freedom

“In all instances, except in two ongoing cases, the accusations of antisemitism were rejected,” the report says. “The final two have yet to be substantiated.

“Overall, this report finds that the IHRA definition of antisemitism is undermining academic freedom and freedom of expression on campuses through its use in complaints processes against lawful speech in relation to Israel-Palestine.”

Ministers have told universities to adopt the IHRA definition to show a stand against antisemitism on campus, or face regulatory action.

The IHRA working definition provides examples of antisemitism such as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

The ELSC and Brismes report says that “university staff and students are being subjected to unreasonable investigations and disciplinary proceedings based on the IHRA definition”.

The report says that of “24 cases against university staff” citing the IHRA working definition, “18 led to an investigation or to a formal disciplinary hearing. In the case of an investigation, all resulted in findings of ‘no case to answer’. In the case of formal hearings, all staff were ‘exonerated of all charges’. In other words, every allegation of antisemitism was found to be false.”

In six “either a formal complaint was never lodged, the university decided not to open an investigation or the complaint was dismissed”, it adds.

In conclusion, the report says the government “should retract its instruction to universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, as it is inappropriate for higher education institutions, which have legal obligations to secure academic freedom and freedom of speech”, while the definition “should not be adopted, implemented or promoted by any higher education institution”.

Neve Gordon, chair of Brismes’ committee on academic freedom and a professor of international human rights and humanitarian law at Queen Mary University of London, said that after the government’s interventions urging universities to adopt IHRA, “Brismes and the European Legal Support Centre received many requests of support from staff and students who have been accused of antisemitism because they criticised the policies of the Israeli government or just ‘liked’ some tweets about Israel or about the Labour Party.

“We began noticing a pattern of what appeared to be spurious accusations which are causing considerable stress and reputational damage to individuals in academia and decided to investigate the matter.”

Professor Gordon added: “As a Jewish parent, whose children have experienced antisemitism in a London school, it is clear to me that the IHRA definition of antisemitism is diverting our attention from real manifestations of antisemitism in UK higher education and society more generally. Instead of combating antisemitism, the IHRA definition has become a political tool to undermine and punish protected speech voiced by Palestinian and other students and staff who criticise Israeli policies.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

Adoption of the IHRA definition also restricts evaluation of beliefs about the Holocaust within academia, which is arguably of more general cultural significance than relatively minor criticisms of Israel's domestic or foreign policies.
The IHRA definition fails to distinguish between being nasty about the Jewish people and faith (which is of course abhorrent) and legitimate criticism of the nation-state of Israel, according to them both class as 'antisemitic'.