In May 2016 the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted a “non-legally binding definition of antisemitism” as follows:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Albeit awkwardly expressed, imprecise and inadequate, it was nevertheless a largely innocuous statement. However, in circumstances that have never been fully explained, eleven “contemporary examples of antisemitism” were appended to the definition, seven of which refer explicitly to criticism of Israel. It thus became an instrument for suppressing public discussion of Israeli policies towards Palestinians, and for the past six years Israel’s friends in Britain have aggressively pushed the definition onto public bodies. In 2020 the Conservative minister for housing, communities and local government Robert Jenrick actually threatened universities with a loss of funding if they failed to adopt it.

Throughout this time, BRICUP has sought to highlight the pernicious effects of the definition upon free speech at UK universities. It therefore warmly welcomes the new report, “Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom in UK Higher Education: The Adverse Impact of the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism”, prepared jointly by the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), which sets out with startling clarity the disastrous consequences of the definition for our universities. Academics, students, administrators and politicians of all parties should take special note of the Report’s call for action to end this assault on freedom of expression.

The following is the Executive Summary of the full Report which can be found here and here.

We are committed to the struggle against antisemitism and all forms of racism. Antisemitism exists within UK society and incidents of anti-Jewish prejudice occur in higher education institutions, just as in other institutional contexts. Antisemitism must be addressed, and institutions should seek to prevent it.

However, universities must do so in a way that does not discriminate directly or indirectly against others or undermine academic freedom and freedom of speech.

This report demonstrates that accusations of antisemitism levelled against students and staff in UK universities are often based on a definition of antisemitism that is not fit for purpose and, in practice, is undercutting academic freedom and the rights to lawful speech of students and staff, and causing harm to the reputations and careers of those accused.

This report was produced by the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), Europe’s leading scholarly association concerned with the study of the Middle East and North Africa. The report is based on an analysis of 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’ (‘IHRA definition’), between 2017 and 2022. In all instances, except for two ongoing cases, the accusations of antisemitism were rejected. The final two have yet to be substantiated. On the basis of these findings, this report recommends against the adoption and use of the IHRA definition in a higher education setting. However it is beyond the remit of the report to suggest alternative definitions while the Human Rights Act of 1998 and the 2010 Equality Act provide the necessary legal tools to combat antisemitism and hate speech more generally.

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted a ‘working definition of antisemitism’, to which was appended a list of illustrative examples. Several of the examples conflate criticisms of Israel, its illegal policies, practices and the political ideology on which the state was founded, with antisemitism. These examples contradict the IHRA definition itself and reflect positions advanced by advocates of Israeli policies towards Palestinians.

The definition and illustrative examples have been invoked in many contexts in the UK. This report shows that since its adoption by UK higher education institutions, the IHRA definition has been used in ways that delegitimise points of view critical of Israel and/or in support of Palestinian rights, in violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech. It is noteworthy that the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, E. Tendayi Achiume, has warned against the use of the definition ‘owing to its susceptibility to being politically instrumentalised and the harm done to human rights resulting from such instrumentalization.’

There is widespread agreement among scholars and legal experts (including the lead drafter of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern) that the IHRA definition is not appropriate for university settings where critical thought and free debate are paramount. Nevertheless, in 2020, the then Secretary of State for Education threatened university leaders with punitive financial consequences if their institutions did not adopt the IHRA definition. As a result, 119 universities (almost 75% of UK universities) have adopted some version of the definition as a basis for campus policies.

Contrary to what many institutions seem to believe, it is simply not possible to use the IHRA definition to determine whether or not an individual incident or statement is antisemitic, whilst simultaneously protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom and preventing discrimination. To attempt to do so inevitably leads to damaging and iniquitous consequences for staff and students.