A report by an academic association and a legal center has called on UK universities to drop the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which they say is being used to falsely accuse and harass students and staff who criticize Israel.
The report, released on Wednesday, was co-authored by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) and the European Legal Support Centre (ELSC), which provide support for academics and activists advocating for Palestinian rights. The report analyzed 40 cases reported to the ELSC, in which staff and students were accused of antisemitism based on the IHRA definition. The report found that none of the cases were substantiated, and that 38 of them were dismissed or cleared. The remaining two cases are still pending.
The report argued that the IHRA definition, which has been adopted by more than 200 universities, colleges, and higher education providers in the UK, is undermining academic freedom and freedom of expression on campuses. The report said that the definition, which includes 11 examples of antisemitism, seven of which relate to Israel, conflates anti-Jewish prejudice with political debate over Israel and Palestine. The report also said that the definition is disproportionately targeting Palestinian, Black, and ethnic minority staff and students, who are already under-represented and marginalized in UK academia.
The report cited examples of how the IHRA definition has been used to cancel events, monitor lectures and speeches, censor reading lists and course materials, and damage the reputation and career prospects of those accused of antisemitism. The report also highlighted the psychological and emotional impact of the accusations on the individuals involved, as well as the chilling effect on the wider academic community.
The report called on the UK government, universities, and the National Union of Students to retract their endorsement of the IHRA definition, as it is inappropriate for higher education institutions, which have legal obligations to secure academic freedom and freedom of expression. The report also urged the Office for Students, Britain’s regulator for Higher Education, to stop recommending the IHRA definition.
Not Fit in Any Way
The report’s authors said that they are committed to the struggle against antisemitism and all forms of racism, but that the IHRA definition is not fit for purpose and is harming rather than helping this cause. They said that the IHRA definition is being used as a tool to silence and punish legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies and violations of human rights and international law.
The report’s findings echo previous criticisms of the IHRA definition by prominent lawyers and judges, who have warned that it is vague, confusing, and potentially unlawful². The report also contradicts the claims by former education secretary Gavin Williamson, who threatened universities with funding cuts if they failed to adopt the IHRA definition in 2020. Williamson said that adopting the IHRA definition would send a clear message that antisemitism is not tolerated in UK universities.
However, a separate report published by UCL academics in December 2020 challenged this view and recommended that UCL should not adopt the IHRA definition. The report said that adopting the IHRA definition would not protect Jewish students or staff from antisemitism, but would rather create a hostile environment for those who express views on Israel and Palestine. In February 2021, UCL’s board rejected the IHRA definition following this recommendation.