A group of top lawyers, including two retired lord justices of appeal, have signed an open letter arguing that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is wrong to force universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
Williamson wrote to universities in October with threats of withdrawing funding and degree-awarding powers if universities did not adopt the IHRA definition, saying “If I have not seen the overwhelming majority of institutions adopting the definition by Christmas then I will act”.
He further said: “I have asked my officials to consider options that include directing the [Office for Students] to impose a new regulatory condition of registration and suspending funding streams for universities at which anti-Semitic incidents occur and which have not signed up to the definition.”
The lawyers’ letter, dated 7 January and published by The Guardian, states that free speech at universities is undermined by Williamson’s instruction to adopt the definition, and that carrying out his threats towards the universities “would be an improper interference with their autonomy”.
The IHRA working definition reads: “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.”
Examples accompanying the definition are the subject of concern among academics and advocates for freedom of speech. The lawyers’ letter reads: “The majority of these examples do not refer to Jews as such, but to Israel. They have been widely used to suppress or avoid criticism of the state of Israel.”
A University College London (UCL) report on the IHRA definition takes issue with the following example, which the IHRA gives as an example of antisemitism according to their definition: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”
It is quite disturbing that half a dozen upstanding legal minds agreed to have their name associated with a claim which can be debunked by taking five minutes to actually read the document in question
– Marie van der Zyl
The report explicitly expresses concern about “the manner in which the IHRA working definition disproportionally draws debates over Israel and Palestine into conversations around antisemitism, potentially conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism”.
The report also argues that: “A reasonable person might agree or disagree with some of the propositions listed in the definition without being antisemitic. There were grounds for reasonable debate, which should not be stifled by unfounded accusations of antisemitism.”
Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, criticised the letter strongly, talking to The Algemeiner: “Many of the arguments against adoption of the IHRA definition are based on a total misreading — willful or otherwise — of the definition itself.
“It is quite disturbing that half a dozen upstanding legal minds agreed to have their name associated with a claim which can be debunked by taking five minutes to actually read the document in question.”
Also speaking to The Algemeiner, Johnathan Turner, chief executive of the lobby group UK Lawyers for Israel, disputed the letter’s claims: “Far from curtailing freedom of speech, adoption of the IHRA definition by British universities is likely to promote it by making Jews and others feel more secure.”
Kenneth Stern, one of the original drafters of the IHRA definition, told The Guardian that the working definition “was never intended to be a campus hate speech code”.
Speaking about similar enforcement on American college campuses, he said: “I’m a Zionist. But on a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression.”
Warwick Jewish Israeli Society asked the University of Warwick to adopt the IHRA definition in May 2019. President Angus Taylor told The Boar last year: “The ‘value’ of the IHRA definition is that it acknowledges this distinctiveness and provides a number of contemporary examples that elucidate this.”
However, the University originally refused to adopt the definition, and was supported by an open letter signed by staff across multiple university departments, urging it to continue refusing.
A joint statement from five SU societies said “It is undeniable that Israel’s current existence is based on racism towards Palestinians”, and called on the University to adopt a definition of antisemitism, but not the IHRA one.
The University U-turned and adopted the IHRA definition three weeks after the date of Williamson’s letter.