UK under fire for forcing anti-Semitism definition on universities

UK education secretary under fire for demanding universities adopt IHRA anti-Semitism definition
3 min read
08 January, 2021
A group of lawyers have written an open letter condemning the UK minister's threats and accusing him of undermining free expression.
Gavin Williamson has threatened to cut funding to universities [Getty]
A group of lawyers have accused UK education secretary Gavin Williamson of undermining free expression, after the politician demanded that English universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.

In an open letter to The Guardian, the eight signatories, which includes two former appeals court judges, have said that it was legally and morally wrong for the cabinet minister to instruct universities to adopt and implement the IHRA's definition of anti-Semitism, or face financial penalties.

"The legally entrenched right to free expression is being undermined by an internally incoherent 'non-legally binding working definition' of antisemitism," the lawyers said in the letter. "Its promotion by public bodies is leading to the curtailment of debate."

Williamson had previously warned university vice-chancellors that if a majority of universities failed to adopt the IHRA definition by December, then he would take action, alluding to the possibility of funding cuts.

The threat of action was labelled as an "improper interference with their autonomy" by the letter's authors. 

The signatories highlighted the shortcomings they perceive in the IHRA definition, and specifically the "illustrative examples of statements that could be antisemitic".

Accompanying the 40-word-long IHRA definition are 11 illustrative examples, seven of which relate to Israel.

The letter's authors claim that these examples have been "widely used to suppress or avoid criticism of the state of Israel".

The letter notes the clash between the IHRA definition and existing British law, most notably, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Anti-semitism is a growing problem on British campus, as highlighted in a 2020 report by Community Security Trust (CST), which works with the UK Jewish community on security issues.

The CST report "recorded a total of 58 university incidents in the 2018/2019 academic year and 65 university incidents in the 2019/2020 academic year, making a total of 123 antisemitic incidents during the two years covered by this report".

Debates regarding the definition are continuing at some English universities, but other have chosen to adopt the IHRA definition.

A study by the Union of Jewish Students reported that 51 out of a total 133 higher education institutes have adopted the IHRA definition. This includes a number of the UK’s most elite universities, such Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and University College London. 

The adoption of the IHRA definition has long clashed with arguments of freedom of expression, particularly in relation to university campuses both in the UK and abroad.

Read more: The IHRA definition of antisemitism is an attack on free speech

In 2019, Kenneth Stern, one of the authors of the definition, wrote: "It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code,"  adding that, "on a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression."

Stern explained that the primary purpose of the definition was to aid in the collection of data related to anti-semitism. 

Closing their letter, the signatories, which includes Sir Anthony Hooper and Sir Stephen Sedley, both retired lord justices of appeal, said that, "The impact on public discourse both inside and outside universities has already been significant."

They called on the education minister to withdraw his threats. 

A spokesman's for the Department of Education said: "The government expects institutions to take a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism, with robust measures in place to address issues when they arise."

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