Nearly 75% of UK universities have adopted a definition of antisemitism that restricts academic freedom.
The definition comes from International Holocaust Memorial Alliance (IHRA) and runs 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.
The definition includes a list of examples of antisemitism. These include:
- 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.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
The adequacy of the IHRA definition is heavily disputed by scholars of the subject. Professor David Feldman, Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, has described it as “bewilderingly imprecise”. It is arguable that both the above quoted examples conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and that the first furthermore conflates criticism of the state of Israel with denial of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. See, for instance, Klug, Ullrich and Goldberg. Note, moreover, that both examples are not intended to be exclusive, but “illustrative” – they imply that a broad range of criticisms of Israel constitute antisemitism.
A full list of UK universities that have adopted the IHRA definition is available here, and amounts to nearly 75% of UK universities. Adoption of the definition allows formal complaints of antisemitism to be made against academics who criticise Israel.
Between January 2017 and May 2022, the European Legal Support Centre (ELSC) recorded 40 cases of university members being accused of antisemitism on the basis of the IHRA definition: see its report, now publicly available. The accusations were found to be false in 38 out of 40 cases. In the two remaining cases, they are yet to be substantiated. Many of the accusations of antisemitism were rejected by university authorities only after extensive disciplinary procedures and formal investigations.
Disciplinary investigations are severely stressful for those subject to them. In some cases they lead to a permanent loss of reputation. Universities are instinctively cautious, and unwilling to hire an academic who has been investigated for antisemitism – even one who has been acquitted.
The sheer unpleasantness of being wrongly investigated (resulting, in one case, in chronic stress), combined with potential damage to career, deters academics from researching topics related to Israel. One academic reports rewriting the title and abstract of a paper so that it would be less easy to find online.
The IHRA definition has been widely condemned as inappropriate for universities, including by its chief author, Kenneth Stern. A working group at University College London which investigated means of combatting antisemitism in the university has recommended in a full report that the definition should not be adopted. Only 29 UK universities used the definition before 2020. They were then threatened with cuts by the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson unless they adopted it, and the number rose to 95.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism restricts academic freedom; it has been heavily criticised by scholars of antisemitism; and it was imposed on universities by government threats. UK universities should abandon it.