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IHRA definition of anti-semitism is ‘not fit for purpose’ at universities, academics conclude

by Bethany Rielly

A CONTROVERSIAL definition of anti-semitism is “not fit for purpose within a university setting” and cannot be legally enforced, a major report by a group of UCL academics has concluded. 

Universities have come under increasing pressure from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Jewish prejudice. 

However, the report published today says that the definition is “not fit within a university setting” and is a weak tool for university action against anti-semitic harassment.

The report, compiled over a year by members of UCL’s academic board in consultation with anti-semitism experts and eminent lawyers, calls on the top London university to drop the definition.

It calls on the university’s council – or governing body – to “consider more coherent alternatives.” An academic board vote on the issue is due later this month. 

The definition, adopted by 48 universities so far, has been widely criticised for suppressing legitimate criticism of Israel and silencing advocates of Palestinian rights. 

The report found that the IHRA definition risks conflating criticism of Israel or zionism with anti-semitism. 

“By blurring these boundaries,” it states, “the IHRA working definition risks undermining academic freedom.”

Mr Williamson has claimed that he could pull funding from universities that refuse to adopt the definition.  

The report said that the Education Secretary’s threats put universities’ autonomy and independence in “serious peril.”

It comes after a group of lawyers, including two former appeal court judges, last week described Mr Williamson’s rhetoric as “legally and morally wrong.”

Human rights lawyer and UCL visiting professor Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, who was consulted on the report, said: “Concerns about the coercive attempts to force public bodies to adopt the IHRA definition are clearly shared by lawyers and academics alike. 

“The government must cease its pressure on institutions to curtail debate and restrict freedom of expression.”

Palestine Solidarity Campaign director Ben Jamal said: “The definition has been used to prevent both discussion of the facts of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and calls for action to address that oppression. It thereby undermines freedom of expression at universities and more widely.”

A UCL spokesperson said that the definition had been adopted in 2019 following a consultation with the “entire UCL community,” including those affected by racism.

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