Free speech, Israel-Palestine and the battle to define anti-Semitism at British universities

Free speech, Israel-Palestine and the battle to define anti-Semitism at British universities
6 min read
17 March, 2021
In-depth: UCL academics say the IHRA definition does nothing to eradicate anti-Semitism but shuts down debate on Palestine.
UCL's Academic Board has rejected the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. [Getty]
University College London will review its definition of anti-Semitism after senior academics voted overwhelmingly to reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) working definition of the term.

UCL first adopted the IHRA definition in February 2019. The decision was taken unilaterally by the University Council, UCL's highest governing body, without consultation with the Academic Board, an advisory body comprised of over 1,500 UCL academics. 

The Academic Board has now called on the university to "retract and replace the IHRA working definition with a more precise [one]". 

The vote followed a report published in December 2020 by a working group of UCL academics which raised concerns that the IHRA definition is "not fit for purpose" in a university context and "has no legal basis for enforcement".

The report does not take issue with the definition itself but with the 11 examples of anti-Semitism published alongside it by the IHRA. Seven of these relate to discourse on Israel, including "claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour" and "applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation."

The Working Group on Racism and Prejudice, led by Professor Seth Anziska of the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Department, warned that these examples conflate anti-Jewish racism with criticism of Israel, which could have "potentially deleterious effects on free speech".

UCL will review its definition of anti-Semitism after senior academics voted to reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of the term

Moreover, the group's yearlong investigation concluded that the IHRA definition does nothing to protect students from anti-Semitism. On the contrary, the report expressed concerns that "incidents of antisemitism have persisted in our university".

The Academic Board's vote was supported by the UCL branch of the University and College Union, as well as Palestinian student groups.

Read more: Gavin Williamson's 'free speech champion'
is a contradiction in terms

However, speaking to The New Arab, President of UCL Jewish Society Samuel Goldstone expressed dismay at the board's decision and argued that retracting the definition – and its attendant examples – puts Jewish students at risk of further racist abuse, at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise globally. 

Freedom of expression

Anti-Semitism can be expressed in the form of ostensibly anti-Zionist remarks, which Jewish students at UCL feel has prevented the issue from being adequately addressed. Samuel Goldstone insists that "IHRA protects against that very well". 

On the other hand, critics say that the IHRA definition carries a presumption of guilt with regards to speech on Israel. That is, it implicitly requires individuals to prove they are not anti-Semitic before voicing criticism of Israel, effectively shutting down debate.

Palestinian students, meanwhile, and those advocating for Palestinian rights, have long faced obstacles to their own freedom of expression.

There is concern that the IHRA definition is being weaponised to further shut down debate on Palestine

Since 2015, the Government's Counterterrorism programme Prevent has mandated universities to vet pro-Palestine activists as "at risk" of violent extremism. Now, there is concern that IHRA is being weaponised to further shut down debate on Palestine.

The working group report cites one such instance at UCL, where an art exhibition featuring an embroidered map of historic Palestine was reported for 'hidden anti-Semitism' by a visiting summer student. In 2017, Israel Apartheid Week at Lancashire University was shut down, with UK Lawyers for Israel claiming that the event "conflicted with IHRA".

While the IHRA definition is not legally binding, the report states that its adoption has "instigated a culture of fear or self-silencing on teaching or research or classroom discussion of contentious topics". 

A referendum on identity politics

The battle over the IHRA definition at UCL evokes many of the tensions which have dominated the UK Labour Party's split over the same issue in recent years.

Under its former leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour maintained a policy of only partially adopting the definition, leaving out some of the examples which pertained to Israel. However, following years of political pressure in 2019 the party adopted all 11 examples.

Read more: Is Israel an apartheid state?

Universities are now the latest battleground over this issue. In December 2020, Conservative Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened to withhold funding from institutions who refused to adopt the IHRA definition in full. 

While the majority of Russell Group universities have yielded to this demand, Williamson's heavy-handed tactics appear to have backfired at UCL, where the academic community has retaliated against what they view as improper interference in university life. 

Unlike political parties, universities are bound by statutory duties regarding academic freedom, and have obligations to protect free speech under UK law. In this regard, the UCL example suggests that there will be opportunities for legal pushback against pressure to adopt the IHRA definition in full, which would not be available in the UK political context.

And while the issue of Palestinian rights featured very little in the Labour Party controversy, it is likely to play a more significant role at UCL and other universities, where historically the Palestinian movement has enjoyed considerable support in student and academic circles.

However, as in the Labour Party, the debate over anti-Semitism at UCL has been toxic to the point that it has moved away from the question of how to adequately deal with the issue of racism and prejudice and has become a referendum on identity politics.

The vote has certainly galvanised progressive opinion within the university, and also provided a model for other universities to follow

Supporters of the IHRA definition, such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews, have long argued that Jews - and Jews alone - should define anti-Jewish racism, and that to deny them this right is itself tantamount to anti-Semitism.

On this point, Amina Harrath, President of the UCL Students for Justice in Palestine Society, responded that "Jews and Jewish students should be able to define their struggle and what antisemitism is for them. No one is rejecting that. It's only when that definition infringes on another group's freedom to express themselves, and to define their struggle, that we take issue."

Moreover, the debates which have unfolded at UCL over the last year have shown there is disagreement within the Jewish community over what constitutes anti-Jewish racism.

Read more: The right to boycott: BDS, Israel and the ECHR

According to Professor Judith Suissa, a member of the working group who is herself Jewish and Israeli, "questions around Israel which are part of IHRA through the examples, are questions on which there is no settled opinion."

She added: "It was important for me to speak up as someone who is part of the Jewish community but does not agree with those claiming to speak on behalf of everyone in [that] community. There is a legitimate position within Judaism that is anti-ethnonationalist, which is denied by IHRA".

However, if the working group has attempted to bring balance and substance to what has been a bitterly toxic debate, they have been met with hostility from some constituents of UCL's academic community who have accused the working group of aiding and abetting a return to Jewish student anxiety, or worse, of disloyalty to the Jewish community. "These are outrageous claims", responds Professor Suissa.

The vote has certainly galvanised progressive opinion within the university, and also provided a model for other universities to follow.

There is no guarantee however that the IHRA definition will be successfully challenged. UCL's new provost, Professor Michael Spence, is obliged to consider the Academic Board's recommendations, but he will be wary of reputational damage, and may opt to simply clarify how the university will use the IHRA definition, either as an educational tool, or as an informal reference guide which does not supersede existing legislation and procedures. 

The final decision remains with the university council, which will vote on the matter later this month.

Ziad Al-Qattan is a London-based freelance journalist. He holds an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford. Follow him on Twitter: @ziadqattan