Geoffrey Alderman
Geoffrey Alderman

Imposing IHRA definition risks increasing anti-Jewish sentiment

Anti-Israel demonstrators at SOAS (Jewish News)
Anti-Israel demonstrators at SOAS (Jewish News)

On 20 January the Academic Board of University College London [UCL] will debate the report of its “Working Group on Racism and Prejudice.” The bulk of this report addresses the “working definition” of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA] in 2016, and endorsed by UCL some three years later. In the view of the Working Group, that endorsement should ideally be retracted, but if not then the Working Group suggests that the college Council should “confirm that the IHRA working definition has no legal force and does not supersede existing law and policy in UCL.”

Much of the detail in the Working Group’s report addresses the accusation that the application of the IHRA definition in an academic context has served primarily to curtail legitimate debate on the State of Israel and in particular that State’s conduct towards its own Arab citizens and Arabs living in Judea and Samaria.

My own experience is that such debate – which is certainly legitimate in principle – has not in fact been generally curtailed. True, there have been a handful of incidents in which anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian events in a university setting have been shut down following representations by sundry Jewish lobbies. But it is equally true that some such events, having been allowed to go ahead, have been marred by anti-Jewish rhetoric. In most cases of shut-down, what the university authorities feared (or at least said they feared) was the outbreak of physical disruption and violence. What they feared was most certainly not any supposed breach of an IHRA protocol.

My own views on the detail of the IHRA protocol [by which I mean the “working definition” of antisemitism plus the eleven examples formally appended to this definition] are well known. On 9 October last, on the Jewish News blog site, I set out my view that while the IHRA definition certainly had some value, it was also deeply flawed.[1]

I drew attention to these flaws, the greatest of which – in my view – is that the definition fails to address, explicitly, the accusation that Jews were and are Christ-killers. This is in fact the oldest antisemitic trope, but it only features in the IHRA protocol when employed to characterise Israelis or Israel. It would in fact be possible for – let us say – a university student society to run an event condemning Jews as murderers of Jesus of Nazareth, but for the university authorities to say that whilst they fully endorsed the IHRA definition, the society in question had every right to sponsor such an event. Devotees of the IHRA definition seem unable to grasp this reality.

But whilst debate on the detail of the IHRA protocol continues, it has been overtaken by the extraordinary letter – also dated 9 October last – written by the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson and addressed to heads of higher education providers in England. In that letter Mr Williamson uttered a threat: that if by Christmas he had not seen “the overwhelming majority of institutions” adopting the IHRA definition, then he would “act.” By “act” he explained that he had asked his officials “to consider options that include directing the OfS [Office for Students] to impose a new regulatory condition of registration and suspending funding streams for universities at which antisemitic incidents occur and which have not signed up to the definition.”

Mr Williamson’s letter has changed, fundamentally and certainly as far as English higher-education institutions are concerned, the debate about the IHRA definition. That debate is no longer about the detail of the definition, but is now focussed squarely on the much more sensitive issue of university autonomy.

I addressed this issue in an article published in Times Higher Education [THE] on 7 December 2020.[2]  “The end here [I wrote] is to impose upon institutions a mode of thought: Mr Williamson is telling providers that unless they adopt a particular mode of thought (in relation to anti-Jewish prejudice), they could find themselves at the receiving end of financial penalties, and they might even endanger their registration with the Office for Students, which registration is essential if their eligible students are to draw down tuition funding from the Student Loans Company.”

I also pointed out that, currently, the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers is protected by virtue of Section 2 of the Higher Education & Research Act that established the OfS. If Mr Williamson genuinely intends to compel higher education providers to adopt the IHRA definition, he will need to amend that Act. But does he?

There are currently no less than 417 higher education institutions registered with the OfS.[3] My own inquiries suggest that nothing approaching an “overwhelming majority” of them have adopted the IHRA definition. In the UK as a whole there are 133 fully-fledged universities: apparently only 42 of them have to date adopted the definition.[4] Again, hardly an “overwhelming majority”!

We then have to ask what “adopt” actually means in this context. When, on 23 December 2020, the University of Oxford announced that it had adopted the IHRA definition, there was much triumphalist rejoicing in certain Jewish circles. But the statement published by Oxford’s Equality & Diversity Unit makes it quite clear that “the IHRA definition does not affect the legal definition of racial discrimination, so does not change our approach to meeting our legal duties and responsibilities.”[5]

In my professional life I naturally network with fellow institutional heads. Those who have adopted the IHRA definition tell me that they did so without the least enthusiasm, viewing it as nothing more than a tiresome tick-box exercise. But I have also detected an annoyance that they should have been compelled to tick this particular box, particularly when they point to their current legal obligations under the Equality Act of 2010.

As I said in my THE article, anti-Jewish prejudice on campus is without doubt a serious problem. But legislation is already on the statute book to deal with it, namely the Equality Act – the very act that was used by the Equality & Human Rights Commission to such devastating effect in relation to the Labour Party. It’s also worth drawing attention to the recent report that a refund of £15,000 in fees had been made to a student who had had to withdraw from his course of studies at an English university where he alleged that he had been the victim of a  “toxic, antisemitic environment on campus.”[6] The institution concerned was none other than the School of Oriental & African Studies, which has steadfastly refused to sign up to the IHRA definition. This omission clearly did not prevent it from agreeing to make restitution.

So where does that leave the IHRA definition? Even its cheerleaders agree that it was never intended to be used as a legally enforceable instrument, to be forced down the throats of unwilling and cynical academicians – a process that is bound to increase anti-Jewish sentiment.

Last week I asked the Department for Education for an update on Mr Williamson’s 9 October letter. “The Government [the DfE told me] expects institutions to take a zero tolerance approach to antisemitism, with robust measures in place to address issues when they arise. Since the Education Secretary sent his letter, at least 27 additional institutions have adopted the IHRA definition, and we would encourage more to do so. We will continue to work with institutions to eradicate antisemitism from our world-leading higher education sector.”

This wording suggests that the Secretary of State is having second thoughts about his 9 October threat. Is it too much to hope that it will now be formally withdrawn?


[2] [£]


[4] Jonathan Hoffman: [10 January 2021]




About the Author
Professor Geoffrey Alderman is an academic, author and journalist
Related Topics
Related Posts