Last week UCL’s academic board recommended that the university replace the IHRA working definition of antisemitism with an alternative. At a time when antisemitism is rising, we understand the fear that this places Jewish students at greater risk. But, as former and current UCL students, we believe that the IHRA does not protect Jewish students and has dangerous implications for Palestinian rights and freedom of speech on campus.
Antisemitism is real and it exists on university campuses. In the last few years UCL has seen swastikas drawn on posters of Jewish student political candidates and leaflets promoting Holocaust denial distributed on campus. This is not to mention the frequent and unreported antisemitism Jewish students face, from tropes about power and money to racist slurs. While these experiences are widespread and deeply painful they have often been played down and not taken seriously.
However, the IHRA working definition does nothing to protect students from antisemitism on campus. As the UCL academic board points out, there is no example of antisemitism outlined in the IHRA that is not already covered by equalities legislation or codes of conduct. Any anti-discrimination measure will only work if it can be enforced, which the IHRA cannot be. Universities are already legally obliged to combat discrimination by the Equality Act 2010. When applied, it has been effective at addressing antisemitism. Adopting the IHRA gives the illusion of substantially combatting antisemitism but in reality does little to keep Jewish students safe.
As well as providing no additional protection to Jewish students, the definition risks silencing criticism of Israel. In 2017 Israel Apartheid Week events were cancelled at Lancashire and Manchester universities, with UK Lawyers for Israel stating that they would “conflict with the IHRA definition”. In 2019 the ‘Big Ride for Palestine’ charity event was not authorised by Tower Hamlets council as officials feared the event would breach the IHRA terms.
These incidents demonstrate precisely the “culture of fear and self-silencing” that the UCL board anticipates the IHRA introducing in universities. This trajectory is deeply disturbing: the right-wing group NGO Monitor, notorious for hounding progressive organisations with spurious accusations of antisemitism, has recently advocated using the IHRA to limit funding to human rights NGOs. Some argue that such conflation is only possible when the definition is willingly misinterpreted; for us, a definition whose wording so lends itself to misinterpretation is not fit for purpose.
The definition also infringes on the safety and rights of Palestinian students. To speak about the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians conducted to establish the state of Israel in 1948, could brush up against the IHRA example that suggesting “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour” constitutes antisemitism. Criticism of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem has before perversely been considered “applying double standards” to Israel. In this way, the IHRA impedes Palestinians’ ability to speak about their own or their family’s experiences of Israel’s racism either today or historically. While these issues might make some in our community uncomfortable, discussing them is definitively not antisemitic.
Knowing what it is to be a minority on campus, we should not be comfortable with a definition that endangers other marginalised groups. Our efforts to ensure our own safety cannot be at the expense of others’. Indeed Jewish safety will never be achieved by silencing Palestinians: without liberation for all, the safety of any minority group remains precarious.
A worrying trend has developed where anyone who challenges the merits of the IHRA definition is deemed to not care about antisemitism. The IHRA’s uptake by universities does little to protect Jews, but is creating real fractures in our community. Last year David Feldman received extensive outrage after he denounced the definition. Many Jewish academics who contributed to the robust process that led to the UCL board’s recommendation have since faced backlash. Applying the IHRA as a litmus test to determine a person or institution’s support for Jews creates a false narrative. The very reason we feel so strongly about ensuring antisemitism is correctly combatted is precisely because of how deeply we care about Jewish safety.
The UCL board’s recommendation should not be understood as a threat – rather it is an opportunity. Some Jewish students have acknowledged the definition’s imperfections but regretted that there is no alternative. Now is the time for our community to seek a new framework that not only actually protects Jews but does so without compromising other marginalised groups and free speech. As antisemitism increases we should not settle for a faulty safeguard. We can and must do better than the IHRA.
- Letter co-signed by: Daniel Lubin, Francesca Kurlansky, Manya Eversley, Charley Katan, Jake Cohen.