Imposing an antisemitism definition on academics undermines freedom

JVL Introduction

This article aims to provide a broader exposure to the content of the letter written and disseminated by Israeli Academics UK, which calls on university Vice Chancellors and academic senates to reject the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism (74 signatories at present). (Also reposted on JVL here.)

IAUK is an ad hoc group of Israeli citizens in British Academia. It is a diverse cross-disciplinary, cross-ethnic, and cross-generational group, and sharing an extended history of struggle against Israel’s prolonged policies of occupation, dispossession, segregation, and discrimination directed at the Palestinian population.

IAUK came together believing that its members have a perspective to share that has been absent from British mainstream media, and which challenges the prevailing narrative of uniform support for the IHRA definition within the Jewish and Israeli communities, and indeed, uniform support for the policies of the Israeli government towards Palestinians, which the IHRA definition seeks to conceal.

Dr. Moshe Behar, Dr. Yonatan Shemmer, Dr. Hedi Viterbi participated in writing the original letter, on which this article is based. Dr. Ophira Gamliel contributed to the article version.

This article was originally published by The Times Higher on Tue 9 Feb 2021. Read the original here.

Imposing an antisemitism definition on academics undermines freedom

Fighting discrimination is a must, but the IHRA document undermines that fight and threatens free speech, says Hagit Borer

As the debate on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism moves on to university campuses, it becomes all too clear that some voices have been systematically shut out. Besides Palestinians and many Jewish voices in the UK and elsewhere, critical Israeli voices have been silenced or ignored.

I am a British academic and an Israeli national of Jewish descent. My adult life, both in Israel and elsewhere, has been marked by a consistent struggle against injustice, including opposition to Israel’s occupation, dispossession and segregation of Palestinians. As such, I have been greatly perturbed by UK education secretary Gavin Williamson’s attempt to impose the IHRA working definition on UK universities.

Fighting antisemitism is a must, but the IHRA document undermines that fight, threatening free speech and academic freedom, while constituting an attack on the Palestinian right to self-determination and on the struggle to democratise Israel.

In the unfolding debate, my voice as an academic and an Israeli dissident deserves to be heard. I do not stand alone; more than 60 Israelis in UK academia have recently written an open letter to our vice-chancellors and academic senates, urging them to reject the IHRA working definition.

The document has been extensively criticised for its vagueness and for failing to mention central issues, such as prejudice and discrimination. It is weaker than existing anti-racist regulations in the UK university sector – which, importantly, are also inclusive of other ethnic minorities. It is disturbing, frankly, that Williamson singles out people of Jewish descent as deserving greater protection than others who are nowadays regularly subjected to equally or more egregious manifestations of racism and discrimination.

Even more problematically, the IHRA document includes illustrations that conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Its examples of manifestations of antisemitism include claiming that “that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” or “requiring of [Israel]…a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”. Thus, the document renders it illegitimate, even in a university setting, to debate whether Israel, as a self-proclaimed Jewish state, is “‘a racist endeavour” or a “democratic nation”.

At yet of the 14 million people under Israel’s control, 5 million are devoid of basic human rights. An additional 1.8 million are legally and procedurally barred from equal access to property, national resources and land, and they do not enjoy equal cultural rights. All 6.8 million thus prevented from full democratic access are non-Jews.

An emblematic illustration is the Law of Return, which entitles all Jews and only Jews to migrate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship, a right extendable to descendants and spouses. But millions of displaced or exiled Palestinians and their descendants are denied the right to return to their homeland.

Such discriminatory legislation and state practices, past and present, from China to Australia to the US, are regularly scrutinised by academics and are frequently considered forms of institutional racism. When it comes to the State of Israel, however, Williamson wants to forbid this form of scrutiny.

With its 11 “illustrations”, the IHRA document has already been used to repress freedom of speech and academic freedom. Alarmingly, it has served to frame the struggle against the occupation and dispossession of Palestinians as antisemitic. Yet, as 122 Palestinian and Arab intellectuals recently stated in an open letter to The Guardian, “the demand by Palestinians for their right of return to the land from which they…were expelled…is a right recognised by international law…To level a charge of antisemitism against anyone who regards the existing state of Israel as racist, notwithstanding the actual institutional and constitutional discrimination upon which it is based, amounts to granting Israel absolute impunity.”

For these and other reasons, even the IHRA working definition’s lead drafter, Kenneth Stern, publicly warned in 2019 that right-wing Jewish groups “decided to weaponise” the document, which “was never intended to be a campus hate speech code”.

My concerns are shared by hundreds of UK students, the British Society of Middle Eastern Studies and scholars of antisemitism and racism, as well as numerous Palestinian, Jewish and social justice groups on both sides of the Atlantic.

Along with my fellow Israeli dissidents in British academe, I call on UK universities to reject the IHRA document – or, where it has already been adopted, to revoke it. It contradicts universities’ commitment to free speech and academic freedom, and it undermines the ongoing fight against racism, including antisemitism, in all its ugly forms.

Hagit Borer is professor of linguistics and head of department at Queen Mary University of London.


Comments (7)

  • Moshé Machover says:

    Excellent letter, which deserves to be widely disseminated.

    BTW, you omitted to mention that Prof Borer is a Fellow of the British Academy.

  • Well said.
    But the real problem, unfortunately, remains the Labour Party under the present management which has become a satellite of Israel and its henchmen in the UK. Instead of defending free speech in general and academic freedom in particular, Israeli academics of Jewish descent, are smeared, blacklisted labelled as ‘Antisemites’ and some of them who happened to be Labour members are forced to cope with the Party’s witch hunters and consequently face a Kangaroo Court. This Kafkaesque state of affairs has helped Netanyahu’s regime to become a mover and shaker in British politics and thus, poses a serious threat to our democracy.

  • John Bowley says:

    Both our Conservative government and our Labour official opposition are presently elevating anti-semitism far above all other forms of racism in Britain.

  • Margaret West says:

    What is amazing is that the current Government wants to outlaw “no platforming” at Universities yet that is what is effectively being done to critics of Israel and promoters of Palestinian rights.

  • DJ says:

    The IHRA definition of antisemitism is not only non international, it’s also being challenged by Israeli citizens at our universities. No doubt, the establishment will want to keep this quiet.


    Even if we isolate each issue as debatable, as the article attempts to do, an obsession in a state other than Israel with a proliferation of issues only with regard to the Jewish state when they exist in many others and are not debated at all is a persuasive indication of anti-Semitism. For example, there are many countries that proclaim themselves as Muslim or Christian and their self-proclamations are not debated, much less challenged, in other countries. Moreover, changing established definitions only against Israel to claim that debating it against Israel is not discriminatory is also anti-Semitism. Descendents of refugees are not refugees, except when anti-Semites discuss Israel. Even those who actually were disposessed from what is now Israel but live in the West Bank or Gaza (within the confines of pre-war Palestine) would not be considered refugees except when making a special case in condemning Israel. That the author’s concerns are shared by the many others he mentions is a measure of the extent that anti-Semitism permeates British society and explains his and his fellow emigres’ abject surrender to its intimidation.

  • Margaret West says:

    My background is in STEM and not in Politics or Law but after much study of it am mystified by the wording of the IHRA. This appears to lack logic but maybe I am being pedantic?

    The IHRA comprises the following:
    (1) The box containing a set of statements which define Anti -Semitism – the “working definition”;

    (2) A narrative and a set of examples, the first justifying the inclusion of Israel in the possibility of a manifestation of antisemitism, the argument being that it can occur when “the State of Israel” – is conceived as a “Jewish Collectivity”. Illustrative examples of the concept of antisemitism follow the narrative, five of which involve “Israel”.

    Now in my STEM world, examples which are provided to illustrate a concept should be covered by the statements defining it. However after examining (1) the “working definition” and (2) the narrative and examples it appears that they are not. Not only that – the examples appear contradictory and/or ambiguous.

    Most significantly the references to “Israel” in the examples do not refer to “a Jewish Collectivity” but rather to the current Israeli constitution or to the current Government of Israel.

    The above results in a serious problem in the way the IHRA is administered. Thus we find one or more of the examples directly invoked to back up an accusation of antisemitism where there is no attempt to link the supposed transgression with the “working definition ” leading to an incorrect and grossly unfair result. True justice can surely only be obtained by “arguing from first principles” by linking the transgression to the working definition, as indicated.

    Not only is it unfair, but as we heard in the “Zoom” talks last December addressed by Kenneth Stern – the definition does not help in reducing the antisemitism sadly exhibited by students on British Campuses .

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