Reject the IHRA ‘working definition of antisemitism’ say Israeli-British academics

JVL Introduction

A large number of British Academics who are also Israeli citizens have written to their colleagues and vice-chancellors, about the IHRA definition which Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson had instructed all universities to adopt.

In essence, it is a call on universities to remain firm in their commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech, and to continue to fight all forms of racism, including antisemitism. It argues that the IHRA document does a disservice to these goals.

Their letter and a list of signatories is appended here.

Call to reject the IHRA’s ‘working definition of antisemitism’

11 January 2021

To: Vice Chancellors, Members of Academic Senates, all other UK Academics and Students & Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP Secretary of State for Education

RE: The IHRA ‘working definition of antisemitism’

We, British Academics who are also Israeli citizens, strongly oppose the governmental imposition of the IHRA ‘working definition of antisemitism’ on Universities in England. We call on all academic senates to reject the IHRA document or, where adopted already, act to revoke it.

We represent a diverse cross-disciplinary, cross-ethnic, and cross-generational group. We all share an extended history of struggles against racism. Accordingly, we have been critical of Israel’s prolonged policies of occupation, dispossession, segregation, and discrimination directed at the Palestinian population. Our historical and political perspective is deeply informed by the multiple genocides of modern times, and in particular, the Holocaust, in which quite a few of us lost members of our extended families. The lesson we are determined to draw from history is that of a committed struggle against all forms of racism.

It is precisely because of these personal, scholarly, and political perspectives that we are perturbed by the letter sent to our Vice Chancellors by Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, on 9 October 2020. Explicitly threatening to withhold funds, the letter pressures universities to adopt the controversial ‘working definition of antisemitism’ originally proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Fighting antisemitism in all its forms is an absolute must. Yet, the IHRA document is inherently flawed in ways that undermine this fight. In addition, it threatens free speech and academic freedom, and constitutes an attack both on the Palestinian right to self-determination and the struggle to democratise Israel.

The IHRA document has been extensively criticised on numerous occasions. Here, we touch on some of its aspects that are particularly distressing in the higher education context. The document consists of two parts. The first, quoted in Williamson’s letter, is a ‘definition’ of antisemitism, which reads as follows:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

This formulation is both vague in language and lacking in content, to the point of being unusable. On the one hand, it relies on unclear terms such as ‘certain perception’ and ‘may be expressed as hatred.’ On the other hand, it fails to mention key issues such as ‘prejudice’ or ‘discrimination.’ Crucially, this ‘definition’ is considerably weaker and less effective than anti-racist regulations and laws already in force, or in development, in the university sector.

Moreover, the government’s pressure on higher education institutions to adopt a definition for only one sort of racism singles out people of Jewish descent as deserving greater protection than others who regularly endure equal or more grievous manifestations of racism and discrimination

The second part of the IHRA document presents what it describes as eleven examples of contemporary antisemitism, seven of which refer to the State of Israel. Some of these ‘examples’ mischaracterise antisemitism. They likewise have a chilling effect on University staff and students legitimately wishing to criticise Israel’s oppression of Palestinians or to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finally, they interfere with our right as Israeli citizens to participate freely in the Israeli political process.

To illustrate, one example of antisemitism is ‘[to claim] that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’ Another antisemitic act, according to the document, is ‘requiring of [Israel] … a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.’ Surely, it should be legitimate, not least in a university setting, to debate whether Israel, as a self-proclaimed Jewish State, is ‘a racist endeavour,’ or a ‘democratic nation.’

Currently, the population under Israel’s control comprises 14 million people. Nearly 5 million of those are devoid of basic rights. Of the remaining 9 million, 21 percent (circa 1.8 million) have been systematically discriminated against since the establishment of the state. This discrimination manifests itself in dozens of laws and policies concerning property rights, education, and access to land and resources. All 6.8 million people thus prevented from full democratic access are non-Jews. An emblematic illustration is the Law of Return, which entitles all Jews – and only Jews – living anywhere in the world to migrate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship, a right extendable to descendants and spouses. At the same time, millions of Palestinians and their descendants, who have been displaced or exiled, are denied the right to return to their homeland.

Such discriminatory legislation and state practices in other contemporary or historical political systems – ranging from China to the USA or Australia – are legitimately and regularly scrutinised by scholars and the general public. They are variously criticised as forms of institutional racism, and compared to certain fascist regimes, including that of pre-1939 Germany. Indeed, historical analogies are a standard tool in academic research. However, according to the Education Secretary, only those concerning the State of Israel are now forbidden to  scholars and students in England. No state should be shielded from such legitimate scholarly discussion.

Furthermore, while the IHRA document considers any ‘comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ a form of antisemitism, many in the Israeli political centre and left have often drawn such comparisons. One recent example is a statement made by Yair Golan, Member of Knesset (Israeli parliament) and former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli military, in 2016. Another is the comparison between Israel and ‘Nazism in its early stages’ made in 2018 by the Israel Prize Laureate Professor Zeev Sternhell, a renowned Israeli historian and political scientist who was, until his recent death, a world leading theorist of fascism. Such comparisons are also made regularly by the editorials of the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The use of such analogies is hardly new. To illustrate, in late 1948, a prominent group of Jewish intellectuals and Rabbis, including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, published a letter in the NYT accusing Menachem Begin (Israel’s future prime minister) of leading ‘a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.’

With its eleven ‘illustrations,’ the IHRA document has already been used to repress freedom of speech and academic freedom (see here, here, and here). Alarmingly, it has served to frame the struggle against Israel’s occupation and dispossession as antisemitic. As recently stated in a letter to the Guardian by 122 Palestinian and Arab intellectuals:

We believe that no right to self-determination should include the right to uproot another people and prevent them from returning to their land, or any other means of securing a demographic majority within the state. The demand by Palestinians for their right of return to the land from which they themselves, their parents and their grandparents were expelled cannot be construed as antisemitic… It is a right recognized by international law as represented in UN general assembly resolution 194 of 1948… 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.

In her recent letter endorsing the imposition of the IHRA document on universities in England, Kate Green, MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Education, states that ‘We can only [fight antisemitism] by listening to and engaging with the Jewish community.’ However, as Israeli citizens settled in the UK, many of Jewish descent, and alongside many in the UK’s Jewish community, we demand that our voice, too, be heard, and we believe that the IHRA document is a step in the wrong direction. It singles out the persecution of Jews; it inhibits free speech and academic freedom; it deprives Palestinians of their own legitimate voice within the UK public space; and, finally, it inhibits us, as Israeli nationals, from exercising our democratic right to challenge our own government.

For these and other reasons, even the lead drafter of the IHRA document, Kenneth Stern, publicly warned:

Right-wing Jewish groups took the “working definition”, which had some examples about Israel …, and decided to weaponize it. … [This document] was never intended to be a campus hate speech code … but [at the hands of the Right it has been used as] an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself. … I’m a Zionist. But on … campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression. … Further, there’s a debate inside the Jewish community whether being Jewish requires one to be a Zionist. I don’t know if this question can be resolved, but it should frighten all Jews that the government is essentially defining the answer for us. (The Guardian, 13 Dec. 2019).

These concerns are shared by many others, amongst whom are hundreds of UK students, scholars of antisemitism and racism, and numerous Palestinian, Jewish, and social justice groups and organisations in the UK and around the world, such as the Institute of Race Relations, civil rights organisation Liberty, former Court of Appeal Judge Sir Stephen Sedley, and Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner.

We join in the demand that UK universities remain firm in their commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech. We urge UK universities to continue their fight against all forms of racism, including antisemitism. The flawed IHRA document does a disservice to these goals. We therefore call on all academic senates to reject governmental decrees to adopt it, or, where adopted already, act to revoke it.


Prof. Hagit Borer FBA, Queen Mary University of London
Dr. Moshe Behar, University of Manchester
Dr. Yonatan Shemmer, University of Sheffield
Dr. Hedi Viterbo, Queen Mary University of London
Dr. Yael Friedman, University of Portsmouth
Dr. Ophira Gamliel, Univeristy of Glasgow
Dr. Moriel Ram, Newcastle University
Prof. Neve Gordon, Queen Mary University of London
Prof. Emeritus Moshé Machover, King’s College London
Dr. Catherine Rottenberg, University of Nottingham
PhD Candidate Daphna Baram, Lancaster University
Dr. Yuval Evri, King’s College London
Dr. Yohai Hakak, Brunel University London
Dr. Judit Druks, University College London
PhD Candidate Edith Pick, Queen Mary University of London
Prof. Emeritus Avi Shlaim FBA, Oxford University
Dr. Merav Amir, Queen’s University Belfast
Dr. Hagar Kotef, SOAS, University of London
Prof. Emerita Nira Yuval-Davis, University of East London, 2018 International Sociological Association Distinguished Award for Excellence in Research and Practice.
Dr. Assaf Givati, King’s College London
Prof. Yossef Rapoport, Queen Mary University of London
Prof. Haim Yacobi, University College London
Prof. Gilat Levy, London School of Economics
Dr. Noam Leshem, Durham University
Dr. Chana Morgenstern, University of Cambridge
Prof. Amir Paz-Fuchs, University of Sussex
PhD Candidate Maayan Niezna, University of Kent
Prof. Emeritus, Ephraim Nimnie, Queen’s University Belfast
Dr. Eytan Zweig, University of York
Dr. Anat Pick, Queen Mary, University of London
Prof. Joseph Raz FBA, King’s College London, winner of Tang Prize for the Rule of Law 2018
Dr. Itamar Kastner, University of Edinburgh
Prof. Dori Kimel, University of Oxford
Prof. Eyal Weizman MBE FBA, Goldsmiths, University of London
Dr. Daniel Mann, King’s College London
Dr. Shaul Bar-Haim, University of Essex
Dr. Idit Nathan, University of the Arts London
Dr. Ariel Caine, Goldsmiths University of London
Prof. Ilan Pappe, University of Exeter
Prof. Oreet Ashery, University of Oxford, Turner Bursary 2020
Dr. Jon Simons, Retired
Dr. Noam Maggor, Queen Mary University of London
Dr. Pil Kollectiv, University of Reading, Fellow of the HEA
Dr. Galia Kollectiv, University of Reading, Fellow of the HEA
Dr. Maayan Geva, University of Roehampton
Dr. Adi Kuntsman, Manchester Metropolitan University
Dr. Shaul Mitelpunkt, University of York
Dr. Daniel Rubinstein, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London
Dr. Tamar Keren-Portnoy, University of York
Dr. Yael Padan, University College London
Dr. Roman Vater, University of Cambridge
Dr. Shai Kassirer, University Of Brighton
PhD Candidate Shira Wachsmann, Royal College of Art
Prof. Oren Yiftachel, University College London
Prof. Erez Levon, Queen Mary University of London
Prof. Amos Paran, University College London
Dr. Raz Weiner, Queen Mary University of London
Dr. Deborah Talmi, University of Cambridge
Dr. Emerita Susie Malka Kaneti Barry, Brunel University
PhD Candidate Ronit Matar, University of Essex
PhD Candidate Michal Rotem, Queen Mary University of London
DR. Mollie Gerver, University of Essex
Prof. Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, SOAS
PhD candidate Lior Suchoy, Imperial College London
Dr. Michal Sapir, Independent
Dr. Oz Gore, University of Leicester
PhD candidate Maayan Ravid, University of Oxford
Dr. Yuval Saar-Heiman, ‏Royal Holloway University of London
PhD candidate Guy Fassler, University of St Andrews

Israeli academic supporters worldwide:

Prof. Amos Goldberg, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
PhD candidate Aviad Albert, University of Cologne
Dr. Noa Levin, Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin
Prof. Paul Mendes-Flohr
Dr. Uri Horesh
Prof. Roy Wagner, ETH Zurich
Prof. Dmitry Shumsky
Prof. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, Hebrew University and David Yellin Academic College
Prof. Arie Dubnov, The George Washington University
Prof. Natalie Rothman, University of Toronto
Dr. Anat Matar, Tel Aviv University
Dr. Ido Shahar, University of Haifa
Prof. Nir Gov, Weizmann Institute
Prof. Emeritus Amiram Goldblum, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Dr. Itamar Shachar, Ghent University, Belgium
Prof. Emeritus Jacob Katriel, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology
Dr. Eyal Shimoni, Weizmann Institute of Science
Dr. Gilad Liberman, Harvard Medical School
Prof. Emeritus Emmanuel Farjoun, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Prof. Avner Ben-Amos, Tel Aviv University
​Dr. Alon Marcus, The Open University of Israel
Dr. Uri Davis, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK & AL-QUDS University
Prof. Emeritus Avishai Ehrlich, The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo
Prof. Naama Rokem, University of Chicago
Dr. Marcelo Svirsky, University of Wollongong
Prof. Atalia Omer, The University of Notre Dame
Prof. Emeritus, Jose Brunner, Tel Aviv University
Dr. Michael Dahan, Sapir College
Dr. Naor Ben-Yehoyada, Columbia University
Dr. Shai Gortler, University of the Western Cape
Dr. Roni Gechtman, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Canada
Prof. Ivy Sichel, UC Santa Cruz
Prof. Ofer Aharony, Weizmann Institute
Prof. Outi Bat-El Foux, Tel-Aviv University
Dr. Elazar Elhanan, CCNY
Dr .Ofer Shinar Levanon
Prof. Emeritus Isaac Nevo
Prof. Emerita Nomi Erteschik-Shir, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Prof. Yinon Cohen, Columbia University
PhD candidate Revital Madar
Prof. Yael Sharvit,UCLA
Prof.  Emeritus Isaac Cohen, San Jose State University
Dr. Kobi Snitz, Weizmann Institute of Science
Dr. Irena Botwinik, Open University, Israel
Prof. Niza Yanay, Ben Gurion University
Prof. Julia Resnik, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Prof. Charles Manekin, University of Maryland
Prof. Jerome Bourdon, Tel Aviv University
Dr. Ilan saban, University of Haifa
PhD candidate Netta Amar-Shiff, Ben Gurion University
Prof. Emeritus Ron Kuzar, University of Haifa
Dr. Yanay Israeli, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Prof. Emeritus Avner Giladi, University of Haifa
Prof. Emerita Esther Levinger, University of Haifa
Prof. Emeritus Micah Leshem, University f Haifa
Prof. Jonathan Alschech, University of Northern British Columbia
Prof. Emeritus Yehoshua Frenkel, university of Haifa
Prof. Yuval Yonay, University of Haifa
Prof. Emerita Vered Kraus, University of Haifa
Dr. Amit G., Israeli universities
Dr. Shakhar Rahav, University of Haifa
Prof. Emeritus Yoav Peled, Tel Aviv University
Prof. Emerita Linda Dittmar, University of Massachusetts
Prof. Emeritus Uri Bar-Joseph, Haifa University
Dr. Ayelet Ben-Yishai, University of Haifa
Gilad Melzer, Beit Berl College
Prof. Raphael Greenberg, Tel Aviv University
Prof. Emerita Sara Helman, Ben Gurion University
Dr. Itamar Mann, University of Haifa
Dr. Tamar Berger
Dr. Daniel De Malach, Sapir Academic College
PhD candidate Gil Engelstein, Northwestern University
Dr. Meir Amor, Concordia University – Canada
Dr. Snait Gissis, Tel Aviv University
Prof. Emeritus Avraham Oz, University of Haifa
PhD candidate Itamar Haritan, Cornell University
Dr. Yael Ben-zvi, Ben-Gurion University
Dr. Tom Pessah, Ben-Gurion University
Meir Gal, The School of Visual Arts
Eli Osheroff, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Dr. Hilla Dayan, Amsterdam University College
Dr. Itay Snir, Yezreel Valley College
Prof. Raz Chen Morris, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Prof. Jonathan Nitzan, York University, Toronto
Dr. Karin Loevy, NYU School of Law
Prof. Zeev Rosenhek, Open University of Israel
Prof. Ahuvia Kahane, Trinity College Dublin
Dr. Ronit Lentin, Trinity College Dublin
Dr. Guy Gillor, University of Melbourne

Comments (8)

  • Michael Levine says:

    It seems obvious that to state that all Jews support the Israeli states treatment of the Palestinians is calculated to create hostility towards Jews in general. In particular the shooting of demonstrating children at the Gaza border fence
    horrified many liberal people.

  • John McLaughlin says:

    Starmer should be backing these academics, but i have a feeling that he won’t.

  • Dr Rodney Watts says:

    This is really welcome, and has come at a crucial time as the UCL Academic Board are to debate the revocation of their adoption of the IHRA “Definition”. However UKFLI website has reported :
    The ‘decisive’ vote though was 45% to 32% with 23% abstentions.

    Hopefully the Guardian letter by eminent British legal experts, stating that Gavin Williamson’s edict was both illegal and immoral: will also be considered.

    I was just a little disappointed that the University of Birmingham did not have an academic’s signature.

  • Emma Tait says:

    I hope a copy was sent to Sir Keir Starmer who is also misguided on these matters.

  • Martyn Meacham says:

    Those with dodgy agendas are trying to force decent people to believe that anti-zionism equates to Anti-Semitism. It does not.

  • DJ says:

    It’s good to see Israeli academics across the world taking a stand against the anti Palestinian IHRA definition of antisemitism. Here in the UK the Israeli lobby is very active in using this pernicious definition to silence critics of Israel. They are determined to silence supporters of the Palestinians and the BDS movement. They have recently tried to no platform Ken Loach from speaking at Oxford University by using this controversial definition of antisemitism. An ongoing battle against this misdefinition is required. We should not underestimate the resolve of the Israeli advocacy groups on this matter. They understand the value of using this definition as a shield against legimate criticism of the settler colonial regime they seek to defend.

  • Martin Read says:

    It would be encouraging to think that such a clear and impassioned argument could persuade the Secretary of State, but Williamson’s time in the role has not been littered with instances of informed reflection.

    The Tories, in apparent stark contrast to Labour, have been working to a clear and undemocratic plan, hence the recent ‘elevations’ of Mann, Woodcock, Austin and Hoey. In my darker moments I sometimes fear that Starmer’s goals are not so very different.

    I think the best route forward lies in the hands of universities through solidarity and a wholesale refusal.

  • Ann B ddow says:

    Thank goodness for the voices of reason! I do hope a copy of this has been sent to Sir Kier Starmer? It again proves how different Anti Zionism is from Anti Semitism and that the IHRA document is flawed! Universities have every right to point this out and stand against it in its present form!

Comments are now closed.