Stunning victory for reason as academics at University College London reject the IHRA definition

JVL Introduction

The UCL academic community has been engaged in many  months of debate about the IHRA definition of antisemitism which UCL’s governing Council had adopted, without consultation, in November 2019.

In December that year, the Academic Board resolved  to set up a Working Group ‘to report to the Board so that it may advise Council on the matter of group-specific definitions of racism’.

It produced a substantial and very important Report of the Academic Board Working Group on Racism and Prejudice.

This report, while identifying where management had failed to enforce existing Equalities Law properly or promote initiatives to address campus racism, including anti-semitic incidents, also declared that the adoption of the IHRA Working Definition was unfit for this purpose.

The report was circulated for discussion in December 2020 and the debate was carried over into the new year. A final decision was released today, 12 February 2021.

We repost press releases from the University and Colleges Union at UCL and from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Press release: UCL ACADEMIC BOARD votes to RETRACT the IHRA Working Definition of antisemitism and REPLACE it with one that respects Academic Freedom and freedom of speech

PRESS RELEASE: for immediate release – FRI 12 FEB 2021

For inquiries contact: Saladin Meckled-Garcia, UCL UCU Comms Officer, [email protected]

  • A packed-out meeting of the Academic Board of University College London (UCL) has voted to retract the ‘IHRA working definition of anti-semitism’ . The Board voted to ask  the university governing body to safeguard freedom of expression on campus and protect academic freedom by reversing its decision to adopt the definition of antisemitism.
  • The vote is unambiguous, ranking ‘Retract-and-replace’ as number 1 preference, ‘Retract altogether’ as number 2, ‘Amend’ as number 3, and ‘Retain’ as 4.
  • In the context of growing concern about the rise of anti-semitism in the UK, an elected Working Group of academics at UCL produced a Report for the Academic Board identifying where management had failed to enforce existing Equalities Law properly or promote initiatives to address campus racism, including anti-semitic incidents.
  • But the same Group’s Report also declares that the adoption of the IHRA Working Definition is unfit for this purpose. It’s focus on Israel fails to address campus anti-semitism, as the Report evidences, but it could be used to restrict legitimate academic work and student debate.
  • UCL Academic Board joins a growing body of organisations, including significant sections of the Jewish community, that are against using this definition as an instrument to regulate speech (in this case, in a university context).

UCL’s governing Council, adopted the controversial IHRA Working Definition of antisemitism (IHRAWD) on 11 Nov 2019, when UCL’s Senior Management, led by outgoing Provost Michael Arthur, pushed this without consulting the Academic Board of over 1,500 professors and other elected representatives). This decision was roundly criticised by a Report of the Academic Board’s Working Group on Racism and Prejudice, which contains institutional and educational recommendations that have now been endorsed by the highest academic authority at UCL, the Academic Board. The Board also voted to replace the IHRA working definition with one that is compatible with academic freedom and free speech.

“This is an important moment. Whilst there are many other positive concrete steps advised by the Working Group, it is very important that the Academic Board concluded that universities must be vigilant in defending academic freedom and free speech where political debates about Israel are involved. Today the Academic Board has resoundingly reinforced this position at UCL,” said Sean Wallis, UCU branch president.

UCL’s decision comes against a background where the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, has placed ‘illegitimate pressure’ on universities to adopt the working definition, with threats of withdrawing funding should they refuse. At the same time, significant sections of the Jewish community globally, such as the largest Jewish denomination in the US, the Jewish Reform movement, have said that enforcing this definition in law is not acceptable, as has the author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, and the new chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and a group of Israeli academics in UK universities who criticise the adoption for restricting their rights to criticise their own state. The majority of UK universities have also resisted this pressure so far.

UCL UCU, the largest branch of the UCU in the UK, fully supports the Academic Board in defending Academic Freedom and free speech on campus from politically motivated constraints. UCU has a national policy of opposing this politicised and divisive definition.

Notes to editors:

Votes were taken using a ranked order voting system. The result of the vote of Academic Board was as follows:

  • C (first) – Retract and replace IHRA working definition with a more precise definition of antisemitism
    D – Retract the IHRA working definition and rely on the Equality Act 2010 definitions of harassment alone
  • B – Retain the IHRA working definition, but for educational purposes only, and not applying it in any complaints procedure
  • A (last) – Retain the IHRA working definition



February 11 2021

UCL’s Academic Board finds the IHRA definition not fit for purpose, urges the College Council to retract its adoption

  • University College London’s Academic Board to recommend to the Council of the College that it should set aside the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and replace it with a more appropriate alternative
  • Report finds the IHRA definition “not fit for purpose within a university setting and has no legal basis for enforcement.”
  • Findings raise serious questions about the implications of academic institutions and public bodies adopting IHRA definition
  • Report issues a scathing criticism of Secretary of State Gavin Williamson’s threats to withdraw funding from universities if they do not adopt the IHRA, describing this as putting their autonomy under threat

UCL’s Academic Board has overseen the most detailed and forensic study of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism yet, investigating its fitness for purpose following UCL’s adoption of it in 2019.

The product of a year-long study by a Working Group established by the Academic Board, this major Report examines UCL’s decision in 2019 to adopt the IHRA definition. It has involved consultation with eminent lawyers including Philippe Sands and Sir Geoffrey Bindman, as well as academic experts on antisemitism such as Brain Klug, and representatives of UCL’s most relevant academic departments and of its Student’s Union.

The ground-breaking Report found that the IHRA definition “is not fit for purpose within a university setting and has no legal basis for enforcement.” In considering alternative possibilities, given the inadequacy of the definition, the Academic Board decided that it should recommend to Council that the IHRA definition should be replaced through a process designed to identify a replacement definition.

Furthermore, the Report also found that the IHRA definition is unhelpful in identifying actual cases of antisemitic harassment and is therefore a weak tool for effective university action. It observes that the definition “obfuscates rather than clarifies the meaning of antisemitism, and may in fact make it harder to identify and understand how antisemitism works.”

The Report finds that the IHRA definition risks conflating legitimate criticism of the State of Israel, or of Zionism, with antisemitism, thus threatening freedom of expression on campus. “By blurring these boundaries”, it states, “the IHRA working definition risks undermining academic freedom.”

With its measured and powerful analysis the Report delivers a devastating blow to Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson’s attempts to pressure universities into adopting the IHRA definition.

His threat to withhold funding from Universities that do not adopt the definition, it says, demonstrates “how university autonomy is under threat.” It concludes by stating that “if universities are not permitted to use evidence, scholarship, research and logic to rebut Ministers’ political demands, then our autonomy and independence are seriously in peril.”

Ben Jamal, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign said:

“This study, the most systematic yet undertaken by a group of eminent academics, reinforces the concerns that have been expressed by a wide range of bodies since the UK government adopted the IHRA definition in 2016. The definition has been used to prevent both discussion of the facts of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and calls for action to address that oppression. It thereby undermines freedom of expression at Universities and more widely.

Gavin Williamson needs to stop pressuring universities to adopt. Moreover, all public bodies considering adoption need to address seriously the findings of this report.”

Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC  said:

“Concerns about the coercive attempts to force public bodies to adopt the IHRA definition are clearly shared by lawyers and academics alike. The Government must cease its pressure on institutions to curtail debate and restrict freedom of expression.”

Notes to Editor



Comments (18)

  • James Dickins says:

    An excellent development. When will the Labour Party take note and agree to reverse the Party’s decision to adopt the IHRA antisemitism definition?

  • Ellie Palmer says:

    Thank you for such welcome news JVL
    ! I will repost without delay to the VC , to my former senior colleagues in the Human Rights Centre (HRC) and to relevant student bodies at the University of Essex.
    Ellie Palmer ( Ealing and Acton CLP)
    Prof Emeritus Law / Human Rights University of Essex

  • Paul Smith says:

    The Guardian won’t be happy!

  • Sean O’Donoghue says:

    Did they adopt a new definition of antisemitism? Article says they did, but not in article.

    [We understand that have set up a working party to consider an appropriate definition – JVL web]

  • Dr Rodney Watts says:

    Further to my comment to and in which I drew attention to a Students’ Union vote for keeping the “IHRA” I think we must all be delighted with the above news. I just wonder what the UKLFI are thinking now after reporting the ‘decisive’ student vote. Probably similar thoughts to CAA, BoD, etc!

    I really hope that should Gavin Williamson now try to carry out his illegal threat to withdraw funding from universities which have stood firm against adoption of the “IHRA”, a legal challenge will be mounted. This would join a number of challenges mounted by over the illegal awarding of NHS related contracts to government mates.

  • John Bowley says:

    Thank you, UCL. Thank you for your intelligence, common sense, your study of the facts and for bravely facing up to political, media and state bullying.

  • Peter Jenner says:

    Given the way the IHRA ‘definition’ has been used to shut down debate within the Labour Party, I would hope that the Green Party and other bodies learn from this and are robust in their opposition to its adoption.

    The tide must be turned if we are to move forward in our opposition to all forms of racism. We cannot do that if we curtail the right to freedom of speech. That is particularly pernicious when it occurs within a university setting, where all ideas should be up for debate.

    As the JVL rightly insist, we must always be on the side of the oppressed, whoever they are, and always against the oppressor, whoever they are.

  • Allan Howard says:

    The right-wing of the PLP don’t give a damn about anti-semitism James, only getting shot of left-wing members!

  • Alan Stanton says:

    Can I suggest avoiding expressions implying a degree of anger and violence. Saying this report “delivers a devastating blow” risks linking a welcome decision based on reason and evidence, with some sort of physical combat.

    This is not a minor quibble. Too often it appears that the methods chosen by people engaging in these arguments are intended to hurt and hit emotionally. To threaten and sometimes bully others who disagree. Perhaps to scare people into self-censorship or silence.
    When this happens then everyone has lost out before a single word is uttered or written.

  • Paul Marshall says:

    Starmer take note.

  • DJ says:

    Great news. We need to capitalise on this achievement! This could provide a window of opportunity to develop an alternative definition of antisemitism for universities to adopt. I can see a role for JVL here in conjunction with UCU, PSC and informed academics. Having an alternative definition will help to convince more universities to ditch this divisive definition.

  • Carol Oladipo says:

    Wonderful news!

  • Martyn Meacham says:

    That is good news! Universities are the bastion of free speech and truth.

  • Alan Marsden says:

    The Labour Party must apologise too and reinstate all members falsely traduced by them in pursuance of the IHRA definition.

  • chris owen says:

    Thank you for your comment Alan Stanton. You are quite right. Good solutions and good outcomes should be seen as win-win.

  • Tom Lucas says:

    Seems pretty obvious to me, reading the IHRA definition, that it is mostly sense apart from the bits to do with the Israeli state. Holocaust denial seems extreme fringe conspiracy theory, but scrutinising the actions of a state cannot be shut down through some misplaced sensitivity to events in the past. A victim is not automatically innocent. That is a fallacy. A power base such as the Israeli state is not synonymous with being a Jew, although I can understand from the historical texts why some might see it this way. Although the history includes a cyclical pattern of going away from God and being brought back, so trust in any state power seems misplaced.

    It is absolutely right that everything reasonable is done to prevent racism in any form that could again escalate to those heinous crimes against humanity.

  • Pat Mitchell says:

    As an ex student of UCL I am proud of the thorough and democratic way the Academic Board has dealt with this issue. May we all learn from this.

  • Jonathan Shaper says:

    I hope that the distinction between freedom of speech and hate speech will be adopted by any new definition of AS because quite frankly as an Orthodox Jew I have experienced vile AS on my campus which has resulted in my becoming a student by correspondence ( long before the COVID crisis by the way)
    Such AS was often directed at me by left wing Jews as well as right wing types.
    Do I have a home at these Varsities and will I be allowed free speech or be victimised by lecturers who hate those who wear scull caps !!
    Will JVL members support me and protect me ??

    [JVL web: of course JVL will support you from prejudice, hate, discrimination – including your right to wear a yarmulka/kippa/skullcap. But not from robust challenges to your – or anyone else’s – ideas. Tht’s what universities are for.]

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