The IHRA definition and Williamson’s attack on the universities

JVL Introduction

David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London, has written an important article published in the Guardian on 2nd December under the title “The government should not impose a faulty definition of antisemitism on universities”. We commend it to our readers.

Here Richard Kuper, writing in a personal capacity, elaborates the arguments Feldman advances.


The article’s standfirst sums it up well:

The IHRA ‘working definition’ is confusing and divisive. Forcing its adoption will not help protect Jewish students and staff

As David Feldman reminds us, Gavin Williamson, secretary of state for education, has written to all university vice-chancellors “requesting” they adopt a particular definition of antisemitism: the “working definition” promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016. Behind the request is a big stick: Williamson threatens to remove funding and the power to award degrees from universities if they don’t comply…

This intervention, Feldman believes, “not only threatens to provoke strife and confusion – it also places academic freedom and free speech on campus at risk”. There is a clear problem of  structural racism in universities and ever-present racial harassment on campus, but the adoption of the IHRA working definition, Feldman believes, will be divisive, privileging one group over others by giving them additional protections, and in doing so will divide minorities against each other.

In his “request” to universities Williamson makes two claims, both of which Feldman says are false. One is the idea that the IHRA working definition is “straightforward”, a clear and unambiguous way by means of which universities can show that they don’t and won’t tolerate antisemitism. The other, that failure to adopt the definition shows that universities are willing to tolerate antisemitism.

As Feldman points out:

Universities operate under the Equality Act; they also have internal policies and procedures designed to address discrimination, harassment and victimisation… But instead of demanding that universities review and improve their toolkit to address racism in all its dimensions, the secretary of state insists they use a niche widget for antisemitism alone: one that even its friends concede is not a precision instrument.

Because of the prolonged arguments in the Labour party over the IHRA definition it has become a symbol as to whether “an organisation really opposes antisemitism or just plays lip service to the goal”. A “symbol” yes, but Feldman is adamant that, however important symbols may be “they are no substitute for carefully constructed measures to combat antisemitism and other racisms”.

He is not the first to point out that  the IHRA working definition was, according to one its drafters Kenneth Stern,  “never intended to be a campus hate-speech code”. It was, rather, a tool for data collectors, so that incidences of antisemitism might be compared across different countries. It was indeed circulated for that purpose by the the European Monitoring Centre on the Study of Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), predecessor of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) although it was rarely used in this way; around 2010 it was recognised as unfit for that purpose and abandoned by the FRA.

The idea that a statement drafted for discussion and debate for one purpose for which it turned out to be inadequate can simply be repurposed and imposed, as holy writ, in pursuit of a quite different goal would normally be treated with suspicion if not disdain.

But not this definition. David Feldman is more generous to it than I would be (and indeed JVL has been in the forefront of campaigns to oppose its adoption by the Labour Party and more widely – see  the many “Related Articles” in the links that follow this posting [and see my  critique of its EUMC predecessor here]).

He says of it:

The working definition chiefly consists of a woolly core statement – “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews” – and a list of examples that “could, taking into account the overall context”, be instances of antisemitism. The examples cover a range of topics, but six of the 11 deal with discourse on Israel. And it is the emphasis on Israel that is the focus of criticism from the definition’s critics and enthusiasm from its advocates.

The pros and cons of the working definition have been debated on many occasions. For some it provides helpful guidelines; for others it inhibits legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies and practices. But in the light of the secretary of state’s letter, the key point is that it is impossible to know which of these interpretations is correct [emphasis added] .And in this context, uncertainty brings danger.

And here Feldman turns to the fundamental ambiguities of the definition. Taking an example of behaviour that “could” be antisemitic, “applying double standards” to Israel, he asks if calling for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) of Israel is antisemitic, according to the IHRA working definition?

Here is his response which highlights clearly the problem with the definition:

Unfortunately, the working definition itself doesn’t provide us with a definite answer – and if we turn to the leading public bodies for guidance we find confusing and contradictory advice. The Antisemitism Policy Trust is one such organisation. Esteemed internationally and in the UK, among other functions it provides a special adviser to John Mann, the government’s antisemitism tsar. Earlier this year the trust issued a policy briefing in which it declared, “boycotts are not covered by IHRA”. Some will have been reassured by this, others alarmed.

But in its guide to the IHRA working definition, also published in 2020, the trust leans heavily in the opposite direction. Here, in cloudy prose, it suggests that either boycotts against Israel are antisemitic unless they also condemn all other states that commit similar misdeeds, or that boycott movements are under an obligation to “prove” they are not antisemitic – or both.

And he concludes this part of his analysis by asking “If the Antisemitism Policy Trust is in a muddle over the IHRA working definition, how can anyone else be certain what it means?”

It is the working definition’s very indeterminacy that causes Feldman to worry about its effects on campuses. (Remember, incidentally, Lord Justice Sir Stephen Sedley’s view that this definition “fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite”). Its clumsy drafting leaves its meaning quite indeterminate.  Plus, it is way too narrow, focusing on extreme antisemitism (hatred), whilst ignoring (so not protecting against) far more common forms, such as harassment, prejudice, hostility and discrimination.

It is bound to be, fears Feldman:

“ a standing invitation to individuals and organisations to bring allegations of antisemitism against students and lecturer and … the chilling impact on students, on academic and professional staff and on institutions dedicated to debate and robust discussion, will be corrosive and long lasting.”

This argument needs to be extended. While academic freedom is a particular right within universities the right to Freedom of Expression is according to Article 10 of the European Convention to be maintained “without interference by public authority”’ and the Equality Duty applies to all public bodies and authorities.

Feldman’s arguments against imposition of the IHRA Definition on the universities applies with similar force to the attempts of the government to require local authorities and other public bodies to adopt it.

The last thing those seeking ways to oppose the real harms and racist ideas and action found in universities – and elsewhere – is to divide Jews from other minorities. As Feldman concludes, Williamson’s action “risks splitting the struggle against antisemitism from the liberal values that have provided its most secure home. Let us hope he will think again.”

We urge you to read his full article here.


Comments (6)

  • dave says:

    The Guardian occasionally publishes something decent and it also ran the letter by Palestinian and Arab academics about the IHRA def:

    https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/nov/29/palestinian-rights-and-the-ihra-definition-of-antisemitism

    But IHRA has got a big hold now. All Premier League clubs bar one have just signed up – the missing one is Sheffield United, which the Sun has taken pains to point out is owned by Prince Abdullah Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family.

    https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/13378244/sheffield-united-anti-semitism-declaration-criticism

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    Apart from his crucial comments on the text of the IHRA definition and its clarity and fitness for purpose – or otherwise – Feldman’s other important contribution is to warn against Jewish exceptionalism, saying “The imposed adoption of the IHRA working definition will . . . .privilege one group over others by giving them additional protections, and in doing so will divide minorities against each other.” You dont need to agree with every line of this article, nor all its phrasing. Its two messages – for freedom of speech, and against ‘privileging protection for Jews’ – are hugely important.

  • Roshan Pedder says:

    This was my (unpublished) letter to the Guardian following the Feldman article.
    Presumably David Feldman’s excellent article on the “confusing and divisive” nature of the IHRA definition of antisemitism would have elicited an immediate suspension and probable expulsion if he was a member of Keir Starmer’s new look Labour party?

  • Ian Kemp says:

    Yes it would Roshan . What has the education secretary know about anything he was a fireplace salesman . I doubt that he would be able to understand anything about A/S .He is just a Johnson yes man. That is why he is still in post.

  • Philip Inglesant says:

    It will be ironic when the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism has its funding removed for failing to agree the IHRA “definition”. “You couldn’t make it up”, but unfortunately you all too easily can.

Comments are now closed.