Williamson wrong to force universities to abide by antisemitism definition, say lawyers

JVL Introduction

The Union of Jewish Students claims that universities reluctant to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism are showing “contempt … for their Jewish students.”

Nothing of the kind, as seven eminent lawyers argue cogently in a letter published on 7th January.

Harriet Sherwood’s Guardian report is reposted below, followed by the text of the letter.

The report also links to the report of a working group set up by UCL’s academic board, which we have refrained from publicising before, as it is still to be further debated by that Academic Board.

Since it has now been put into the public domain we link to it and urge you to read it. We will carry more on it in due course.

This article was originally published by the Guardian on Thu 7 Jan 2021. Read the original here.

Williamson wrong to force universities to abide by antisemitism definition, say lawyers

Letter accuses education secretary of ‘improper interference’ after instruction on IHRA text

A group of eminent lawyers, including two former appeal court judges, has accused Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, of “improper interference” with universities’ autonomy and right to free expression.

They say that Williamson’s insistence that universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism or face sanctions is “legally and morally wrong”.

Their statement comes amid some academic resistance to Williamson’s letter to university vice-chancellors in October, in which he warned: “If I haven’t seen the overwhelming majority of institutions adopting the [IHRA] definition by Christmas, then I will act.”

Academics at University College London are due to vote this month on whether to call on the institution’s governing body to rescind its November 2019 adoption of the IHRA definition. Some are arguing it stifles free speech on Israel.

Oxford and Cambridge are among universities that have adopted the IHRA definition in recent weeks. The Department for Education said at least 27 institutions have adopted the definition since Williamson’s letter.

According to a tally by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), a total of 48 out of 133 have now adopted the definition, including the vast majority of universities in the elite Russell Group. The UJC said those institutions reluctant to follow suit were showing “contempt … for their Jewish students.”

However, the lawyers’ letter, published by the Guardian, says: “The legally entrenched right to free expression is being undermined by the promotion of an internally incoherent ‘non-legally binding working definition’ of antisemitism. Its promotion by public bodies is leading to the curtailment of debate. Universities and others who reject the instruction … to adopt it should be supported in so doing.”

It cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights regarding freedom of expression, which is embodied in UK law by the 1998 Human Rights Act.

Williamson was “legally and morally wrong in October to instruct English universities to adopt and implement” the IHRA definition of antisemitism. His threat of sanctions “would be an improper interference with their autonomy”.

The letter adds: “The impact on public discourse both inside and outside universities has already been significant.”

Among its eight signatories are Sir Anthony Hooper and Sir Stephen Sedley, both retired lord justices of appeal.

Academic opposition to wholesale adoption of the IHRA definition centres on freedom of expression and in particular whether criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people would be inhibited.

The IHRA definition is only 40 words long.

It says: “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.”

But it is accompanied by 11 illustrative examples, of which seven relate to Israel.

According to the report of a working group set up by UCL’s academic board, the definition and examples “disproportionately draw debate over Israel and Palestine into conversations around antisemitism, potentially conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism … thereby … risking the suppression of legitimate speech and academic research.”

The report says the definition has no legal basis, and there is already a “large body of existing UK law and coherent UCL policies that instead should be used as the basis of any institutional mechanism to combat antisemitism”.

Universities have “an express statutory obligation to protect freedom of speech within the law”, the report says.

As an educative tool, the definition “may indeed have potential value, but that would have to be balanced against potentially deleterious effects on free speech, such as instigating a culture of fear or self-silencing on teaching or research or classroom discussion of contentious topics”.

The report says: “The ability to have uncomfortable conversations or feel challenged by clashing ideas lies at the heart of the mission of higher education. There are times when we need to clarify and illuminate these tensions, rather than rush to meet the demands of vocal critics who may misrepresent these instances as acts of discrimination, if we are to uphold the values of university life.”

While acknowledging “disturbing evidence that incidents of antisemitism have persisted in our university”, the report recommends UCL’s governing body retract its adoption of the IHRA definition and “consider more coherent alternatives”.

Academics at UCL were due to vote on the report’s recommendations before Christmas, but decided to extend debate into the new year because of the level of interest.

One critic of the report, Harry Goldstein, claimed its arguments give credence to “precisely the conspiracy theories that are central to classical antisemitism. It must all be a plot to silence criticism of Israel.”

In a blogpost, Goldstein – who describes himself as a liberal centre-left supporter of Israel – said the report blurred the distinction between criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism, used tendentious language, and failed to “understand the distinctive nature of antisemitism compared to other racisms”.

Dave Rich, the head of policy at the Community Security Trust (CST), which advises the UK Jewish community on security issues, said the academic argument over definitions of antisemitism “loses sight of what really matters: the welfare and safety of Jewish students at British universities”.

A CST report, Campus Antisemitism in Britain 2018-20, recorded a total of 123 antisemitic incidents involving students in 34 towns and cities over the two-year period.

“Far too many Jewish students do experience prejudice or bigotry, whether on campus, off campus and online. This included antisemitism from the far left, merging their hatred of Israel with suspicion of any Jews who disagree with them,” Rich wrote last month.

James Harris, the president of the UJS, said the continuing battle over the IHRA definition was “unacceptable”.

He added: “We have seen multiple examples of anti-Jewish racism being dismissed by universities who consistently refuse to adopt this definition. When the definition is not used, it gives the power to those investigating to arbitrarily determine what they believe constitutes antisemitism.

“The IHRA definition is a cornerstone in ensuring that antisemitism, when reported, is dealt with in a way which Jewish students can be confident in.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The government expects institutions to take a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism, with robust measures in place to address issues when they arise.”

Antisemitism definition is undermining free speech

Guardian Letters, 7th January 2021

Lawyers and retired judges argue that the IHRA working definition undermines freedom of expression, and Gavin Williamson is wrong to forcefully impose it on universities

The legally entrenched right to free expression is being undermined by an internally incoherent “non-legally binding working definition” of antisemitism. Its promotion by public bodies is leading to the curtailment of debate. Universities and others who reject the instruction of the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, to adopt it should be supported in so doing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. The right is embodied in UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, section 6 of which expressly prohibits a public authority from acting in a way that is incompatible with that right. Specific protections for freedom of expression at universities were also enacted in the Education Act 1986.

Mr Williamson was legally and morally wrong last October to instruct English universities to adopt and implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. He has threatened to punish them with loss of income if they fail to comply. This would be an improper interference with their autonomy.

The definition is often described as “the international definition of antisemitism”, but it has no legislative or other authority in international or domestic law. Noted scholars of antisemitism, including Prof David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London (2 December), have criticised its shortcomings.

The IHRA added to the definition illustrative examples of statements that could be antisemitic “taking into account the overall context”. The majority of these examples do not refer to Jews as such, but to Israel. They have been widely used to suppress or avoid criticism of the state of Israel.

The impact on public discourse both inside and outside universities has already been significant. Mr Williamson’s threat should be withdrawn.

Prof Bill Bowring Barrister, Birkbeck, University of London,
Lord Hendy QC, Sir Anthony Hooper Retired lord justice of appeal,
Michael Mansfield QC,
Sir Stephen Sedley Retired lord justice of appeal,
Hugh Tomlinson QC,
Frances Webber
Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC Solicitor

Download the University College London Report of the Academic Board Working Group on Racism and Prejudice

Comments (4)

  • DJ says:

    We need to call this out for what it is. Universities are being bullied into adopting a totally inappropriate definition of antisemitism by the establishment and the pro Israeli lobby. The CST figures on so called antisemitic “incidents” are dubious. Dave Rich at CST is responsible for promoting the false left wing antisemitism narrative. The UJS thinks the mere exposure of Jewish students to pro Palestinian views constitutes antisemitism because they say so. Adopting the non international IHRA definition of antisemitism means endorsing anti Palestinian racism. It acts to divide rather than unite the struggle against antisemitism with the fight for Palestinian justice. It plays into the hands of those who seek to pit the Jewish communities against the Palestinians.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    I know that in the Bible it says that when God thrust the tablets of stone into the arms of Moses he said unto Moses, who was disinclined to carry this encumbrance with him since he had papyrus and couldn’t see the point in hefting two stone tablets around, “Don’t worry, Moishe, it’s only a working draft. We can work on the details later.” It’s in there, Exodus something or other. And then, doesn’t it say – I can’t find the passage, but I know it’s there! – that when Moses looked alarmed at the sudden appearance of those pretty rigid commandments set in stone God said him, “Don’t worry, Moishele, they’re not legally binding.”
    “But G’d” – he used the short form because they were on intimate terms – “this is all obvious and, if I may say so, not very well put.” “I know” came the voice of the Almighty, “but I’ve attached thousands of illustrative examples, which I’ve set out in two books, and that’s just for starters.”
    Of course, we all know what happened next.

  • Terry Messenger says:

    How does this configure with the All Party Parliamentary Group definition of Islamophobia? The IHRA code forbids denial of the Jewish people’s “right to self determination.” The APPG code forbids denial of the Palestinian people’s “right to self determination.” Thus we must agree with both. Yet we know in practice they are in conflict with each other. The Israeli Nation State law defines “self determination” as being the sole prerogative of Jewish people in the state of Israel denying the same right to Palestinians living in Israel. It obliges the Israeli state to promote “Jewish settlement” – effectively destroying all hope of a two-state solution. I don’t agree with that. Hamas was founded to establish an Islamic state in historical Palestine. I don’t agree with that either. But these are mainstream definitions of Jewish and Palestinian “self determination.” They are extreme and contradictory but the blanket ban on denial of Jewish and Palestinian self determination in the two codes obliges us to accord with them. This is nonsense. Authors of both these codes should define what they mean by self determination before forcing us to approve. Until they do, how can rational people sign up to them?

  • Martyn Meacham says:

    This must be the worst government to ever enter parliament, they have heaped shame and disgrace upon the head of the mother of all parliaments. They should all be in prison for theft, fraud, corruption, corporate manslaughter and treason.

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