The Guardian / September 13, 2023
Report says IHRA definition has led to 40 cases against people and groups – of which 38 were cleared – and is stifling academic freedoms.
An antisemitism definition adopted by most UK universities has come under fire in a report, which says it has led to 40 cases being brought against students, academics, unions, and societies – 38 of whom have been cleared.
The remaining two cases have yet to conclude, meaning that none of the allegations – all based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition – have been substantiated, according to the analysis by the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES).
The IHRA definition has been adopted by a majority of universities, with the former education secretary Gavin Williamson in 2020 threatening them with funding cuts if they failed to do so. But critics have said the definition, which has no legal effect in the UK and includes 11 illustrative examples – seven of which relate to Israel – stifles criticism of Israel and has a chilling effect on free speech.
The report, published on Wednesday, echoes criticisms previously voiced by the leading lawyers Hugh Tomlinson KC and Geoffrey Robertson KC, and the retired lord justices of appeal Sir Stephen Sedley and Sir Anthony Hooper.
Neve Gordon, the chair of BRISMES’s committee on academic freedom and a professor of human rights law in the school of law at Queen Mary University of London, said: “What has been framed as a tool to classify and assess a particular form of discriminatory violations of protected characteristics, has instead been used as a tool to undermine and punish protected speech and to punish those in academia who voice criticism of the Israeli state’s policies.”
The 40 cases were recorded by ELSC, which provides legal support for Europeans advocating for Palestinian rights. Although none have been proved, the report says allegations in themselves have a debilitating effect on the accused, including damaging their education and/or future career prospects, and preventing legitimate debate about Israel and Palestine, for example through the cancellation of events.
A separate report published by the Community Security Trust in January found a 22% increase in university related antisemitic hate incidents over the past two academic years. The ELSC and BRISMES report’s authors say they are “committed to the struggle against antisemitism and all forms of racism”.
However, Giovanni Fassina, the director of the ELSC, said: “Not only does the documented pattern call into question the compliance of UK universities with their legal obligation to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression, but it is leading universities away from their core mission of nurturing critical thought, facilitating unhindered research and encouraging wide-ranging debate.”
The ELSC-BRISMES report calls for the UK government to retract its instruction to universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism “as it is inappropriate for higher education institutions, which have legal obligations to secure academic freedom and freedom of speech”.
The report said: “Accusations of antisemitism levelled against students and staff in UK universities are often based on a definition of antisemitism that is not fit for purpose and, in practice, is undercutting academic freedom and the rights to lawful speech of students and staff … University staff and students are being subjected to unreasonable investigations and disciplinary proceedings based on the IHRA definition.”
In 2021, the University of Bristol sacked the sociology professor David Miller, who was accused of antisemitic comments. The case was not included in the report because the scope of the investigation and exact reasons for its conclusion were confidential, with the university saying only that he “did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff”. He is taking the university to an employment tribunal.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The IHRA definition is a vital tool in tackling antisemitism and does not conflict with protecting freedom of speech. A report by the independent taskforce on antisemitism in higher education showed no universities that had adopted the definition said it had in any way restricted freedom of speech or academic research.”
A Universities UK spokesperson said members should consider adopting the IHRA definition “whilst also recognizing their duty to promote freedom of speech within the law”.
Haroon Siddique is The Guardian’s legal affairs correspondent