Report: IHRA definition having harmful impact on UK schools

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  September 15, 2023

A new study shares 40 cases in which students or staff were accused of antisemitism based on the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

A new report details how a controversial definition of antisemitism is stifling free speech at United Kingdom universities.

The study, which was conducted by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) and the European Legal Support Center (ELSC), relies on the analysis of 40 cases between 2017-2022 in which students or staff were accused of antisemitism based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.

“Our findings demonstrate that the IHRA definition is undermining academic freedom and freedom of expression in relation to discussions of Israel and Palestine and risks being used in a way that discriminates against Palestinians and others on campuses who wish to speak out against the oppression of Palestinians,” reads the report.Onderkant formulier

In 2016, the IHRA adopted the non-legally binding definition, which includes eleven “contemporary examples” of antisemitism. It defines such prejudice as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The definition has been criticized by academics, human rights groups, activists, and others over its vague nature and the fact that some of its examples consider criticisms of Israel to be antisemitic. Since it was established, critics have warned that it can be used as a tool to stifle anti-Zionist sentiment and their concerns have consistently been validated.

The new report identifies four major consequences for UK schools that stem from their implementation of the IHRA definition: false accusations of antisemitism against critics of Israel, unreasonable investigations and disciplinary proceedings, an adverse effect on academic freedom, and a culture of self-censorship and fear among Palestine advocates.

“I feel like I’m on this emotional roller-coaster,” said one of the interviewed academics. “I feel like I won’t get a job anywhere else. If I apply for another job, they might not hire me. Not that they would think that I’m antisemitic, but because they would want to avoid controversy. That’s the reality for me now.”

Multiple students detailed the stress and anxiety they endured after falsely being accused of antisemitism. “They make you waste time, sap your energy, and make you exhausted,” explains one. “They make you not perform to your ability because you have other things to think about … You learn that [the school ] is not there for you. Different interests trump your rights.”

“It was really difficult to hear that you might be kicked out of university. It was very hard for me to focus on my studies. I had to do resits in the summer, so I didn’t graduate until recently,” says another. “I nearly didn’t get into my Masters program. I missed the deadline by two months. If it wasn’t for Oxford University being really flexible, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

Earlier this year the ELSC released a report detailing human rights violations in Europe that occurred as a result of the definition, examining 53 cases where it had been used. “In the overwhelming majority of cases, allegations of antisemitism invoking the IHRA [definition] are false,” and it had “been adopted and implemented in a manner facilitating and validating the suppression of human rights advocacy for Palestinian rights and silencing criticism of Israeli government policies and practices.”

The BRISMES and the ELSC are calling on the government, universities, and the National Union of Students to rescind their support for the definition.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss