The IHRA definition of antisemitism is erasing Palestine from UK universities

Rebecca Ruth Gould

The New Arab  /  October 2, 2023

A new report shows how the IHRA definition of antisemitism has silenced criticism of Israel in UK universities. It continues to undermine academic freedom and muddle our understanding of anti-Jewish hatred, writes Rebecca Ruth Gould.

In 2016, the UK government became the first country in the world to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

As universities began to feel the pressure to adopt the definition themselves, academics were told that it would not infringe in any way on their academic freedom. Those who persisted in sounding the alarm were accused of exaggeration.

Yet a report issued early this month by the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) demonstrates that our fears were well-placed.

Now, seven years later and in the aftermath of the definition’s adoption by three-quarters of UK universities, the damage that it has inflicted on freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, particularly with regards to Palestine, has become impossible to ignore.

The report comprises forty cases in UK universities in which the IHRA definition has been used to accuse university staff and students of antisemitism, two of which are ongoing. Of the thirty-eight cases that have concluded, all of them determined that the allegations were unjustified.

Yet this is unfortunately not a story about how justice ultimately prevails, because significant damage was inflicted on those who were accused along the way, even when the accusations were later shown to be baseless.

The events that were cancelled were not rescheduled. Student groups were compelled to disband and were unable to unite again. And perhaps most importantly yet also most difficult to track, the pressure to self-censor remained—and remains—in place long after the allegations were dismissed.

It is always challenging to tell a story of erasures. Yet the ELSC-BRISMES report does just this: it makes palpable what university administrators prefer to keep hidden from view. Among the most revealing elements in the report are the testimonials from staff and students, in which they share experiences that they do not feel safe sharing under their name.

As one staff member movingly states: “I was very angry and anxious. I never really thought I’d lose my job, but I couldn’t rule it out. I felt betrayed by the university. As a tactic of intimidation, these accusations are effective because the university did put me through the [disciplinary] process.”

Testimonies like these attest to the aspect of the IHRA definition that is most damaging to university life: it creates a culture of fear and suspicion.

Even when everyone inside an institution can observe the definition being applied in bad faith, the culture of secrecy and incrimination that it promotes encourages self-censorship for its own sake.

Another revelation of the report is the stark imbalance that it reveals in terms of the definition’s impact. We learn that the definition disproportionately impacts groups that have been historically marginalised: migrants, people of colour, and, increasingly, academics working on a part-time or contingent basis.

For these groups, which already face significant external pressures to steer clear of controversial topics, the IHRA definition has a disproportionately chilling effect. It cowers them into silence, while doing nothing to remedy the problem of actual antisemitism.

I have first-hand experience of the extraordinary effectiveness of the IHRA definition in silencing speech critical of Israel. In 2017, just three months after the UK government’s adoption of the IHRA definition, I was accused of antisemitism on the basis of an article I wrote while residing in Bethlehem in the West Bank, an experience I chronicle in my book, Erasing Palestine.

Like all the other academics accused of antisemitism whose cases are documented in the ELSC report, the complaint against me was ultimately found to be without merit.

But this conclusion was only reached after a several-months long investigation, which never should have happened in the first place. After all, the accusation pertained to an article I had written years before I even set foot in England.

To this day, I am convinced that no one who was involved in responding to the complaint believed it to have any merit, and there would never have been an investigation if not for the quasi-legal force exerted by the IHRA and the lobby groups who used it to promote censorship. 

I expect that the same is true of many of the cases documented in this report. Yet in a post-IHRA world, no accusation, no matter how frivolous, can be ignored.

During the university inquiry, like the other academics whose cases are surveyed in the report, my mental health suffered severely. So severe was the impact of the university’s deliberations on my well-being that I had to go on extended medical leave.

Just as my words were being misrepresented and taken out of context in the right-wing media, I was strongly discouraged from speaking out by the university press office and legal counsel.

Although all colleagues whom I spoke with rejected the allegations of antisemitism that were directed at my article, some were afraid to publicly support me.

Years later, long after I had been vindicated, the alarm bells went off at my new university when I informed them that I would be devoting my inaugural lecture to the subject of censorship and free speech.

A highly complex risk assessment procedure was initiated due to the supposedly controversial nature of my topic. Administrators who saw themselves as supporting me pointed out that the University of Birmingham had adopted the IHRA definition. Although the inaugural lecture was eventually approved (with the addition of a request for a neutral chair that I planned to ignore) it never took place due to “scheduling difficulties.”

In fairness, I should acknowledge that when I first started at the University of Birmingham and was still recovering from the trauma of what happened at the University of Bristol, a high-level administrator at Birmingham took the opposite approach to the controversy in which I had become entangled.

He shared an article in which I criticised the IHRA definition with the School of Law. He not only recognised my academic freedom, but also actively promoted my work, not, I suspect, because of his position with regards to Israel and Palestine, but because he believed in academic freedom.

Unfortunately, he retired a few years after I joined the university. His actions represent an era of academic freedom that is passing.

One area which the report does not cover is the financial damage that accusations of antisemitism, fueled by the IHRA definition, inflict on those who become its target. I was lucky to find the perfect lawyer to represent me, who was deeply knowledgeable about free speech, and deeply committed to the Palestinian cause.

Yet even his heavily discounted rate for what was effectively a pro-bono case cost me six hundred pounds. The full cost without a discounted rate would have been several thousand pounds, simply for defending myself against a complaint that was ultimately deemed baseless and without merit.

I have personally known cases in which Palestinian students were wrongly accused of antisemitism and could not properly respond to the bad faith allegations made against them because they lacked the funds to obtain adequate legal support. The universities involved were more concerned with reputational damage than with protecting vulnerable students.

The ELSC was established in 2019, two years after my case. Given that they provide legal support free of charge to those who come under attack due to their criticism of Israel and support for Palestine, this organisation may have helped to mitigate the financial impact of bad faith allegations of antisemitism.

Yet, even leftist organisations that are strongly committed to the defence of Palestine can sometimes become complicit in the heavy cost extracted by baseless allegations, as happened to me when my recent book, Erasing Palestine, was subjected to a costly legal review simply because it chronicled my experience of being accused of antisemitism.

It is easy to understand why the publisher regarded such costs as unavoidable, and yet it was I as author who paid the price simply for writing on this topic.

My own experience of financial loss as a result of being accused of antisemitism is of course trivial compared to the loss of entire livelihoods as a result of bad faith allegations assisted by the IHRA definition.

As the report notes, “Academics employed on temporary contracts (who constitute a significant proportion of university teaching staff), as well as students, are particularly susceptible to self-censorship out of fear that any sort of accusations, even if not upheld, could jeopardise their future ability to obtain permanent employment.”

For every allegation that has been dismissed, how many early career scholars have been persuaded to leave academia forever? How many students have decided that the life of mind is not worth pursuing in an environment in which they cannot actually speak their minds? How many scholars have been discouraged from speaking and writing the truth about Palestine and the Israeli occupation?

My experience of being accused of antisemitism did not cause me to regret speaking out about the occupation, but it did awaken me to actual stakes of academic freedom and free speech.

Before I was accused, I never questioned the assumption that I lived and worked in a democracy where free speech is prized. I did not consider my own free speech rights to be at risk.

Now I see that they will always be at risk, simply because I write and think about Palestine. Now I understand just how precarious is the position of anyone who is willing to speak truth to power, whether they live in a state that prides itself on its liberal institutions or in an authoritarian dictatorship.

If the IHRA definition actually led to an honest and open reckoning with the problem of antisemitism, then perhaps its flaws could be forgiven or at the very least mitigated by the understanding that it was helping to fight anti-Jewish hatred.

But if anything, the definition has muddled our understanding and made antisemitism more difficult to see. Deftly deployed by various lobby groups and, increasingly, governments and public bodies, it has silenced dissenting points of view and erased Palestine from public consciousness.

It has promoted a monolithic narrative, whereby there is only one way to understand anti-Jewish hatred, and, by implication, only one way of understanding what it means to be a Jew.

Viewed in this light, simplistic definitions such as the IHRA may represent a triumph of antisemitism and a victory for everyone who would prefer to preserve a racist status quo.  

Rebecca Ruth Gould is a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Poetics and Global Politics, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London