The Electronic Intifada / October 27, 2020
Only a minority of UK universities have adopted the misleading and politically motivated definition of anti-Semitism promoted by Israel and its lobby.
Despite repeated British government threats, fewer than 22 percent of higher education establishments have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism.
The IHRA definition has been repeatedly condemned by free speech defenders, Palestinians, Jewish activists, Palestine solidarity, Black and Asian groups.
But Conservative Party education minister Gavin Williamson wrote to universities demanding they “formally adopt” the definition on 9 October.
Williamson threatened to cut their government funding if they do not.
He said he had asked civil servants to examine how to “impose a new regulatory condition” to suspend funding “for universities at which anti-Semitic incidents occur” that have not signed up to the definition.
He threatened to act before Christmas, “if I have not seen the overwhelming majority of institutions adopting the definition.”
Williamson’s letter disingenuously equates refusal to adopt the specific definition favoured by the British government and Israel supporters as tantamount to condoning anti-Semitism.
This ignores serious concerns over the IHRA definition’s already widespread misuse to stigmatize and censor speech critical of Israel’s policies against Palestinians.
The government is now resorting to threats and coercion after failing to make its case.
The group calls the definition “politically motivated and intellectually incoherent.”
The majority of the IHRA definition’s examples of “anti-Semitism” focus on Israel.
Some could even ban criticisms of Israel and its official ideology, Zionism.
One of the examples of supposed anti-Semitism is: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”
This could be used to silence Palestinians from talking about their history, especially the Nakba – the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Zionist armed militias in 1947-48 in order to create an Israeli state with a Jewish majority.
It could also be used to target anyone advocating for a unitary, democratic non-sectarian state for all in historic Palestine, instead of a specifically “Jewish state” which gives superior rights to one group of people over another – as Israel is currently constituted.
Williamson’s letter is not the first time the Conservative government has threatened university funding over the refusal to adopt the definition.
In January, communities minister Robert Jenrick made a similar threat – but nothing seems to have come of it.
In February 2017, a previous education minister wrote to universities telling them that the government had adopted the definition a few months prior – but stopped short of demanding they adopt it too.
That letter came amid a wave of repression targeting Palestine solidarity activities during Israeli Apartheid Week.
The most recent example came last week in the United States.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to use the definition to label Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam as “anti-Semitic” for their perceived support for the boycott of Israeli occupation.
“Tool for censorship”
Human rights lawyer Jamil Dakwar called it “yet another dangerous attempt to weaponize anti-Semitism.”
“The IHRA definition isn’t about keeping Jewish people safe,” said Jewish Voice for Peace Action’s Beth Miller, “It’s a tool for censorship.”
The definition “manipulates concern about Jewish safety and twists it into a vehicle to ban and criminalize support for Palestinian rights,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Jewish anti-Zionist and Palestine solidarity activist Tony Greenstein wrote on his blog that Williamson’s attempt to intimidate universities into adopting the definition “is like a mafia boss offering his clients ‘protection.’”
“One of the least remarked on aspects of the IHRA is how genuine anti-Semites have no quarrel with the IHRA. The IHRA is there to defend Israeli apartheid not Jews,” according to Greenstein.
The low number of universities to have adopted the definition was revealed after freedom of information requests by a pro-Israel lobby group.
Only 29 said they had adopted Israel’s bogus definition. Seven did not reply and 80 said they had no plans to adopt it.
A further 17 said they planned to discuss or debate adopting it.
The UJS said Jenrick’s intervention had come after the group engaged in “extensive lobbying.”
The constitution of the UJS commits it to “inspiring Jewish students to make an enduring commitment” to Israel.
In 2017 it was revealed by a former UJS presidential candidate in undercover footage shot by Al Jazeera that “the Israeli embassy in the UK gives money to the Union of Jewish Students.”
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist and associate editor with The Electronic Intifada; he lives in London