Weaponized definition of anti-Semitism is a ‘tool’ to undermine free-speech

Nasim Ahmed

Middle East Monitor  /  September 15, 2023

The highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism has been repeatedly abused to suppress criticism of Israel and stifle pro-Palestinian activism at UK universities, a startling new report has found.

Produced by the European Legal Support Centre (ELSC) and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), the report analyzed 40 cases between 2017-2022 where spurious accusations of anti-Semitism were levelled against students and faculty members over speech related to Palestine/Israel.

In nearly every case, the accusations were eventually dismissed after prolonged, stressful investigative processes. However, the harm inflicted on the well-being and reputations of those falsely accused had already been accomplished through these malicious campaigns.

Based on the findings, the report concludes that the IHRA definition is inadequate and unfit for purpose. In practice, it undermines academic freedom and the right to lawful speech for students and staff. The reputation and careers of those falsely accused also suffer harm from such allegations. Overall, the definition is being used to stifle protected speech critical of Israel, in violation of the academic rights and freedoms that universities are legally obligated to protect.

“We have found that since its adoption in UK higher education institutions, the IHRA definition has been used to delegitimize points of view critical of Israel and/or in support of Palestinian rights, silencing political criticism and academic scrutiny of Israeli state policies” Program Director of the European Legal Support Centre, Giovanni Fassina, told MEMO.

“University staff and students in the UK have been subjected to false allegations of anti-Semitism, unreasonable investigations based on the IHRA definition, or cancellations and disruption of events. These proceedings harm well-being and reputations, including possible damage to education and careers. The complaints have had an adverse effect on academic freedom and free speech on campuses and have fostered self-censorship,” Fassina added.

Despite concerns raised by academics, activists and legal experts over its chilling effect on free speech, the IHRA definition was adopted by a majority of universities. Kenneth Stern, the lead drafter of the IHRA, has himself warned that it is not appropriate for university settings where critical thought and free debate are paramount. Nevertheless, in 2020, the then Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson threatened university leaders with punitive financial consequences if their institutions did not adopt the IHRA. As a result, 119 universities (almost 75 per cent of UK universities) have adopted some version of the definition as a basis for campus policies.

 “Meanwhile, the UK government has rejected similar calls for protection against discrimination from other minority groups in the name of fighting ‘woke aggression’ and ‘cancel culture’.”

 For instance, Muslim advocacy groups have urged the adoption of an official definition of Islamophobia to tackle anti-Muslim hatred. But the government rejected this, claiming a singular definition could chill legitimate speech and debate.

In stark contrast to its position on the IHRA, the Tory government and the right in general have argued that a definition of Islamophobia could impact law enforcement and require legislative changes. Critics pointed out this rationale is inconsistent given the IHRA definition’s documented use to restrict speech, curtail events and initiate proceedings against students and faculty.

The contrast reveals not only a double standard in the government’s approach to addressing racism targeting different minority groups, but also a hierarchy of racism, where certain groups are granted greater protection and privileges over others. There is a reluctance to bolster protections for Muslims, even as accusations of anti-Semitism are readily weaponized to demonize certain speech.

A major flaw of the IHRA definition is that it conflates anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism. Seven of the 11 illustrative examples do just that. One example states that “denying Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that Israel is a racist endeavour” is anti-Semitic. As the report authors explain, this example falsely equates Jewish self-determination solely with the political project of Israel – a contingent position unique to Zionist ideology. It further delegitimizes Palestinian claims to self-determination and casts opposition to Israel’s discriminatory policies as anti-Semitic. Most concerning, it suppresses documented evidence of Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians by equating such criticism with bigotry. Through such examples, the definition chills free speech and makes it difficult to act in solidarity with Palestinians without facing accusations of anti-Semitism.

Several cases where students and teachers were “cancelled” on extremely dubious grounds were highlighted. In December 2020, an academic teaching on the Middle East received notification that a recent graduate had submitted complaints alleging their social media posts from 2016-2020 were anti-Semitic. The posts criticized Zionism, shared an article on the Nakba, and commented on anti-Semitism allegations against Labour.

The graduate argued these violated the IHRA definition. Despite the academic being cleared, they underwent a lengthy disciplinary process causing stress and requiring legal advice. The university referred to the IHRA definition in its policies.

Another example is the treatment of Somdeep Sen. He was invited to deliver a lecture at the University of Glasgow on his book ‘Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial. After the lecture was announced, the university received a complaint from its Jewish student society alleging that the event is anti-Semitic.

In response, the university demanded Sen provide details on his talk’s content in advance and confirm he wouldn’t contravene the IHRA definition. As these conditions undermined academic freedom, Sen withdrew and the event was cancelled.

The two examples are just the tip-of the iceberg. All the cases show how vague accusations of violating the IHRA definition have put pressure on universities to investigate or penalize faculty and students for speech related to Palestinian rights and Israeli policies. In all the cases, the burden of proof is on pro-Palestine students and critics of Israel. The presumption is that they are guilty until proven innocent; a perverse inversion of the universal principle that one is innocent until proven guilty.

Commenting on the findings, 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, 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.” 

In his comments to MEMO, Fassina mentioned the vicious campaign to police free speech on Israel and Palestine and the ongoing efforts to weaponize anti-Semitism against critics of the apartheid state. “For us and our partners in the UK, it was time to expose a pattern we have been observing for too long: unfounded allegations of anti-Semitism made against academic staff and students after they criticized the policies of the Israeli government or just ‘liked’ some tweets about Palestine, Israel or about the Labour Party.”  He explained that the latest report adds to the evidence already produced in Europe, in the US and Canada that demonstrate similar harmful consequences of the IHRA definition for the rights of advocates for Palestine. “This is not just a UK problem but reveals a wider trend of anti-Palestinian racism in Western countries, which is highly problematic for the respect of fundamental rights and democracy,” Fassina added.

Fassina called on UK higher education institutions to rescind the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism; halt its use in disciplinary proceedings or investigations; and more crucially, with the forthcoming UN report on combatting anti-Jewish racism to be released, recognize that the IHRA is an anti-democratic, authoritarian instrument weaponized against critics of Israel. “IHRA definition is a tool of anti-Palestinian racism that should not be adopted or used by any institution that aims to respect human rights. As we are waiting for the UN to release its plan to combat anti-Semitism, we hope it will take into account the multiple calls made against the IHRA definition,” Fassina stressed.

Nasim Ahmed is a political analyst