Why we should drop the IHRA definition of antisemitism

Talal Hangari 7 May 2021
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted a working definition of antisemitism in 2016. In October 2020, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson tried to impose this definition on universities, threatening their funding if they refused. This intimidation is part of the reason why 85 British higher education institutions have adopted it to date. Nevertheless, the IHRA definition remains severely problematic, and should be abandoned by both universities and the government.

The 38-word definition is vague, and in full reads:

‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’

In his legal opinion on the definition, Hugh Tomlinson QC observed that ‘[t]he use of language is unusual and therefore potentially confusing’ and that the definition ‘lacks clarity and comprehensiveness’. In a separate legal opinion, Geoffrey Robertson QC suggested the definition is ‘seriously deficient’ and ‘lacks the precision required of a definition or rule.’

Another difficulty is that the IHRA definition can easily be used to restrict criticism of Israel, and therefore our right to free expression. Alongside the above text, the IHRA adopted eleven illustrative examples of antisemitism, seven of which relate directly to Israel. These include ‘applying double standards’ to Israel and ‘claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’. Even though the IHRA’s decision-making body excluded these examples from the working definition, pro-Israel campaigners have falsely depicted the examples as fundamental to the definition. Cambridge has adopted the definition and all of the examples.

The notion of ‘double standards’ has repeatedly been invoked to stigmatise legitimate criticism of Israel. When Amnesty International condemned UK businesses for trading in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank in 2019, Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, claimed Amnesty had ‘singled out Israel’ and had a ‘long record of double standards’ on the conflict. Similarly, when Human Rights Watch said in April this year that Israel is guilty of crimes against humanity, including the crime of apartheid, the director of We Believe in Israel, Luke Akehurst, accused HRW of a ‘disproportionate obsession with Israel’.

The reality is that Israel is not held to any standard. Despite Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank since 1967, a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the UN has never imposed sanctions on Israel despite sanctioning other member states. Israel has been able to commit serious international crimes for decades without suffering any significant international penalties—is pointing out this fact antisemitic?

The idea of Israel as a ‘racist endeavour’, far from being an irrational prejudice, has been defended in mainstream scholarship. Israeli historians like Benny Morris have written that ‘transfer’ — the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs — ‘was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism — because it sought to transform a land which was “Arab” into a “Jewish” state’. In other words, he argues, in my view correctly, that the expulsion of Arabs was inherent in the Zionist project from the outset. Yet the IHRA definition suggests that expressing this view is antisemitic.

Another problem is that the definition is totally unsuited to tackling prejudice in higher education. Kenneth Stern, the definition’s lead author, has written that ‘it was never intended to be a campus hate speech code’—but merely a tool for data collectors. Stern described how, once the definition was in circulation, ‘right-wing Jewish groups’ began ‘weaponizing’ it to clamp down on students and faculty criticising Israel.

This has been happening in the UK: the University of Central Lancashire cancelled a panel event in 2017 because it violated ‘the new definition’. At the University of Manchester, an event with Holocaust survivor Marika Sherwood had to censor its original title, ‘You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me’, because of its ‘unduly provocative nature’. This was after the university had been prodded by the Israeli embassy to consider events’ compliance with the IHRA definition—another one of the examples is to compare ‘contemporary Israeli policy with that of the Nazis’.

In February this year, the Oxford University Jewish Society tried to stop the invitation of left-wing filmmaker Ken Loach to an event, because he ‘made remarks that are antisemitic under the IHRA definition’. To claim that the IHRA definition poses no threat to free speech is thus untrue not just in theory but as a practical reality. Despite qualifications allowing criticism of Israel, it is being used to stifle discussion.

The Cambridge Student Union passed a motion in November 2020 stating that the IHRA definition is ‘the best mechanism for safeguarding Jewish students from prejudice’. This is odd given the definition’s main author has explicitly said that it is not meant for this purpose. Indeed, a report by a working group including several academics at UCL found that the IHRA definition is not only ‘unhelpful in identifying cases of harassment’, but that it ‘obfuscates rather than clarifies the meaning of antisemitism, and may in fact make it harder to identify and understand how antisemitism works’. The report recommended that the IHRA definition be retracted, with consideration of alternatives. This judgment was by no means eccentric; academic and legal experts who have assessed the IHRA definition, including one of the UK’s foremost experts on antisemitism, David Feldman, broadly agree that it is imprecise and vulnerable to political abuse.

Cambridge, like other universities, already has robust policies against discrimination and harassment. The university’s Rules of Behaviour prohibit ‘abusive behaviour’ and twenty-four colleges have equality policies to combat discrimination. All the IHRA definition adds is confusion and unreasonable restrictions on speech, which is ostensibly why the university originally resisted its implementation.

It must also be asked whether the government and universities will treat all forms of discrimination equally. Will anti-black, anti-Asian and anti-Arab racism each receive their own state-imposed definitions? Will Islamophobia? No institution has been instructed to adopt a definition for any of those categories, and there is no reason to believe that doing so would be helpful. Guidelines exist for determining what constitutes harassment and bullying; it is simply a matter of applying them. Claims that the IHRA definition is needed or helpful for curbing antisemitic prejudice have not been remotely substantiated.

The government should drop the IHRA definition. If it won’t, universities should uphold the right to free expression, not to mention academic freedom, and refuse to use it.