IHRA working definition of antisemitism in the UK

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IHRA working definition of antisemitism in the UK

The IHRA definition of antisemitism has been widely adopted in UK society. How do different societal groups respond to it?

The quest for a definition

Defining antisemitism is a challenging and complex, but vital endeavour. In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (henceforth referred to as IHRA), an intergovernmental organisation focused on Holocaust-related issues, undertook such a venture. IHRA created a working definition which has become the most internationally cited document that attempts to define antisemitism.[1]

Against the background of a surge in antisemitic incidents in the UK,[2] the UK government adopted the IHRA working definition in December 2016. Then-Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that “there will be one definition of anti-Semitism – and anyone guilty of that will be called out on it.”[3]

The IHRA definition was welcomed by many within the British Jewish community and more widely by many politicians and educational bodies who believed the definition would improve understanding of what constitutes antisemitism. However, the definition has not been without criticism and concerns have been raised over its ability to restrict freedom of speech. This article will outline the UK’s adoption of the definition and reflect on how different groups have responded to it.

What is in a definition?

The IHRA definition was originally formulated by a group of academics and experts at the request of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in 2005, before later being adopted by IHRA in 2016.[4] The definition defines antisemitism as:

“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.”[5]

Alongside this statement, the definition is accompanied by 11 illustrative examples of antisemitism. Seven among the eleven examples explicitly pertain to the State of Israel, including “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel … than to the interests of their own nations,” “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

As of September 2021, 34 national governments worldwide and several regional and international organisations had endorsed the IHRA definition.[6] A rise in recorded cases of antisemitism in British society and, more specifically university campuses, played a prominent role in the UK government’s decision to adopt the definition.[7]

Since the definition’s adoption in 2016, antisemitism has continued to be a pervasive issue in the UK. An investigation by the Community Security Trust (CST) published in December 2020 showed that between 2018 and 2020, 123 antisemitic incidents in 34 different towns and cities in the UK had been reported.[8] Considering the evidence of antisemitism in UK campuses,[9] in October 2020 the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, threatened to withdraw funding to educational institutions that failed to adopt the IHRA definition by Christmas of that year.[10]

In support of the definition

For various reasons, the IHRA definition has received support from many societal groups in the UK, including a large proportion of British Jews, leaders of the main political parties, [11] [12] [13] campaign groups, students, and academics.

Firstly, one central reason behind support for the IHRA definition is the continued increase in antisemitism in UK society. Many believe that adopting the IHRA definition is essential in order to help educate on what constitutes antisemitism and therefore help organisations to combat it.[14]

Moreover, a recent report published by student researchers working for the Balfour Project[15] makes clear that understanding what constitutes antisemitism is a vital step. The report focuses on the lived experiences of the IHRA definition on UK campuses and features interviews with students and academics impacted by the definition. One Jewish student said that it was important to adopt the IHRA definition on campus as it helped others to “understand where that line is,” particularly about when criticism of Israel constitutes antisemitism.[16] Secondly, the report highlights how some believe that universities’ adoption of the IHRA definition “has helped them to effectively protect Jewish students on campus and work towards reducing antisemitism.”[17] [18]

Thirdly, in the Balfour Project report, several participants stressed the “emotional need” for a specific definition of antisemitism. They believe that the UK government and universities’ adoption[19] of the IHRA definition shows a symbolic commitment to the seriousness of antisemitism.[20]

The negative implications

Yet, despite the benefits of adopting the IHRA definition, it has not been without legitimate criticism. Academics, students, campaigners, and some Jewish communities[21] alike have raised concern over both the content of the definition and the climate in which the IHRA definition has gained momentum.

Firstly, there have been concerns that some of the definition’s examples categorise legitimate criticism of the actions of the Israeli government as antisemitic.[22] Many critics of the definition are fearful that confusing the two risks restricting freedom of speech.[23] Even one of the original drafters of the definition, Kenneth Stern, believes that what was originally designed as a data collection tool is now being weaponised by right-wing Jews, resulting in the creation of a “chilling effect.”[24] He believes that this chilling effect is restricting academic expression, necessary debate, and Palestinian activism.[25]

An example of this chilling effect could be seen in 2017 when Apartheid Week at the University of Exeter, an annual pro-Palestinian event, was banned due to “safety and security reasons.” The decision followed a letter by the then-Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation who endorsed the IHRA definition and referred to the Israeli Apartheid Week as “a cause of concern” in the fight against antisemitism.[26]

Secondly, critics have expressed unease about the real motivations for university adoption of the IHRA definition. A lecturer at a UK university said that their university “swept through [the adoption of IHRA] without any real discussion with the academic community. Instead, it was a unilateral imposition.”[27] This led the lecturer to feel that the definition had been adopted as “mere lip service.”[28]

Moreover, a Jewish university student explained how despite continuous efforts of their JSoc (Jewish society at university) to get IHRA adopted at their university, “nothing happened until Gavin Williamson [the Secretary of State for Education] sent the threatening letter to Vice Chancellors in October 2020.”[29] The student felt it was quite “disheartening” as a Jewish student to know that the adoption of the definition “wasn’t really because of us [the JSoc] at all.”[30]

What does the future hold?

This article has assessed the different responses to the widespread adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in the UK. Despite the definition being adopted and implemented by many organisations and universities, antisemitism remains a constant problem in UK society.[31] Due to this, it seems likely that pressure for the IHRA definition to be more widely adopted will continue. However, restrictions on freedom of speech and academic expression may become more severe as a result.

Martha Scott-Cracknell

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[1] Defining antisemitism on UK campuses: lived experiences of the IHRA definition

[2] Antisemitism in the UK

[3] UK Government’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism

[4] What is antisemitism? | IHRA

[5] What is antisemitism? | IHRA

[6] Adoption of the Working Definition | AJC

[7] Government leads the way in tackling anti-Semitism

[8] Campus Antisemitism in Britain 2018-2020 – Blog – CST – Protecting Our Jewish Community

[9] Record levels of antisemitic abuse hit university campuses

[10] Williamson accuses English universities of ignoring antisemitism | Higher education

[11] Green Party adopts antisemitism guidance including IHRA and Jerusalem Declaration definitions

[12] Labour adopts IHRA antisemitism definition in full

[13] Lib Dems adopt full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism

[14] OfS reports significant increase in universities signing up to IHRA definition of antisemitism

[15] The Balfour Project is a British charity that raises awareness of Britain’s historic and continuing responsibilities to uphold equal rights for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

[16] Defining antisemitism on UK campuses: lived experiences of the IHRA definition

[17] Defining antisemitism on UK campuses: lived experiences of the IHRA definition

[18] Jewish students are protected by the IHRA definition of antisemitism | Letter

[19] As of November 2021, 100 universities across the UK had adopted the definition. IHRA Campaign – UJS

[20] Defining antisemitism on UK campuses: lived experiences of the IHRA definition

[21] Progressive Jewish groups oppose codification of IHRA antisemitism definition

[22] FAQs: 16 questions on UCL and the IHRA definition of anti-semitism

[23] Written evidence from the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) (FOE0145) The British Society for Middle Eastern

[24] I drafted the definition of antisemitism. Rightwing Jews are weaponizing it | Kenneth Stern

[25] I drafted the definition of antisemitism. Rightwing Jews are weaponizing it | Kenneth Stern

[26] Universities spark free speech row after halting pro-Palestinian events

[27] Defining antisemitism on UK campuses: lived experiences of the IHRA definition

[28] Defining antisemitism on UK campuses: lived experiences of the IHRA definition

[29] Defining antisemitism on UK campuses: lived experiences of the IHRA definition

[30] Defining antisemitism on UK campuses: lived experiences of the IHRA definition

[31] Survey finds 45% of UK adults hold antisemitic views