In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted a working definition of antisemitism (‘the IHRA definition’), to which was appended a list of examples of antisemitism, several of which mention Israel, thereby conflating criticisms of the State of Israel, its policies, practices and political ideology with antisemitism. In practice, these examples have been used in UK higher education institutions to delegitimise points of view critical of Israel by making false accusations of antisemitism.
As pointed out by one of the main drafters of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, writing in The Guardian in 2019, “It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code”.
While antisemitism exists within UK society and incidents of anti-Jewish prejudice occur in higher education institutions, just as in other institutional contexts, the findings of this new report provide concrete evidence that the IHRA definition of antisemitism is not fit for purpose. The history and instrumentalisation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism should be understood in a wider context of attacks on advocates for Palestinian rights, as explained in a previous report published by the ELSC. Additional resources produced in the USA and Canada demonstrate similar harmful consequences for the rights of advocates for Palestine, while several human rights organisations, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have asked the UN to reject the IHRA definition because its use and implementation “chill and sometimes suppress non-violent protest, activism and speech”. Such misuse has also been criticised by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Racism E. Tendayi Achiume.
In the UK, other efforts are being deployed at the institutional level to try and undermine advocacy for Palestine. In June 2023, the government tabled a bill aimed at preventing public bodies from making investment decisions that align with their human rights responsibilities and obligations. The bill was designed to target, in particular, boycotts, divestment and sanctions of Israel and, therefore, the Palestinian-led BDS movement. In response, a coalition of more than 70 civil society organisations in the UK declared that this bill represents a further attack on freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch called the bill “the latest in a growing list of measures which fundamentally undermine free speech and democratic rights in the country.”
The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) is the largest academic association in Europe focused on the study of the Middle East and North Africa. Through its Committee on Academic Freedom, it is committed to supporting academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region, both in the UK and globally.
The European Legal Support Center (ELSC) is the only organisation providing free legal support to individuals, groups and organisations advocating for Palestinian rights in Europe, including the UK. ELSC also documents incidents of repression and analyses and challenges the restrictive policies that result in shrinking space.