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Understanding the IHRA definition of antisemitism

Jovan Byford responds to some of the common objections to the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jovan Byford is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the Open University. He has published extensively on antisemitism, conspiracy theories and Holocaust remembrance.

In early October 2020, the English Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, wrote to UK universities asking them to formally adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

Noting that most providers had not adopted the definition despite frequent urging to do so by the government, the minster accused the sector of dragging its feet on the vital matter of combating anti-Jewish prejudice. He went as far as to threaten regulatory action and suspension of funding streams for non-compliant institutions.

Williamson’s letter was greeted with dismay by many within the HE sector; only a small number of institutions have adopted the IHRA definition in response to the latest government intervention. Concerns raised both publicly and in debates within institutions can be boiled down to three related arguments. The first is about the tone of the letter and the threat of sanctions. One critic condemned the letter’s “harsh”, even “bullying” language, and branded the imposition of the IHRA definition on universities a “shameless act of ministerial overreach”, and a “diktat” from a government acting on a “political and/or ideological whim”.

Is the definition counterproductive?

The second, more substantive objection is that a separate definition of antisemitism is unnecessary, and potentially counterproductive. Universities, it is argued, are already bound by the 2010 Equalities Act, and most have robust internal policies and procedures designed to address different forms of discrimination, harassment, and victimisation, including those targeting Jews. By adopting a definition of antisemitism, universities would effectively be privileging one group over others by giving them additional protections. This would not just be unfair, but would divide minorities against each other, or lead other religious and ethnic groups to exploit the precedent and demand similar protection.

The third and probably most frequently raised concern is that the IHRA definition is deficient, specifically, that it is too broad, imprecise and politically problematic. Critics claim that the wording of some illustrative examples that form part of the definition could be used to silence criticism of the policies and actions of the Israeli government. For that reason, its adoption by universities is seen a potential threat to freedom of speech and expression, and the values of equality and social justice that academic institutions have a duty to uphold.

With regards to the first of the three concerns, I have some sympathy for those who take issue with being preached at by a Secretary of State for Education who has hardly excelled in his job since taking office in 2019. Many university leaders were probably tempted to take a leaf out of Gavin Williamson’s own book, and respond to the letter by telling the minister to “go away, and shut up“. But with antisemitic incidents on the rise on UK campuses, it is important to look beyond Mr Williamson’s political posturing and confrontational style and consider the substance of what universities are being asked to do. Rather than seeking reasons not to heed to the minister’s request, universities should consider the positive case for embracing the IHRA definition, in the context of the ongoing, broader, and much needed endeavour to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education.

The positive case

The positive case is especially important given that two substantive objections to the definition – the claim about its redundancy and concerns over free speech and academic freedom – stem from a misunderstanding, or in some cases a wilful misinterpretation of its content, history, legal status and intended purpose. Over the years, opponents of the definition, mainly on the far left of politics, have built an aura of controversy around the IHRA definition that is neither warranted nor helpful.

The origins of the working definition of antisemitism date as far back as 2004, when the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) noted that efforts to compile reliable data on antisemitism in Europe were impaired by the fact that stakeholders applied different criteria for what constitutes an antisemitic incident. Antisemitic incidents were being underreported because criteria tended to focus on traditional forms of antisemitism rooted in (mainly right-wing) racial and religious prejudice. Antisemitic language and tropes that marred debates on the Israel/Palestine conflict, which were on the rise after 2000 and which Jewish communities across Europe identified as particularly worrying and threatening, went largely unrecorded and unsanctioned. The working definition was intended to draw attention to new manifestations of antisemitism, and to enable relevant policy makers and stakeholders to identify and combat anti-Jewish prejudice in all its forms. The 2016 IHRA definition was the culmination of this longstanding effort.

The working definition was never envisioned as a legally binding document. It was never meant to be alter or supersede existing equality legislation or institutional anti-racist policies and provisions. It is supposed to be used in conjunction with them, and to inform their implementation with regards to antisemitism. This is how the definition is currently used by the College of Policing in its Hate Crime Operational Guidance, by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Judicial College, as well as by hundreds of institutions, from the European Parliament and the European Commission, through the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, to the Greater London Authority, Greater Manchester Combined Authority and hundreds of other local authorities and public and private bodies across the UK.

Similarly, the definition does not provide any special protection to the Jewish community. It merely ensures better protection within the law, by helping institutions to better understand the different ways in which antisemitism manifests itself in the 21st century. As the Community Security Trust’s recent report on Antisemitism on UK Campuses 2018-2020 shows, there is a pressing need, within UK universities, for a better appreciation of the mutating nature of antisemitism. This is not because existing anti-racism policies are inadequate, or because antisemitism is somehow a unique form of prejudice, but because in universities, just like in society more generally, manifestations of anti-Jewish prejudice that occur in the context of debates over Israel and Palestine often circumvent the taboo surrounding antisemitism, and are allowed to persist unchallenged.

Nuance as a strength

With regards to the claim that the IHRA definition is too broad or imprecise, one could see its nuanced language as its strength rather than a shortcoming. The definition, and the illustrative examples, were never intended to provide a comprehensive list of necessary and sufficient conditions for antisemitism, or to cover, or legislate for, its every manifestation. As the philosopher Eva Gerrard argued recently, no definition can achieve that: “racism of any kind occurs in the complicated contexts of our moral lives, and good moral judgements are highly context-sensitive”. The IHRA working definition is a useful, although inevitably imperfect guide that points to the kind of things that are antisemitic, and in doing so helps inform the response to specific actions, “taking into account the overall context”.

The supposed threat that the definition poses to free speech and academic expression has been similarly overstated. To date, no credible evidence has been put forward that the adoption of the IHRA working definition undermines either academic freedom or freedom of speech. What is more, the claim that the definition censors criticism of Israel is disingenuous. The IHRA definition does no more than to assert the incontrovertible truth that criticism of Israel can be antisemitic when it employs “sinister stereotypes and negative character traits”. To suggest otherwise, would be to deny the reality of contemporary antisemitism, and the Jewish community’s real experience of discrimination.

What is more, one could argue that the definition benefits critics of Israel, because it improves the quality of their argument. It helps ensure that the debate on Israel/Palestine remains free of antisemitic rhetoric so damaging to the reputation of the pro-Palestinian movement. After all, there are many institutions who actively campaign for peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine and who are critical of the actions of the Israeli government, yet who endorse the IHRA definition. Universities, which have a duty to promote both reasoned debate and the values of equality and social justice, should foster this kind of moderate, progressive political culture.

Is it a free speech issue?

Finally, what are the alternatives to adopting the IHRA definition? One is to have no definition at all. This is the approach favoured by many who seek to minimise or deny the existence of left-wing antisemitism. It ignores the problem and its very real consequences and allows some forms of antisemitism to persist with impunity. Another is to tinker with the IHRA definition, adopt only parts of it, or introduce various free speech caveats, clarifications or disclaimers. But this directly undermines the IHRA definition and its intended purpose: as well as limiting its meaning and scope, it frames the definition as a threat to free speech, and therefore something that is inherently morally compromised or politically motivated. In the view of the Jewish Leadership Council, the various “free speech caveats” drive a coach and horses through the IHRA definition’ and undermine its role in protecting the Jewish community from discrimination and harm.

One positive outcome of the letter that the Secretary of State for Education sent to UK universities is that it compelled them to engage with the issue of antisemitism and take a stand. Hopefully, over time, more UK universities will realise that the IHRA definition is nothing to be feared and adopt it in full. But institutions that do not do so must be held to account for their decision. They should at least be expected to provide an explanation to their Jewish students and staff, as well as to the broader Jewish community and its leadership why, in the year marked by unprecedented commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion within higher education, they have chosen to be part of the problem of antisemitism, rather than of the solution.

5 responses to “Understanding the IHRA definition of antisemitism

  1. Thank you for writing this.

    One of the frustrations I have with this debate is that it is remarkably unclear what is being asked of universities when we are asked to ‘adopt’ the definition. To many, myself included, adopting it into regulation would make it far more formal than the reference point it is intended to be and would actually give oxygen to the concerns you have outlined. From what you have said, that isn’t what’s intended, but I am not sure that has been adequately expressed.

    If the definition is to be a reference point then that’s fine. There’s actually nothing stopping us referencing it now should we receive a relevant case. In our regulations we wouldn’t need to adopt it to use it, so it would be pointless to do so unless we wanted to make a big song and dance about it. There may of course be good reasons to do that and the point that is most frustrating in all of this is that there are undoubtedly cases of anti-semitism on many campuses along with other forms of racism and prejudice that remain unreported. Adopting a definition could form part of a response to that, but on it’s own it’s unlikely to achieve anything meaningful unless students feel safe and able to report what they have experienced. I don’t think that they do and we shouldn’t be complicit in helping Mr Williamson pretend that anti-semitism is ‘solved’ by adopting this. This is a far more difficult problem to solve and it needs resource to do it, resource that universities don’t really have.

    This problem needs far more than a definition can give.

    Sorry for the rant. You may have touched a sore spot…

  2. Thank you for a nuanced and persuasive explanation. Isn’t the problem, though, that the less nuanced version is just as prevalent on the side of people who supoport the adoption as those who oppose it, and it may therefore in practice become what its opponents fear, although this may be far from the original intention or framing?

  3. As a white atheist who once worked in the HE section of a large college with over 50% muslim student population, I find the framing of the argument that we need explicit statements on antisemitism to be adopted because jewish students feel threatened, while ignoring the widespread impact of islamophobia on the student body, to be extremely tendentious.

    Of course this is because the reality is that much islamophobic reaction is stoked up by the state and current ruling party, through things like the so-called Prevent duty and the current Prime Minister’s reprehensible comments on ‘pillar box’ and ‘bank robber’ muslim women. The focus on the IHRA by HMG is clearly designed to divert attention from the deep-seated islamophobia their party embraces and that they have stoked. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have strong policies on all manifestations of antisemitism as well as islamophobia, but focussing on the IHRA doesn’t achieve that.

  4. Is it okay to criticize Zionism, criticize the legitimacy of Israel a state, or criticize Israeli state policy under the IHRA definition?

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