Dozens of UK universities refusing to adopt leading definition of antisemitism, watchdog reveals

“The claim that the definition can have a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of expression or inhibits criticism of Israel are baseless canards.”

By Dion J. Pierre, The Algemeiner

The definition of antisemitism adopted by dozens of governments and hundreds of civic institutions around the world has yet to be endorsed by 43 of Britain’s leading universities, a UK-based group campaigning against antisemitism revealed last week.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental organization comprised of dozens of countries including the US and Israel, adopted a non-legally binding “working definition” of antisemitism in 2016. Since then, the definition has been widely accepted by Jewish groups and well over 1,000 global entities, from countries to companies. The US State Department, the European Union, and the United Nations all use it.

Despite the IHRA definition’s wide acceptance, however, dozens of universities in Britain have chosen not to adopt it, according to the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA).

“The arguments that these universities have deployed to justify their failure to adopt the definition do not hold water,” CAA said in a statement on its website, citing the University of Brighton and the University of Wales Trinity St. David as two schools that have not embraced the definition during a time of rising antisemitism around the world.

“Those that claim that their existing policies render the definition unnecessary misunderstand its purpose: the definition is not a policy on antisemitism but a definition of antisemitism,” CAA continued. “The claim, meanwhile, that the definition can have a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of expression or inhibits criticism of Israel are also baseless canards.”

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According to the definition, 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.”

IHRA provides 11 specific, contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere. Beyond classic antisemitic behavior associated with the likes of the medieval period and Nazi Germany, the examples include denial of the Holocaust and newer forms of antisemitism targeting Israel such as demonizing the Jewish state, denying its right to exist and holding it to standards not expected of any other democratic state.

Critics argue that applying double standards to Israel and opposing Israel’s continuation as the nation-state of the Jewish people may not necessarily be antisemitic, creating tighter standards around when anti-Israel speech and activity is antisemitic.

CAA sharply criticized the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) for not embracing the definition, noting that it has been tracking antisemitic incidents on the campus for years. In 2016, for example, CAA filed a complaint with the school after its Palestine Society hosted a lecture in which the speaker compared Israel to Nazi Germany.

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“While SOAS University of London has not adopted the IHRA definition, we stand firmly against antisemitism, as we do against all forms of discrimination,” the school told CAA in a statement. The school came under fire earlier this year after the Palestinian Society shared a quote on social media by a Hezbollah leader. Hezbollah is a widely designated terrorist organization based in Lebanon that often calls for the death of Jews and the destruction of Israel.

CAA also noted that 134 British universities have adopted the IHRA definition in full, including Oxford University and Bristol University.

“We commend the vast majority of British universities that have chosen to show solidarity with Jewish students and do their part in the fight against anti-Jewish racism by adopting the international definition of antisemitism,” a CAA spokesperson said in a statement. “It is appalling that a minority of universities continue to take the opposite course, and it is astonishing that they persist in providing excuses that have already been debunked years ago … They must urgently revisit their positions.”

Pervasive antisemitism and anti-Zionism at UK universities has forced members of the Jewish academic community to conceal their identities on campus, according to a recent report by the Parliamentary Task Force on Antisemitism in Higher Education, a committee of lawmakers established by former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in response to complaints of anti-Jewish discrimination. The task force recommended that all universities adopt IHRA’s definition of antisemitism.

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Jewish students’ feeling that they have been victimized by their peers arises from the treatment they receive because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report explained, citing an interview in which a Jewish student described a torrent of verbal abuse, as well as incessant phone calls, he endured after being outed as a Zionist in a WhatsApp group chat.

Such behavior has influenced Jewish students’ choices on which courses to take, with one Newcastle University student reporting that registering for a class on the Middle East was ruled out for fear of being held “responsible for defending Israel when discussing the conflict.” According to the report, at least one campus group for Jewish students, the Exeter Jewish Society of the University of Exeter, is phasing out any programming related to Israel altogether because it sets off a viscerally negative response from their anti-Zionist peers.