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Calls for IHRA antisemitism definition adopted by KCL and minority of Universities

80 UK universities have recently been criticised by the Union of Jewish Students for stopping short of adopting the definition of antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Recent freedom of information requests conducted by the Union of Jewish students reveal that only 29 out of 133 higher education institutions have adopted the definition developed by the IHRA so far.

The Union of Jewish Students has said, “Antisemitic incidents at UK universities rose by 38% year-on-year in the first six months of 2020. We have seen multiple examples of antisemitism being dismissed by universities who refuse to adopt this definition. When the definition is not used, it gives the power to those investigating, most often academic staff from the same department, to decide what they believe constitutes antisemitism.”

Standwithus UK echoed the calls, stating, “We need the IHRA definition to be adopted because there is no place for hate at our universities.”

The Union of Jewish Students’ investigation shows that 80 have not adopted the definition and do not plan to discuss it. A number have already discussed the issue in committees in the past couple of years. Universities who have so far failed to adopt the IHRA definition offered a range of reasons, with most feeling that existing policies against hate speech are sufficient. One of these universities was the University of Warwick, where in 2019, Dr Goldie Osuri, an associate lecturer in the department of sociology said that “the idea that the Labour Party is antisemitic is very much an Israeli lobby kind of idea”. There is no evidence that she was challenged either by students at the time, or indeed the University of Warwick, which will not take disciplinary action. She later sought to explain her comments.

The IHRA working definition seeks to condemn recurrent tropes and prejudices, and states, “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” 

In 2017, Britain was among the first countries to adopt it. In the same year, Robert Jenrick chaired a panel in parliament, “Antisemitism on campus: where do we go from here?” which included KCL President and Principal Professor Sir Edward Byrne AC. The following year KCL gained appreciation for becoming one of the first UK universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. 

Last month Education Secretary Gavin Williamson weighed in by writing a letter to Vice Chancellors saying, “The repugnant belief that antisemitism is somehow a less serious or more acceptable form of racism has taken insidious hold in some parts of British society, and I am quite clear that universities must play their part in rooting out this attitude and demonstrating that antisemitism is abhorrent”.

Labour’s shadow Education Secretary has said, “Freedom of speech and thought are important but can never be an excuse for antisemitism. Labour urges those universities which are yet to adopt the definition to do so as soon as possible.”

The statement of Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, could be interpreted as a threat to cut funding, “It is simply unacceptable that universities accept public money, but refuse to take this step. I am frankly appalled by some of the examples of antisemitic abuse I continue to hear of on campus.”

This comes at a time when the Equality and Human Rights Commission found institutional failings on the part of the UK Labour Party in dealing with significant internal antisemitism, despite having also adopted the IHRA definition in 2018. 




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