Lord Mann’s report on anti-Jewish hatred in Britain  recommends that schools and universities continue to adopt the working definition of anti-Semitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

This consists of a general description of anti-Semitism and 11 putative examples. The latter include denying Israel’s right to exist and comparing its actions to those of the Nazis.

In 2016 the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons proposed two caveats to the definition. These stated it was not anti-Semitic to criticise the government of Israel or to hold it to the same standards as other liberal democracies. Nor was it in itself problematic to take a particular interest in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Problems only arise when there is additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent or where the context suggests anti-Semitism is present.

Despite its widespread adoption the IHRA definition remains controversial, particularly in the university sector. One of the most substantial criticisms of the IHRA was made by the Union of University College London (UCLU). The UCLU’s concerns mainly revolve around issues relating to free speech but they go beyond those.

For example, the UCLU points out that the culture in universities has changed over time. Students see themselves more as consumers of education rather than members of an academic community. In the current atmosphere students are more prone to complaining against staff while universities are more likely to take such complaints seriously. Incorporating the IHRA into codes of conduct and complaint procedures would simply increase the time taken to resolve disputes.

A counter to this argument is that it is more a reflection of the inadequacies of academic culture than a refutation of the IHRA. It perhaps follows that universities should adopt swifter and more effective procedures to resolve disputes.

A more significant point raised by the UCLU is that the IHRA and the 2010 Equality Act might not be compatible. Arguably the act gives greater legal protection to Jews than the IHRA would. This may be true, but as the UCLU conceded in its response, such disagreements could be resolved if the IHRA was adopted as an adjunct to the act rather than as a replacement. On reflection the point seems an odd one, as universities are not exempt from the Equality Act and the IHRA is not legally binding. Therefore the IHRA could only ever be an adjunct to the act rather than a substitute for it.

The UCLU also criticises the IHRA on the grounds that it focuses on anti-Semitism as a state of mind rather than on actions. It goes on to say that in legal disputes the courts prefer not to focus on the accused’s state of mind regarding it as something difficult to prove. It adds that states of mind are even harder to prove in the sort of complaints that would arise under a university complaints procedure. Even if this was accepted, it still is not really a reason to reject the IHRA. The text is clearly designed to be a tool for guidance rather than a piece of law. In any case is it questionable whether states of mind and actions can be so easily separated.

The substance of the UCLU’s criticism is that it potentially stifles free speech and legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy. A valid if pedantic point made by the UCLU is that it only deals with criticisms of the Israeli government. It does not include Israeli actors such as the settler movement.

The UCLU rejects the claim that refusing Jews the right to self-determination, or effectively denying Israel’s right to exist, is anti-Semitic. It its view establishing Israel meant building a state on land on which another people was already living. There is a theoretical point to this inasmuch as not all those aspiring to statehood have had their wishes granted (for example, the Kurds and the Catalans). However, Israel is recognised by the United Nations. Moreover its abolition would effectively put Jews living there within the grasp of vengeful and genocidal militias. Denying Jews the right to self-determination is anti-Semitic in effect, even if not in intention.

The UCLU is particularly concerned that stifling free speech would not allow Palestinian and other Arab students and academics to give voice to their experiences. This could be a particular problem when views are expressed passionately. The UCLU is right that debate is not always balanced. People tend to take sides as they become emotionally invested in a dispute.

However, the UCLU does not give examples of the IHRA stifling the free speech of Palestinians or others. It is also important to distinguish between strongly emotional argument and a dangerous mix of hyperbole and conspiracy theory.

Some defend the IHRA against such criticism by arguing that is what it is designed to prevent. Bernard Harrison and Lesley Klaff, both British academics, argue the IHRA is designed to prevent a form of defamation often aimed at Jews. That is using Israel as a way into furthering anti-Semitic tropes. These include the allegations that Jews control western governments and that Israel is the cause of all the problems in the Middle East.

Further research

The key feature of the IHRA is that it seems to be an instrument which tries to shape culture. This raises the question of whether adopting the IHRA is just a tick box exercise that institutions go through. Or can it be shown that its adoption actively contributes to reducing anti-Semitism on campus? The chancellor of Essex University, Tony Forster, seemed to link the IHRA to his commendably decisive action against anti-Semitism. This took place after his university’s student union voted to refuse Jewish students the right to form a Jewish society.

Another key research question is whether the IHRA reduces the ability of Israel’s critics to express their opinions and experiences of the conflict. Those who claim it does should be asked to give concrete examples with enough detail to give researchers the chance to genuinely assess what was really going on in the examples given. If it was found that it reduced free speech which did not directly or indirectly encourage violence against Jews, then the IHRA might well be counterproductive. It could generate resentment which then develops into full-blown anti-Semitism.

Without such research there is a danger that the IHRA becomes a distraction or a totem pole around which various groups dance. If so anti-Semitism in universities and schools might not get tackled at its root.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

Related articles. For Guy Whitehouse’s earlier article on Lord Mann's report see here.

Photo: "File:Wilkins Building 1, UCL, London - Diliff.jpg" by Diliff is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.