Williamson under fire over ‘strong-arm’ tactics to impose antisemitism definition

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By Lianne Kolirin

A heated debate has broken out over the education secretary’s attempt to force universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

In October, Gavin Williamson wrote to vice-chancellors of British universities to urge them to adopt the working definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

While noting that some institutions had made progress in rooting out antisemitism, he declared it “frankly disturbing” that so many others had not adopted the guidance.

But this was more than just a slap on the wrist: Mr Williamson threatened to suspend “funding streams” for those who fail to do so.

“If I have not seen the overwhelming majority of institutions adopting the definition by Christmas, then I will act,” he wrote.

His position was welcomed by many Jewish communal organisations including the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), which — through a freedom of information request — revealed that only 29 out of 133 universities had taken up the definition. Eighty others, the union revealed, said they had no current plans to do so.

The IHRA definition states: “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.”

Alongside this definition are “11 contemporary examples of antisemitism” including accusing Jews of “inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example, by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

The IHRA definition came to the fore over the summer of 2018, after a dispute over whether it should be adopted by the Labour Party. In particular, Labour’s National Executive Committee initially rejected the examples, arguing that they risked inhibiting legitimate criticism of Israel and free speech.

Now Mr Williamson’s threat has come in for criticism, including from some who feel the move would end up being counter-productive.

In an article for The Guardian last week, Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London, warned that Mr Williamson’s intervention “not only threatens to provoke strife and confusion” but also “places academic freedom and free speech on campus at risk”.

He described the intervention as “misguided”, saying it would probably “divide minorities against each other” by offering one group more protection than others.

“Universities operate under the Equality Act; they also have internal policies and procedures designed to address discrimination, harassment and victimisation,” he wrote.

Professor Feldman argued that universities should have been urged to “review and improve their toolkit to address racism in all its dimensions”, instead of being strong-armed into adopting a definition which he says “chiefly consists of a woolly core statement”.

While he acknowledges that Jewish staff and students deserve protection, imposing the working definition instead “risks splitting the struggle against antisemitism from the liberal values that have provided its most secure home”.

In an article this week for Times Higher Education, Geoffrey Alderman, professor emeritus of history and politics at Buckingham University, described Gavin Williamson’s language as “threatening” and used “to bully and browbeat providers”.

Professor Alderman, a former columnist for the Jewish Chronicle and an Orthodox Jew, wrote: “The implications of such a shameless act of ministerial overreach are breathtaking.”

Professor Alderman told the Religion Media Centre that the move was an “explicit threat to undermine the independence and autonomy of universities”, adding: “Not only will it not acknowledge the problem that we all know exists of antisemitism at universities, but it will increase that prejudice.”

Yair Wallach, Senior Lecturer in Israeli Studies, SOAS, who researches Palestine/Israel, tweeted that imposing this on universities is bad for Jews, Palestinians and academic freedom and is likely to add to polarisation.

He said the definition focuses on hatred, whereas antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, racism. Further, he says it protects Israel but “it’s not clear it protects Jews”.

But the Education Secretary’s actions have strong support from numerous Jewish communal organisations.  

Dave Rich, director of policy at the Community Security Trust, said the definition “does not pose a threat to free speech or academic freedom”. In a letter to The Guardian responding to Professor Feldman’s piece, he wrote: “The definition’s most ardent supporters and opponents take it too literally and exaggerate its power; used properly, it can be a useful guide to identifying potentially antisemitic speech, and should hold no fears for anyone other than antisemites.”

As the voice of over 8,500 Jewish students” at campuses across Britain and Ireland, the Union of Jewish Students argues that adopting the definition is “imperative”.

The union told the RMC: “Antisemitic incidents at UK universities rose by 38 per cent 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. The IHRA definition of antisemitism is only the first step in ensuring that our universities take accusations of antisemitism seriously and are doing their utmost to protect all Jewish students and staff. The IHRA definition is a cornerstone in ensuring that antisemitism, when reported, is dealt with in a way which the Jewish community can be confident in.”

The Campaign Against Antisemitism worked with Lord Pickles — who was communities and local government secretary in David Cameron’s administration — to secure the adoption of the working definition in 2016.

The campaign said: “Jewish students and academics suffer an unacceptable level of intolerance, and adoption of the definition sends a message that antisemitism has no place at British universities.”

Gideon Falter, Chief Executive of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, said “to fight antisemitism we must define it, especially given its unique complexity”.  He rebuked Professor Feldman, saying in a Jewish Times blog, that that he had been on the wrong side of the fight against antisemitism throughout the past several years.  

A spokesman for the Office for Students, the independent regulator of higher education in England, told the RMC: “We will explore with the Department for Education what practical steps should be taken to ensure its wider adoption, and how to make sure that antisemitism has no place on campuses in England.”


Professor David Feldman’s article in The Guardian

Dave Rich’s response in The Guardian to David Feldman

Professor Geoffrey Alderman’s article in Times Higher Education


Dave Rich, director of policy, Community Security Trust

Campaign Against Antisemitism

Union of Jewish Students: Shiri Wolff, communications officer

Professor Geoffrey Alderman

Professor David Feldman

Office for Students


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