UCL’s Academic Board finds the IHRA definition not fit for purpose, urges the College Council to retract its adoption

  • University College London’s Academic Board to recommend to the Council of the College that it should set aside the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and replace it with a more appropriate alternative.
  • Report finds the IHRA definition “not fit for purpose within a university setting and has no legal basis for enforcement.”
  • Findings raise serious questions about the implications of academic institutions and public bodies adopting IHRA definition. 
  • Report issues a scathing criticism of Secretary of State Gavin Williamson’s threats to withdraw funding from universities if they do not adopt the IHRA, describing this as putting their autonomy under threat. 

UCL’s Academic Board has overseen the most detailed and forensic study of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism yet, investigating its fitness for purpose following UCL’s adoption of it in 2019. 

The product of a year-long study by a Working Group established by the Academic Board, this major Report examines UCL’s decision in 2019 to adopt the IHRA definition. It has involved consultation with eminent lawyers including Philippe Sands and Sir Geoffrey Bindman, as well as academic experts on antisemitism such as Brain Klug, and representatives of UCL’s most relevant academic departments and of its Student’s Union. 

The ground-breaking Report found that the IHRA definition “is not fit for purpose within a university setting and has no legal basis for enforcement.” In considering alternative possibilities, given the inadequacy of the definition, the Academic Board decided that it should recommend to Council that the IHRA definition should be replaced through a process designed to identify a replacement definition. 

Furthermore, the Report also found that the IHRA definition is unhelpful in identifying actual cases of antisemitic harassment and is therefore a weak tool for effective university action. It observes that the definition “obfuscates rather than clarifies the meaning of antisemitism, and may in fact make it harder to identify and understand how antisemitism works.”

The Report finds that the IHRA definition risks conflating legitimate criticism of the State of Israel, or of Zionism, with antisemitism, thus threatening freedom of expression on campus. “By blurring these boundaries”, it states, “the IHRA working definition risks undermining academic freedom.”

With its measured and powerful analysis the Report delivers a devastating blow to Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson’s attempts to pressure universities into adopting the IHRA definition. 

His threat to withhold funding from Universities that do not adopt the definition, it says, demonstrates “how university autonomy is under threat.” It concludes by stating that “if universities are not permitted to use evidence, scholarship, research and logic to rebut Ministers’ political demands, then our autonomy and independence are seriously in peril.”

Ben Jamal, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign said:

“This study, the most systematic yet undertaken by a group of eminent academics, reinforces the concerns that have been expressed by a wide range of bodies since the UK government adopted the IHRA definition in 2016. The definition has been used to prevent both discussion of the facts of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and calls for action to address that oppression. It thereby undermines freedom of expression at Universities and more widely. 

Gavin Williamson needs to stop pressuring universities to adopt. Moreover, all public bodies considering adoption need to address seriously the findings of this report.” 

Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC  said:

“Concerns about the coercive attempts to force public bodies to adopt the IHRA definition are clearly shared by lawyers and academics alike. The Government must cease its pressure on institutions to curtail debate and restrict freedom of expression.”

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