The head of a London university has said she did not adopt the Government’s new working definition of anti-Semitism because the university’s own Centre for Jewish Studies said it was “contentious”.

Baroness Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), made the comments during a BBC ‘Sunday Politics’ interview about recent incidents on campuses across the capital involving scuffles between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.

She said her “first priority is the duty of care we have to all our students,” adding that the diversity of SOAS – where students from 130 countries learn – was also crucial. “At the same time, we’re a university,” she said. “We promote dialogue, robust discussion… There are lots of political dimensions that frame some of this.”

Baroness Valerie Amos

Baroness Valerie Amos

She said SOAS policies on respect were taken from the Equality Act, which lists protected characteristics including race and religion, but when asked why SOAS had not adopted the new International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which includes reference to Israel as a “racist endeavour,” she said: “Our responsibility as a university is not to define anti-Semitism.”

She added: “I consulted with our own Centre for Jewish Studies on this, who basically said this definition is a contentious definition. There are some who lecture in anti-Semitism who think it’s OK.”

Universities Minister Jo Johnson has already urged higher education institutions to voluntarily adopt the IHRA definition, which also states that comparisons between the policies of Nazi Germany and modern-day Israel are anti-Semitic.

Earlier in the interview, Amos was asked about an incident being reported in which a Jewish female student at SOAS said a pro-Palestinian peer took her Israeli flag out of her bag. Amos said: “We’re investigating that.”