‘Legally and morally wrong’ to force unis to accept IHRA, lawyers say in letter

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‘Legally and morally wrong’ to force unis to accept IHRA, lawyers say in letter

Appeal published in The Guardian by eight prominent legal minds accuses education secretary Gavin Williamson of 'improper interference'

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in his office at the Department of Education in Westminster,
Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in his office at the Department of Education in Westminster,

A group of British lawyers has declared that forcing universities to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism is “legally and morally wrong”.

In a letter published in The Guardian, on Thursday, the group, which includes two former Court of Appeal judges, accuse education secretary Gavin Williamson of “improper interference” with free expression by stating that if universities do not adhere to the definition, they could otherwise face sanctions.

The letter references the 1998 Human Rights Act regarding freedom of expression, which is enshrined in UK law, stating:

“The legally entrenched right to free expression is being undermined by the promotion of an internally incoherent ‘non-legally binding working definition’ of antisemitism. Its promotion by public bodies is leading to the curtailment of debate.”

The Union of Jewish Students (UJS), the body representing Jewish students on campus, reported that 48 out of 133 universities in the UK have so far adopted the definition. UJS claim that those who did not were showing “contempt….for their Jewish students.”

James Harris, the president of UJS, says that the debate over the IHRA definition is “unacceptable.”

He said that “When the definition is not used, it gives the power to those investigating to arbitrarily determine what they believe constitutes antisemitism…. The IHRA definition is a cornerstone in ensuring that antisemitism, when reported, is dealt with in a way which Jewish students can be confident in.”

According to the Community Security Trust (CST), the UK Jewish charity protecting the community from antisemitism, recorded 123 antisemitic incidents on campus between 2018-20, in a recent report.

The IHRA definition states that “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.”

A report by UCL’s academic board have said though it acknowledges, that there have been “disturbing evidence that incidents of antisemitism” have occurred at the university, it does not recommend that UCL adopt the IHRA definition. It claims that Universities have “an express statutory obligation to protect freedom of speech within the law” and that IHRA definition has “no legal basis”. Rather, it suggests that UCL “consider more coherent alternatives” for combatting antisemitism.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The government expects institutions to take a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism, with robust measures in place to address issues when they arise.”


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