The head of the World Jewish Congress has urged Theresa May to apply the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism “systematically”.
WJC president Ronald Lauder wrote to the British prime minister towards the end of last year urging her to embed the IHRA definition “as an effective tool for law enforcement” despite it being non-legally binding.
The UK was the first country to adopt the definition, which has been criticised for limiting free speech on Israel, but it was not adopted as a statutory definition or as part of statutory guidance, so does not purport to be a legal definition.
However, in his letter, Lauder said “only through its adoption, encoding and enforcement can antisemitism be confronted and stopped,” raising the prospect of pressure to give the definition the power of law.
As it stands, conduct contrary to the definition is not illegal, unless it also breaches laws around racial or religious harassment.
Responding two weeks ago, May did not commit to measures that would alter the definition’s status, saying only that it was “an important and valuable tool to understand how antisemitism manifests itself in the 21st century,” adding: “With it, no-one can ever plead ignorance.”
Leading barristers, including Hugh Tomlinson QC, have described the definition’s wording as “vague and unclear,” “confusing” and “lacking clarity and comprehensiveness”.
He said: “There is likely to be lack of consistency in its application and a potential chilling effect on public bodies which, in the absence of definitional clarity, may seek to sanction or prohibit any conduct which has been labelled by third parties as antisemitic without applying any clear criterion of assessment.”
Elsewhere in his letter, Lauder said he was “deeply concerned… with the growing signs of hatred towards Britain’s Jewish population, as well as the only Jewish state in the world, Israel”.
May said: “I want to reaffirm my absolute commitment to ensuring that Jewish people feel safe to go about their lives without fear of persecution.”