A demand by the government for British universities to adopt the international definition of antisemitism has been met with an angry backlash from many academics.
Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, wrote to vice-chancellors last week warning them he would act if “the overwhelming majority” of universities had not adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism by the end of the year.
The Secretary of State said the Office for Students, the higher education regulator for England, could be asked to take action including suspending “funding streams” if universities failed to adopt the definition of anti-Jewish racism by the end of December.
He added it was “frankly disturbing” that a recent survey by the Union of Jewish Students had shown that only 29 out of 133 universities had adopted the IHRA definition, and 80 said they had no current plans to do so.
Mr Williamson said: “The repugnant belief that antisemitism is somehow a less serious or more acceptable form of racism has taken insidious hold in some parts of British society, and I am quite clear that universities must play their part in rooting out this attitude and demonstrating that antisemitism is abhorrent.”
But this week the JC learned of the angry response from many in academia to the government’s intervention — with those who support the adoption of IHRA being attacked.
Oxford University — one of the institutions that has refused to adopt IHRA — ignored the government’s warning over the definition.
Asked whether it intended to adopt IHRA, an Oxford spokesperson told the JC: “Harassment and discrimination of any kind, including harassment on racial or religious grounds, are totally unacceptable at Oxford University and we have strong policies in place to guard against them.”
The JC understands that academics at Soas University of London were among those to have reacted furiously to the call for IHRA to be adopted.
Some at the notoriously anti-Israel institution have openly expressed their anger in an internal discussion thread — with claims made by staff that IHRA stifles free speech and debate over the Israel/Palestine issue.
One lecturer even suggested IHRA was part of a “Zionist” attempt to redefine the true meaning of antisemitism.
Another lecturer, who protested that IHRA represented a legitimate definition of antisemitism and that Jewish voices should always be listened to, was promptly rounded upon.
The JC also understands that there is a move underway at Soas to secure a University and College Union motion to block what is described as a slide towards “McCarthyism”.
The University of Cambridge — which has also so far failed to adopt the definition — said it believed any behaviour that would fall within the IHRA definition was already covered by “current Rules of Behaviour”.
A spokesperson added: “The University of Cambridge does not tolerate discrimination in any form.
“We are an inclusive community that welcomes staff, students, alumni, collaborators and visitors from a wide variety of backgrounds, including people of all faiths and none.
“We have a student-facing webpage dedicated to resources on the disclosure and prevention of hate crime, which explicitly links to the international definition of antisemitism sanctioned by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance as a reference point.
“Any behaviour that would fall within the IHRA definition would be covered by the University’s current Rules of Behaviour.
“The University keeps its Rules of Behaviour under review and therefore, will continue to monitor its approach.”
Meanwhile, at another university, one official attacked the timing of Mr Williamson’s letter, written as universities are struggling to cope with the vast demands of the current Covid-19 crisis.
“When future historians look at the Covid-19 period, there will be complete mystification at what the Department for Education took to be a priority in the middle of the crisis,” said the official.
UJS confirmed to the JC it would step up its activity working with Jewish students and staff in pressuring universities across the country to adopt IHRA.
On Wednesday UJS held its first IHRA campaign training day — with 35 students registered to attend. It has also completed antisemitism awareness training for nearly 50 student unions.
Since publishing its IHRA survey last month, UJS said Durham University and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine had revealed they had adopted the definition before the poll results came out. But there is concern amongst some senior figures, both within the community and in politics, about the effectiveness of past campaigns supporting IHRA at campuses across the UK.
“What the UJS survey actually revealed was how much work there is still to be done to persuade vice-chancellors about the positive impact of adopting IHRA in their institutions,” one charity chief told the JC.
Lord Mann, the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, has achieved considerable success persuading football clubs at home and aboard — including Chelsea and Germany’s Borussia Dortmund — to adopt the IHRA definition.
The former Labour MP told the JC: “We are going to be writing a guide on how to implement IHRA and how students and others can get the definition adopted and implemented.
“Nobody has been able to sustain a credible case against adopting IHRA and doing so fits comfortably with the ethos of British universities.
“Not only does the IHRA definition not curtail free speech, but it also contributes to free speech on campuses by guiding academics and students about how they can express themselves without appearing to be antisemitic or choosing to use racist language and tropes.”
A spokesperson for Universities UK (UUK), which represents the higher education institutions, said: “We recommend universities do all they can to tackle antisemitism, including considering the IHRA definition, whilst also recognising their duty to promote freedom of speech within the law.
“UUK has set up a taskforce to consider what can be done to address all forms of harassment, violence and hate crime on campus, including on the basis of religion.”