Government adviser Lord Mann and antisemitism expert David Feldman clash over IHRA definition

Academic accuses some groups of using definition to stifle free speech at lively Limmud session


The government's adviser on antisemitism, Lord Mann, and an academic expert on the subject clashed bitterly over its practical definition at a Limmud session on Monday.

Professor Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College, London, repeated controversial criticisms of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism he had made in an article for the Guardian in early December. He said that while he accepted that the IHRA was useful symbolically, he believed it did not protect Jews because it was "weaker" than current equality law and stifled free speech - views which saw him taken to task in an article for the JC by Prof Philip Spencer and Dr Dave Rich, both of whom are associates of the Pears Institute.

Describing IHRA as a “feeble and outdated approach”, Professor Feldman said it posed “a danger”, because of the way “its supporters cannot agree on what it says.” He charged “advocacy groups” — singling out the Simon Wiesenthal Centre — with using the definition as "a tool to stifle free speech" and said it was “a threat to legitimate protest”. 

But Lord Mann — the former Labour MP John Mann — maintained the definition was “not a substitute for the law - it adds to it, and expands on it. The whole point of it is that it falls below the criminal threshold”.  

Professor Feldman had used the words “contempt” and “aversion”, Lord Mann said. “You’re not going to get a prosecution on aversion, on someone’s contempt, on someone’s isolation of somebody”. 

“IHRA is not a legal tool, that’s its very strength”, Lord Mann argued. He said Professor Feldman had repeatedly said that IHRA “chills free speech”, which was "a myth". 

He challenged the academic as to whether he had actually asked Jewish students or universities which had adopted IHRA what their experience had been: "Have you talked to anyone — such as the Scottish government, which adopted IHRA three years ago — whether it chilled free speech there? Or Plaid Cymru? Or the Liberal Democrats? Nobody has suggested that it has.” 

In response, Prof Feldman, said: “The problem is not with me, but with organisations which misinterpret and loudly and powerfully treat the examples in the IHRA [of potential kinds of antisemitism] as a tick-box exercise, rather than indicative cases which need to be looked at in context, with nuance,” he said. 

“If everyone had the same consistent interpretation of the IHRA as was given in the Antisemitism Policy Trust briefing paper, then I would be aware of its many other weaknesses, but it would not hold the dangers that I believe it does hold”. 

Professor Feldman said there were examples of IHRA being invoked to prevent events taking place, citing Israel Apartheid Week at the University of Central Lancashire. “Israel Apartheid Week is not something I care to support — but we live in a society in which protest and free speech, which is within the law and is not racist or antisemitic speech, ought to be allowed”.  Lord Mann responded that there is no evidence this cancellation was to do with the IHRA definition and that the university had other concerns. 

Prof Feldman dismissed the idea that Jewish students' experience should be a main factor in assessing the usefulness of IHRA. Although their view, he said, "is important, it needs to be listened to, it cannot be decisive, because it will lead us into chaos. For example, Palestinians in this country and abroad argue, rightly or wrongly, that the IHRA definition is an example of anti-Palestinian racism. We have to assume that they mean that sincerely - so what we have is one set of subjective views against another set of subjective views. And we are in deadlock."   

“If we depend on subjective views for our interpretation of racism, we open the door to white nationalists, the sort of people who we saw marching at Charlottesville, who said, we feel oppressed, and Jews will not replace us.” 

Lord Mann agreed the IHRA definition was “not perfect”. But, he said, “it exists and it is proving very useful. And it is empowering those who want to define themselves as Zionists — and it doesn’t restrict free speech”. 

Earlier in the debate, Lord Mann criticised Prof Feldman for describing him as “the antisemitism czar”, saying that he of all people should know the antisemitic connotations of the word. Professor Feldman later apologised, saying that although the term was in common usage, he would not use it again.


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive