Students’ fury as UCL academics reject IHRA

Academic Board confirmed it had voted to call on the university to 'replace' IHRA with 'a more precise definition of antisemitism'.


Jewish student leaders and former graduates of University College London (UCL) have reacted with fury to a decision taken by “a small group of academics” to reject the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

Defying the decision by the university itself over one year ago to adopt IHRA, UCL’s Academic Board confirmed last Friday it had voted to call on the university to “replace” the working definition with “a more precise definition of antisemitism”.

A number of the academics who instigated the move are based in UCL’s Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. It follows a report by the UCL Working Group on Racism and Prejudice in December, which suggested that the definition was “potentially conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism”, which, it said, led to the possibility of “suppression of legitimate speech and academic research”.

The decision taken by the Academic Board, chaired by Dr Michael Spence,  will now be reviewed by UCL's governing body, its Council

Its Board features professors from all of UCL’s academic disciplines, including the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

The decision to oppose IHRA was also supported by UCL’s branch of the University and College Union (UCU), which has a national policy of opposing what it calls a “politicised and divisive definition”.

In a joint statement, the UCL JSoc and the Union of Jewish Students said they were “disturbed” by the decision and added that “Jewish student voices will not be silenced, nor dictated to, by a small group of academics, who are more interested in theoretical discussion of antisemitism than practically supporting their students.”

On Wednesday, a group of prominent graduates from the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies issued a joint letter to the Provost. Signatories included Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Michael Wegier, who starts next month as acting chief executive of the Board of Deputies; Rabbi Dr Michael Shire; Dr Matt Plen, the chief executive of Masorti Judaism; and JW3 chief Raymond Simonson. They express “complete opposition” to the decision to reject IHRA, which is backed by the “overwhelming majority of British Jews”.

They warned that, “retraction of the definition will cause considerable distress to Jewish students and major reputational damage to UCL”.

The letter also singled out “several members” of the Jewish Studies Department for being “key drivers” in the decision taken by the Academic Board, adding: “We take particular exception to the Head of Department’s use of the Department’s Newsletter to promote his views on this issue. One can only imagine the intimidating impact this could have on students and other members of the academic staff.”
The head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies and Professor of Rabbinic Judaism is Sacha Stern, who has repeatedly written of his opposition to IHRA.

Lord Mann, the government’s adviser on antisemitism, told the JC the rejection of IHRA was decided by “a bunch of academics  who are more interested in intellectual discussions about antisemitism than listening to their own Jewish students and taking action to protect them”.

He accused the academics of “failing to consult a single Jewish student” but added that UCL itself “continues to use the IHRA definition and so has its own evidence base to disprove the lies that it in any way restricts free speech”.

UCU, the academic trade union, welcomed the decision as an “important moment”. But David Hirsh, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, the author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism and a member of the UCU union, told the JC: “In my whole life, I have never been in a more hostile and antisemitic space than my union.” 

Mr Hirsh said he believed the same element that had dogged the Labour Party under Mr Corbyn “is re-grouping back on campus and in the UCU”.

He continued: “The rump of Labour antisemitism is trying to disavow the most explicit Jew-hate that coalesced within it when it went mainstream and to purify itself again in an academic and respectable discourse of ‘criticism of Israel’.

“The IHRA definition of antisemitism is a response to this kind of antisemitism.”

A UCL spokesperson said: “The decision to adopt the IHRA was passed by an overwhelming majority of UCL’s council — the university’s governing body — as part of its commitment to drive race equality and tackle discrimination along with other action to raise awareness and understanding of different forms of racism. By adopting the IHRA, UCL has sent a strong message that we take antisemitism seriously and are committed to tackling it.

“A meeting of UCL’s academic board voted to make an advisory recommendation to council to find an alternative definition to the IHRA. 

“Council will now consider this recommendation and will continue to consult and listen to the views of the entire UCL community.”

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