Free Speech on Israel, a Jewish-led organisation which defends the right to criticise Israel, and the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, which campaigns for academic and cultural boycott of Israel, today welcomed the vote by the University and College Union (UCU) to reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
Motion 57, submitted by UCU branches at the University of Leeds, Goldsmiths, and the University of Brighton, along with two strengthening amendments from Queen’s University Belfast and London Retired Members Branch, was carried overwhelmingly in the closing minutes of UCU’s annual Congress in Brighton. Only one delegate spoke against the motion.
UCU had previously, in 2011, rejected the “Working Definition of Antisemitism” of the EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). The IHRA definition strongly resembles the EUMC version. Today’s vote strengthens UCU’s existing policy.
Both these definitions are considered highly problematic because they seek to conflate criticism of Israel with genuine anti-Jewish racism: examples cited in them make explicit reference to Israel. The UK Government has adopted the IHRA definition, and in February this year Universities Minister Jo Johnson wrote to Universities UK insisting that university activities must respect the definition. In particular, he alleged that “anti-Semitic incidents … might take place under the banner of ‘Israel (sic) Apartheid’ events.” Some universities have banned or curtailed campus events during Israeli Apartheid week or subsequently, and campaigners for Palestinian human rights consider that the definition is being used to censor legitimate political activity and debate which criticises the Israeli occupation and human rights abuses.
In moving the motion, Mark Abel of Brighton UCU noted that an event organised by Friends of Palestine had been cancelled by the University of Central Lancashire, who cited the IHRA definition as making the event ‘unlawful’.
Reacting to this wave of censorship the new, Jewish-led organisation Free Speech on Israel, along with Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Independent Jewish Voices, and Jews for Justice for Palestinians, obtained a legal Opinion from the eminent human rights lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC.
The Opinion is devastating: it characterises the IHRA definition as confusing, not legally binding, and putting public bodies that use it at risk of “unlawfully restricting legitimate expressions of political opinion”. A public body that bans a meeting under the IHRA definition without any evidence of genuine antisemitism could be breaching the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees freedom of expression (Article 10), and freedom of assembly (Article 11).
In concluding his speech, Mark Abel said: “This is a dangerous conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. … It is a definition intended to silence those who wish to puncture the Israeli state’s propaganda that it is a normal liberal democratic state.”
Mike Cushman, a UCU member and co-founder of FSOI, said: “Free speech on Israel welcomes UCU’s recognition that fighting antisemitism is a separate struggle from defending the rights of Palestinians, and that both these struggles are important. Putting these in opposition to each other assists both antisemites and war criminals.”
Les Levidow, a UCU member speaking for BRICUP, said: “Congratulations to UCU for defending free speech on Israel/Palestine by rejecting the government-IHRA agenda to weaponise antisemitism, conflated with anti-Zionism.”
UCU Congress also passed a motion in support of Professor Kamel Hawwash, a UCU member at the University of Birmingham, who was prevented from entering Israel on 7th April on a trip with his wife and young son to visit relatives in occupied East Jerusalem. It seems likely that Prof. Hawwash was banned under the new Israeli boycott law, which prevents activists accused of supporting BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) from entering Israel. Prof. Hawwash was until recently the vice-chair of PSC. The General Secretary of UCU will now be writing to the Israeli Embassy and the FCO to urge that the ban on Prof. Hawwash and all non-violent human rights campaigners be lifted.