Call to reject the IHRA's 'working definition of antisemitism'

11 January 2021


To:      Vice Chancellors, Members of Academic Senates, all other UK Academics and Students.

Cc:     Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP Secretary of State for Education


RE:     The IHRA ‘working definition of antisemitism’

We, British Academics who are also Israeli citizens, strongly oppose the governmental imposition of the IHRA ‘working definition of antisemitism’ on Universities in England. We call on all academic senates to reject the IHRA document or, where adopted already, act to revoke it.

We represent a diverse cross-disciplinary, cross-ethnic, and cross-generational group. We all share an extended history of struggles against racism. Accordingly, we have been critical of Israel’s prolonged policies of occupation, dispossession, segregation, and discrimination directed at the Palestinian population. Our historical and political perspective is deeply informed by the multiple genocides of modern times, and in particular, the Holocaust, in which quite a few of us lost members of our extended families. The lesson we are determined to draw from history is that of a committed struggle against all forms of racism.

It is precisely because of these personal, scholarly, and political perspectives that we are perturbed by the letter sent to our Vice Chancellors by Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, on 9 October 2020. Explicitly threatening to withhold funds, the letter pressures universities to adopt the controversial ‘working definition of antisemitism’ originally proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Fighting antisemitism in all its forms is an absolute must. Yet, the IHRA document is inherently flawed in ways that undermine this fight. In addition, it threatens free speech and academic freedom, and constitutes an attack both on the Palestinian right to self-determination and the struggle to democratise Israel.

The IHRA document has been extensively criticised on numerous occasions. Here, we touch on some of its aspects that are particularly distressing in the higher education context. The document consists of two parts. The first, quoted in Williamson’s letter, is a ‘definition’ of antisemitism, which reads as follows:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

This formulation is both vague in language and lacking in content, to the point of being unusable. On the one hand, it relies on unclear terms such as ‘certain perception’ and ‘may be expressed as hatred.’ On the other hand, it fails to mention key issues such as ‘prejudice’ or ‘discrimination.’ Crucially, this ‘definition’ is considerably weaker and less effective than anti-racist regulations and laws already in force, or in development, in the university sector.

Moreover, the government’s pressure on higher education institutions to adopt a definition for only one sort of racism singles out people of Jewish descent as deserving greater protection than others who regularly endure equal or more grievous manifestations of racism and discrimination. 

The second part of the IHRA document presents what it describes as eleven examples of contemporary antisemitism, seven of which refer to the State of Israel. Some of these ‘examples’ mischaracterise antisemitism. They likewise have a chilling effect on University staff and students legitimately wishing to criticise Israel’s oppression of Palestinians or to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finally, they interfere with our right as Israeli citizens to participate freely in the Israeli political process.

To illustrate, one example of antisemitism is ‘[to claim] that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’ Another antisemitic act, according to the document, is ‘requiring of [Israel] ... a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.’ Surely, it should be legitimate, not least in a university setting, to debate whether Israel, as a self-proclaimed Jewish State, is ‘a racist endeavour,’ or a ‘democratic nation.’

Currently, the population under Israel’s control comprises 14 million people. Nearly 5 million of those are devoid of basic rights. Of the remaining 9 million, 21 percent (circa 1.8 million) have been systematically discriminated against since the establishment of the state. This discrimination manifests itself in dozens of laws and policies concerning property rights, education, and access to land and resources. All 6.8 million people thus prevented from full democratic access are non-Jews. An emblematic illustration is the Law of Return, which entitles all Jews – and only Jews – living anywhere in the world to migrate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship, a right extendable to descendants and spouses. At the same time, millions of Palestinians and their descendants, who have been displaced or exiled, are denied the right to return to their homeland.

Such discriminatory legislation and state practices in other contemporary or historical political systems – ranging from China to the USA or Australia – are legitimately and regularly scrutinised by scholars and the general public. They are variously criticised as forms of institutional racism, and compared to certain fascist regimes, including that of pre-1939 Germany. Indeed, historical analogies are a standard tool in academic research. However, according to the Education Secretary, only those concerning the State of Israel are now forbidden to  scholars and students in England. No state should be shielded from such legitimate scholarly discussion.


Furthermore, while the IHRA document considers any 'comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis' a form of antisemitism, many in the Israeli political centre and left have often drawn such comparisons. One recent example is a statement made by Yair Golan, Member of Knesset (Israeli parliament) and former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli military, in 2016. Another is the comparison between Israel and ‘Nazism in its early stages’ made in 2018 by the Israel Prize Laureate Professor Zeev Sternhell, a renowned Israeli historian and political scientist who was, until his recent death, a world leading theorist of fascism. Such comparisons are also made regularly by the editorials of the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The use of such analogies is hardly new. To illustrate, in late 1948, a prominent group of Jewish intellectuals and Rabbis, including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, published a letter in the NYT accusing Menachem Begin (Israel’s future prime minister) of leading ‘a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.’

With its eleven ‘illustrations,’ the IHRA document has already been used to repress freedom of speech and academic freedom (see here, here, and here). Alarmingly, it has served to frame the struggle against Israel’s occupation and dispossession as antisemitic. As recently stated in a letter to the Guardian by 122 Palestinian and Arab intellectuals:

We believe that no right to self-determination should include the right to uproot another people and prevent them from returning to their land, or any other means of securing a demographic majority within the state. The demand by Palestinians for their right of return to the land from which they themselves, their parents and their grandparents were expelled cannot be construed as antisemitic… It is a right recognized by international law as represented in UN general assembly resolution 194 of 1948… To level a charge of antisemitism against anyone who regards the existing state of Israel as racist, notwithstanding the actual institutional and constitutional discrimination upon which it is based, amounts to granting Israel absolute impunity.

In her recent letter endorsing the imposition of the IHRA document on universities in England, Kate Green, MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Education, states that ‘We can only [fight antisemitism] by listening to and engaging with the Jewish community.’ However, as Israeli citizens settled in the UK, many of Jewish descent, and alongside many in the UK’s Jewish community, we demand that our voice, too, be heard, and we believe that the IHRA document is a step in the wrong direction. It singles out the persecution of Jews; it inhibits free speech and academic freedom; it deprives Palestinians of their own legitimate voice within the UK public space; and, finally, it inhibits us, as Israeli nationals, from exercising our democratic right to challenge our own government.

For these and other reasons, even the lead drafter of the IHRA document, Kenneth Stern, publicly warned:

      Right-wing Jewish groups took the “working definition”, which had some examples about Israel ..., and decided to weaponize it. ... [This document] was never intended to be a campus hate speech code ... but [at the hands of the Right it has been used as] an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself. ... I’m a Zionist. But on ... campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression. ... Further, there’s a debate inside the Jewish community whether being Jewish requires one to be a Zionist. I don’t know if this question can be resolved, but it should frighten all Jews that the government is essentially defining the answer for us. (The Guardian, 13 Dec. 2019).

These concerns are shared by many others, amongst whom are hundreds of UK students, scholars of antisemitism and racism, and numerous Palestinian, Jewish, and social justice groups and organisations in the UK and around the world, such as the Institute of Race Relations, civil rights organisation Liberty, former Court of Appeal Judge Sir Stephen Sedley, and Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner.

We join in the demand that UK universities remain firm in their commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech. We urge UK universities to continue their fight against all forms of racism, including antisemitism. The flawed IHRA document does a disservice to these goals. We therefore call on all academic senates to reject governmental decrees to adopt it, or, where adopted already, act to revoke it.


Prof. Hagit Borer FBA, Queen Mary University of London

Dr. Moshe Behar, University of Manchester

Dr. Yonatan Shemmer, University of Sheffield

Dr. Hedi Viterbo, Queen Mary University of London

Dr. Yael Friedman, University of Portsmouth

Dr. Ophira Gamliel, Univeristy of Glasgow

Dr. Moriel Ram, Newcastle University

Prof. Neve Gordon, Queen Mary University of London

Prof. Emeritus Moshé Machover, King's College London

Dr. Catherine Rottenberg, University of Nottingham

PhD Candidate Daphna Baram, Lancaster University

Dr. Yuval Evri, King's College London

Dr. Yohai Hakak, Brunel University London

Dr. Judit Druks, University College London

PhD Candidate Edith Pick, Queen Mary University of London

Prof. Emeritus Avi Shlaim FBA, Oxford University

Dr. Merav Amir, Queen's University Belfast

Dr. Hagar Kotef, SOAS, University of London

Prof. Emerita Nira Yuval-Davis, University of East London, 2018 International Sociological Association Distinguished Award for Excellence in Research and Practice.

Dr. Assaf Givati, King's College London

Prof. Yossef Rapoport, Queen Mary University of London

Prof. Haim Yacobi, University College London

Prof. Gilat Levy, London School of Economics

Dr. Noam Leshem, Durham University

Dr. Chana Morgenstern, University of Cambridge

Prof. Amir Paz-Fuchs, University of Sussex

PhD Candidate Maayan Niezna, University of Kent

Prof. Emeritus, Ephraim Nimnie, Queen's University Belfast

Dr. Eytan Zweig, University of York

Dr. Anat Pick, Queen Mary, University of London

Prof. Joseph Raz FBA, King's College London, winner of Tang Prize for the Rule of Law 2018

Dr. Itamar Kastner, University of Edinburgh

Prof. Dori Kimel, University of Oxford

Prof. Eyal Weizman MBE FBA, Goldsmiths, University of London

Dr. Daniel Mann, King's College London

Dr. Shaul Bar-Haim, University of Essex

Dr. Idit Nathan, University of the Arts London

Dr. Ariel Caine, Goldsmiths University of London

Dr. Uri Davis, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK & AL-QUDS University

Prof. Ilan Pappe, University of Exeter

Prof. Oreet Ashery, University of Oxford, Turner Bursary 2020

Dr. Jon Simons, Retired

Dr. Noam Maggor, Queen Mary University of London

Dr. Pil Kollectiv, University of Reading, Fellow of the HEA

Dr. Galia Kollectiv, University of Reading, Fellow of the HEA

Dr. Maayan Geva, University of Roehampton

Dr. Adi Kuntsman, Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr. Shaul Mitelpunkt, University of York

Dr. Daniel Rubinstein, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London

Dr. Tamar Keren-Portnoy, University of York

Dr. Yael Padan, University College London

Dr. Roman Vater, University of Cambridge

Dr. Shai Kassirer, University Of Brighton

PhD Candidate Shira Wachsmann, Royal College of Art

Prof. Oren Yiftachel, University College London

Prof. Erez Levon, Queen Mary University of London

Prof. Amos Paran, University College London

Dr. Raz Weiner, Queen Mary University of London

Dr. Deborah Talmi, University of Cambridge

Dr. Emerita Susie Malka Kaneti Barry, Brunel University

PhD Candidate Ronit Matar, University of Essex

PhD Candidate Michal Rotem, Queen Mary University of London

DR. Mollie Gerver, University of Essex

Prof. Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, SOAS

PhD candidate Lior Suchoy, Imperial College London

Dr. Michal Sapir, Independent

Dr. Oz Gore, University of Leicester

PhD candidate Maayan Ravid, University of Oxford

Dr. Yuval Saar-Heiman, ‏Royal Holloway University of London

PhD candidate Guy Fassler, University of St Andrews

Dr. Dror Dayan, Liverpool John Moores University

Dr. Esti Rimmer, Director of Training, Scottish Training Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy

Dr. Keren Weitzberg, University College London

PhD Candidate, Andrei Shieber, University of Oxford

Dr. Tali Chilson, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford

PhD candidate Cyril Chilson, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford

Prof. Yosefa Loshitzky, SOAS University of London

Dr. Avi Raz, University of Oxford

Israeli academic supporters worldwide:

Prof. Amos Goldberg, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

PhD candidate Aviad Albert, University of Cologne

Dr. Noa Levin, Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin

Prof. Paul Mendes-Flohr

Dr. Uri Horesh

Prof. Roy Wagner, ETH Zurich

Prof. Dmitry Shumsky

Prof. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, Hebrew University and David Yellin Academic College

Prof. Arie Dubnov, The George Washington University

Prof. Natalie Rothman, University of Toronto

Dr. Anat Matar, Tel Aviv University

Dr. Ido Shahar, University of Haifa

Prof. Nir Gov, Weizmann Institute

Prof. Emeritus Amiram Goldblum, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Dr. Itamar Shachar, Ghent University, Belgium

Prof. Emeritus Jacob Katriel, Technion - Israel Institute of Technology

Dr. Eyal Shimoni, Weizmann Institute of Science

Dr. Gilad Liberman, Harvard Medical School

Prof. Emeritus Emmanuel Farjoun, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Avner Ben-Amos, Tel Aviv University

​Dr. Alon Marcus, The Open University of Israel

Prof. Emeritus Avishai Ehrlich, The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo

Prof. Naama Rokem, University of Chicago

Dr. Marcelo Svirsky, University of Wollongong

Prof. Atalia Omer, The University of Notre Dame

Prof. Emeritus, Jose Brunner, Tel Aviv University

Dr. Michael Dahan, Sapir College

Dr. Naor Ben-Yehoyada, Columbia University

Dr. Shai Gortler, University of the Western Cape

Dr. Roni Gechtman, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Canada

Prof. Ivy Sichel, UC Santa Cruz

Prof. Ofer Aharony, Weizmann Institute

Prof. Outi Bat-El Foux, Tel-Aviv University

Dr. Elazar Elhanan, CCNY

Dr .Ofer Shinar Levanon

Prof. Emeritus Isaac Nevo

Prof. Emerita Nomi Erteschik-Shir, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Prof. Yinon Cohen, Columbia University

PhD candidate Revital Madar

Prof. Yael Sharvit,UCLA

Prof.  Emeritus Isaac Cohen, San Jose State University

Dr. Kobi Snitz, Weizmann Institute of Science

Dr. Irena Botwinik, Open University, Israel

Prof. Niza Yanay, Ben Gurion University

Prof. Julia Resnik, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Charles Manekin, University of Maryland

Prof. Jerome Bourdon, Tel Aviv University

Dr. Ilan saban, University of Haifa

PhD candidate Netta Amar-Shiff, Ben Gurion University

Prof. Emeritus Ron Kuzar, University of Haifa

Dr. Yanay Israeli, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Emeritus Avner Giladi, University of Haifa

Prof. Emerita Esther Levinger, University of Haifa

Prof. Emeritus Micah Leshem, University f Haifa

Prof. Jonathan Alschech, University of Northern British Columbia

Prof. Emeritus Yehoshua Frenkel, University of Haifa

Prof. Yuval Yonay, University of Haifa

Prof. Emerita Vered Kraus, University of Haifa

Dr. Amit G., Israeli universities 

Dr. Shakhar Rahav, University of Haifa

Prof. Emeritus Yoav Peled, Tel Aviv University

Prof. Emerita Linda Dittmar, University of Massachusetts

Prof. Emeritus Uri Bar-Joseph, Haifa University

Dr. Ayelet Ben-Yishai, University of Haifa

Gilad Melzer, Beit Berl College

Prof. Raphael Greenberg, Tel Aviv University

Prof. Emerita Sara Helman, Ben Gurion University

Dr. Itamar Mann, University of Haifa

Dr. Tamar Berger

Dr. Daniel De Malach, Sapir Academic College

PhD candidate Gil Engelstein, Northwestern University

Dr. Meir Amor, Concordia University - Canada

Dr. Snait Gissis, Tel Aviv University

Prof. Emeritus Avraham Oz, University of Haifa

PhD candidate Itamar Haritan, Cornell University

Dr. Yael Ben-zvi, Ben-Gurion University

Dr. Tom Pessah, Ben-Gurion University

Meir Gal, The School of Visual Arts

Eli Osheroff, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Dr. Hilla Dayan, Amsterdam University College, The Netherlands

Dr. Itay Snir, Yezreel Valley College, Israel

Prof. Raz Chen Morris, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

Prof. Jonathan Nitzan, York University, Toronto, Canada

Dr. Karin Loevy, NYU School of Law, USA

Prof. Zeev Rosenhek, Open University of Israel

Prof. Ahuvia Kahane, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Dr. Ronit Lentin, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Dr. Guy Gillor, University of Melbourne, Australia

Dr. Barak Kalir, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Prof. Emeritus, Gideon Freudenthal, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Prof. Shaul Katzir, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Prof. Julia Horvath, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Emerita, Rachel Giora, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Prof. Yigal Arens, University of Southern California, USA

Yehudit Yinhar, Weissensee Kunsthochschule Berlin, Germany

Prof. Chana Kronfeld, University of California, Berkeley, USA

PhD candidate Livnat Konopny Decleve, Tel Aviv University, Israel

PhD candidate Udi Raz, Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies, Germany

Prof. Emeritus Paul Wexler, Tel-Aviv University, Israel

Prof. Oded Goldreich, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel

Prof. Alon Confino, UMass Amherst, USA

Prof. Itamar Francez, University of Chicago, USA

PhD Candidate, Lia Tarachansky, York University, Canada

Prof. Orly Benjamin, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

PhD Candidate, Livnat Konopny Decleve, Tel Aviv University, Israel