A climate of fear is stifling free speech, academic research and student activism about Palestine at British universities.
This is the direct result of the government-mandated adoption and use of the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism to investigate and punish alleged incidents of anti-Jewish bias.
That definition, which has its roots in a project supported by Israel’s notorious spying and assassination agency Mossad, is heavily promoted by Israel and its lobby.
An analysis of all the incidents recorded by the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) between January 2017 and May 2022 in which staff, students or outside speakers were targeted with accusations of anti-Semitism shows that the IHRA definition is being used not to combat bigotry against Jews but to silence and intimidate critics of Israel.
In total, ELSC recorded 40 such cases, sometimes providing legal advice to those accused. In 38 cases, the accusations of anti-Semitism proved to be unfounded, while two cases are ongoing.
Overall, 27 individuals or groups faced investigations and often long disciplinary procedures, and two faced threats of legal action.
Twenty-four cases involved university staff, with 18 leading to formal investigations or disciplinary processes.
“In the case of formal hearings, all staff were ‘exonerated of all charges.’ In other words, every allegation of anti-Semitism was found to be false,” ELSC states in a new report co-authored with BRISMES, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, the largest academic association in Europe focused on the study of the region.
In the other six cases involving staff, no formal complaint was made, the university declined to open an investigation, or the complaint was dismissed.
Other cases involve student-organized activities and outside speakers.
Typically, these events attracted demands from pro-Israel groups that they be canceled—and in four instances universities did so. In another seven instances, institutions directly interfered in events or scholarship.
In several cases, university administrations demanded that speakers endorse the IHRA definition in advance of an event, or imposed strict conditions on student groups, even monitoring and recording their events.
In one case, Somdeep Sen, a professor at Denmark’s Roskilde University, was invited to the University of Glasgow in 2021 to lecture about his book recently published by Cornell University Press, Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas between Anticolonial and Postcolonial.
The University of Glasgow’s Jewish society lodged what ELSC and BRISMES call a “spurious complaint,” asserting that the topic of the lecture was “anti-Semitic” and that Jewish students could be harmed.
In response, administrators demanded that Sen provide information in advance about the content of his lecture and pledge not to say anything that would contravene the IHRA definition.
“Since the university’s requests were discriminatory and undermined academic freedom, Dr. Sen decided to pull out and the event was canceled,” the report states.
The effect of applying them is basically to outlaw discussion of Israel’s history and present practices.
One of the more notorious examples asserts that it is anti-Semitic to claim “that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
“How should I discuss the 1948 colonial, ethnic cleansing that led to the creation of the State of Israel?” one educator quoted in the report asked.
Wasn’t that—to use the words of one of the examples of ‘anti-Semitism’ included in the definition—an ‘endeavor’ to create a state based on a racist deployment of violence?
“How should I approach the persistence of these practices of violence along racial lines carried out by the State of Israel? How should I discuss the endeavor of Israel’s state courts to expel Palestinians from their homes?” the educator added.
Can I raise the question with my students, or with guest speakers, or in my research? Am I even allowed to talk about these things?
While the IHRA definition is often marketed as “non-legally binding” it has been imposed by the British government.
Dismayed that relatively few UK universities had adopted the definition voluntarily, Britain’s then education secretary threatened institutions in 2020 with financial penalties if they did not do so.
As a result of those threats, three-quarters of UK universities have now adopted some version of the IHRA definition as a basis of their policies.
Fear and distress
The bogus complaints of anti-Semitism are frequently accompanied by defamation and media smear campaigns against student groups, academics and outside speakers, causing severe distress and disruption to the lives and careers of those targeted.
“During the first investigation with the media smears, I felt really helpless and powerless at that point as the university was looking out for its own interests,” one staff person said.
They kept telling me not to say anything to the media. At that point I just kept quiet. I felt really alone. It was just me.
“They make you waste time, sap your energy and make you exhausted. They make you not perform to your ability because you have other things to think about,” said one student targeted by false accusations.
You learn that [the University] is not there for you. Different interests trump your rights.
“It affected me mentally, it took a lot of time and mental effort,” another targeted student said.
It caused a lot of stress. It served as a distraction from other important things in my life.
It is often people from marginalized communities who are the target of disciplinary procedures and accusations.
“Specifically, Palestinian students and staff who express their respective experiences of oppression and discrimination, and who talk about the history of the oppression of their people are among those targeted, alongside other students and staff—who are frequently Black and Minority Ethnic—who express solidarity with the plight of Palestinians,” the report notes.
Those subjected to false accusations are often fearful about their future careers and reputations, leaving them much more cautious about expressing their views openly.
Although the report doesn’t say it explicitly, inducing terror is likely the desired outcome of the pro-Israel groups that lodge these kinds of false complaints.
Canary Mission, for example, a Zionist group that smears student Palestine activists on U.S. campuses, has made damaging their future careers one of its goals—with the aim of intimidating others into silence about Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.
Defend free speech
Now ELSC and BRISMES are calling on the UK government to stop imposing the IHRA definition, and on universities that have adopted it to stop using it and to rescind decisions taken on its basis.
They are also urging the UK’s National Union of Students—which is supposed to defend student rights—to reverse its own adoption of the IHRA definition.
Instead, academic bodies and student organizations should “lobby university management to protect the academic freedom and freedom of expression of all members of their campus community.”