David Feldman: The UK government should not impose a faulty definition of antisemitism on universities

On the risks of universities applying the IHRA definition of antisemitism:

We all know how the path to hell is paved. But it is a warning worth repeating for Gavin Williamson. The secretary of state for education intends to rid universities in England of antisemitism, but his intervention not only threatens to provoke strife and confusion – it also places academic freedom and free speech on campus at risk.

In October, Williamson wrote to all university vice-chancellors “requesting” they adopt a particular definition of antisemitism: the “working definition” promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016. Williamson is not the first ministerto write to universities on this matter, but he has been more forceful than his predecessors. His letter demands action by Christmas, and threatens swingeing measures against refusenik institutions that later suffer antisemitic incidents. He threatens to remove funding and the power to award degrees from universities that do not share his faith in the efficacy of the IHRA working definition.

This is misguided, for a number of reasons. First, it misconceives the task universities face. As shown in a report released last week by Universities UK – Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education – structural racism in universities is profound, and racial harassment on campus is widespread. These are problems that universities must address. The imposed adoption of the IHRA working definition will not meet this challenge. It will, however, privilege one group over others by giving them additional protections, and in doing so will divide minorities against each other. For this reason alone, Williamson should pause and consider how best to protect students and university staff from racism broadly as well as from antisemitism.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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