UCL academic board asks council to replace antisemitism definition

Vote comes amid growing row over IHRA definition, which a UK minister wants universities to adopt

February 12, 2021
UCL
Source: iStock/peterspiro

A UK university’s academic body has asked the institution to replace a definition of antisemitism that some critics argue prevents legitimate political criticism of Israel.

UCL’s academic board voted that the university’s governing council should consider alternative options to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which the university adopted in 2019.

Its adoption by UCL and other universities has prompted a growing row in academia with critics, including from the Jewish community, arguing that it harms free speech by sometimes conflating antisemitism with political criticism of Israel.

The controversy has become more heated since the UK’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, asked universities to adopt the IHRA definition and threatened action from England’s higher education regulator if they did not.

The University and College Union (UCU) said the vote at UCL follows a report from an academic board working group on racism that concluded the IHRA was "not fit for purpose".

Following the vote, the board has now decided to ask UCL’s council to replace the definition, with alternatives being put forward by a committee set up by the board. However, although the council will consider the recommendation, because the academic board is an advisory body, it would not have to accept it.

A UCL spokeswoman said the IHRA definition was adopted alongside caveats recommended by a parliamentary committee that it was not antisemitic to criticise the Israeli government.

“The decision to adopt the IHRA was passed by an overwhelming majority of UCL’s council...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,” she said.

“Following a thoughtful debate this week, which universally reaffirmed this commitment to tackling antisemitism, 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 on this and other issues.”

Sean Wallis, the UCU branch president at UCL, said the academic board’s vote was “an important moment”.

“Whilst there are many other positive concrete steps advised by the working group, it is very important that the academic board concluded that universities must be vigilant in defending academic freedom and free speech where political debates about Israel are involved. Today the academic board has resoundingly reinforced this position at UCL,” he said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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