UK universities reject Israel lobby’s anti-Semitism definition

Education minister Gavin Williamson threatened to cut university funding over the definition. (UK Parliament)

Only a minority of UK universities have adopted the misleading and politically motivated definition of anti-Semitism promoted by Israel and its lobby.

Despite repeated British government threats, fewer than 22 percent of higher education establishments have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism.

The IHRA definition has been repeatedly condemned by free speech defenders, Palestinians, Jewish activists, Palestine solidarity, Black and Asian groups.

But Conservative Party education minister Gavin Williamson wrote to universities demanding they “formally adopt” the definition on 9 October.

Williamson threatened to cut their government funding if they do not.

He said he had asked civil servants to examine how to “impose a new regulatory condition” to suspend funding “for universities at which anti-Semitic incidents occur” that have not signed up to the definition.

He threatened to act before Christmas, “if I have not seen the overwhelming majority of institutions adopting the definition.”

Williamson’s letter disingenuously equates refusal to adopt the specific definition favored by the British government and Israel supporters as tantamount to condoning anti-Semitism.

This ignores serious concerns over the IHRA definition’s already widespread misuse to stigmatize and censor speech critical of Israel’s policies against Palestinians.

The government is now resorting to threats and coercion after failing to make its case.

“Politically motivated”

Left-wing group Jewish Voice for Labour responded that the letter was “a chilling reminder of the speed with which the government is moving to impose totalitarian thought control.”

The group calls the definition “politically motivated and intellectually incoherent.”

The majority of the IHRA definition’s examples of “anti-Semitism” focus on Israel.

Some could even ban criticisms of Israel and its official ideology, Zionism.

One of the examples of supposed anti-Semitism is: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

This could be used to silence Palestinians from talking about their history, especially the Nakba – the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Zionist armed militias in 1947-48 in order to create an Israeli state with a Jewish majority.

It could also be used to target anyone advocating for a unitary, democratic non-sectarian state for all in historic Palestine, instead of a specifically “Jewish state” which gives superior rights to one group of people over another – as Israel is currently constituted.

Repeated threats

Williamson’s letter is not the first time the Conservative government has threatened university funding over the refusal to adopt the definition.

In January, communities minister Robert Jenrick made a similar threat – but nothing seems to have come of it.

In February 2017, a previous education minister wrote to universities telling them that the government had adopted the definition a few months prior – but stopped short of demanding they adopt it too.

That letter came amid a wave of repression targeting Palestine solidarity activities during Israeli Apartheid Week.

The IHRA definition has repeatedly been used as a pretext to repress free speech on Palestine, especially in the Labour Party.

The most recent example came last week in the United States.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to use the definition to label Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam as “anti-Semitic” for their percieved support for the boycott of Israeli occupation.

“Tool for censorship”

Human rights lawyer Jamil Dakwar called it “yet another dangerous attempt to weaponize anti-Semitism.”

“The IHRA definition isn’t about keeping Jewish people safe,” said Jewish Voice for Peace Action’s Beth Miller, “It’s a tool for censorship.”

The definition “manipulates concern about Jewish safety and twists it into a vehicle to ban and criminalize support for Palestinian rights,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Jewish anti-Zionist and Palestine solidarity activist Tony Greenstein wrote on his blog that Williamson’s attempt to intimidate unversities into adopting the definition “is like a mafia boss offering his clients ‘protection.’”

“One of the least remarked on aspects of the IHRA is how genuine anti-Semites have no quarrel with the IHRA. The IHRA is there to defend Israeli apartheid not Jews,” according to Greenstein.

The low number of universities to have adopted the definition was revealed after freedom of information requests by a pro-Israel lobby group.

The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) wrote to all 133 higher education establishments in the UK and published its findings in September.

Only 29 said they had adopted Israel’s bogus definition. Seven did not reply and 80 said they had no plans to adopt it.

A further 17 said they planned to discuss or debate adopting it.

The UJS said Jenrick’s intervention had come after the group engaged in “extensive lobbying.”

The constitution of the UJS commits it to “inspiring Jewish students to make an enduring commitment” to Israel.

In 2017 it was revealed by a former UJS presidential candidate in undercover footage shot by Al Jazeera that “the Israeli embassy in the UK gives money to the Union of Jewish Students.”




Antisemitism is racism of a particular kind: it encloses a religious prejudice which is far older than contemporary racism. Racism is not a natural response of the mind to difference: when Columbus met the Tainos he liked them, they were "sweet and gentle", "there is not in the world a better nation". What did he do? He slaughtered them. Why? Lucre. Racism began in the lust for wealth of the European nations. Having slaughtered these "so tractable, so peaceable" people Columbus had to find an excuse: hence racism. They are our inferiors and we have the right to do with them what we like. The racism which brought the Nazi genocide was of that kind. As is the racism of the Israeli State: it is the lust for land, for conquest, for lucre which drives the oppression of the Palestinians. The rest is sentimental, hypocritical excuse-making, marked by the neurotic manner of all such postures. The government is lax in its response to anti-black racism. It encourages anti-Muslim racism. Ms Patel attacks lawyers who ensure refugees etc receive their legal rights. Williamson is not an anti-racist: he is a defender of Israeli racism. The IHRA definition is not anti-racist: it is special pleading for Israel, Zionism and Jews. What lies behind this is the old lust for lucre, the origin of today's racism. That lust drives Williamson to totalitarian measures. Jabotinsky described Zionism as "an adventure in colonisation." Benny Morris wrote occupation is "founded on brute force, repression and fear." That's the truth: Israel is a colonising, occupying power which uses brute force, repression and fear to get its own way. While anti-Muslim racism grows apace, Williamson upholds the racism of Jabotinsky's adventure and denies freedom of thought to our universities. The road out of racism is the road to equality, to a world where sweet, gentle, tractable, peaceable people are not slaughtered for profit. Israel is part of the brutal lust for lucre which enslaves us. That's free speech.


It is refreshing to hear that the academic world is very much aware of how the wording of the IHRA can be twisted to achieve unwanted interpretations with regards to the Palestinian people .
The efforts of the pro Israeli lobby have been unrelenting .Little have they realized that they are digging a hole for themselves in the process.
Unfortunately ,here in Canada , we are facing the same situation.
Thank you for encouraging news shedding light on what antisemitism really is as defined by zionists . We must remember and be aware that most of the Middle East people are actually Semites , not just Jewish people , and I repeat , there is no room for antisemitism or any racial condemnation for that matter . No one is more special than any other .


I am in agreement with most of what you say, but I think it is worth pointing out that the argument that Jews and others are "Semites" is very weak and is exploited by real antisemites (small "s") to deny their prejudices. We have to accept that custom and practice has led to the term "antisemitism" being used for prejudice and hostility to Jews as Jews. The term "Semite" is an outmoded C19 one rooted in racial thinking. In 1972 the Marxist biologist Richard Lewontin showed that races have no biological basis. Of course, racism, as a political phenomenon, is a different matter.

In fact, now that Zionists are fighting tooth and nail to redefine antisemitism for their own purposes, it is even more important to stick to our guns and defend the historically-established definition in the face of their onslaught and not muddy the waters with dubious arguments.



It probably would have been better to clarify my post in defining the people of the Middle East and lands , as from the "Semitic root" rather than Semites .In any case I do believe you knew what I was referring to .And while on the subject ,many of the Jewish population throughout the world are of from Eastern Europe . But this opens up another can of worms .There are enough of those cans already in existence ,so I should refrain from even saying it.
The bottom line in actuality is , as you mention, there is only one race ,the human race .


... for politely acknowledging my comment. That's unusual in this day and age. A brief consultation with that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, tell me that the term Semitic refers to a group of languages only.


...."refers to a group of languages only "
Which means that using the term "antisemitic" as a derogatory term in a sentence towards anyone is all the more ridiculous .LOL


that is not what I was trying to say. As I said before, custom and practice has established its meaning as prejudice or discrimination against or hostility to Jews. The link with the term "Semite" has been broken. It is now more important than ever to stick to this understanding and not get side-tracked into arguments like "Jews are not 'Semites'", because of the way Zionists are trying to redefine antisemitism.


It's good to see that over 78% of British universities still have some principles intact although less heartening that fear of de-funding appears to outweigh the priceless value of freedom of expression within and without the academic environment, causing such a large minority to succumb to Gavin Williamson's attempt at extortion. If any university is de-funded as a result of its refusal to accept the overtly political working definition, I hope it will use the courts' system to challenge the Secretary of State's abuse of power.
What enraged me when first I read elsewhere about the attempt to impose the working definition on the higher education system was the brazen interference in universities' independence by the Education Secretary on behalf sectional interests, including those of a not-invariably-friendly, foreign power. However well-meaning the draftsmen of the working definition may have been, it has little to do with anti-Semitism in its real sense of animus against Jews qua Jews and everything to do with silencing criticism of an inherently unacceptable political ideology and the illegitimate, outlaw state which is that ideology's outward expression. It is being increasingly weaponised by Western institutions, including governments, as a gag on freedom of political speech. This is a circumstance that should disturb many.


Under the Race Relations Act racial speech or conduct was made an offence and a jury would often decide the matter with Judge's direction on the law. This antisemitism definition has been the brainchild of a jewish academic with insertions of the Israeli State -which, as a self-proclaimed Jewish State- claims democratic credentials,- as somehow being relevant to the determination of antisemitism, and introduces a dangerous and unnecessary element into that definition. By identifying the dislike or even unfair criticism of a State with a racial dislike or prejudice or hatred of the majority of its inhabitants ie jews, makes it difficult if not impossible to level criticism agst Israel which would be entirely proper in the case of other States and indeed the right permitted under one's Freedom of Speech.
Quite apart from the fact that this "definition" has never been tested in a court of law or before and by a jury (which might seem to be the right course as it is being applied with the force of penalties suitable to a penal statute, or for that matter debated and analysed/criticised in Parliament, its strict application would lead to absurdities. One could say, for example, that the State of Israel is an abhomination without implying that jews who reside therein are also such. In fact orthodox jews say as much. Similarly one can say the States of Saudi Arabia or Iran are an affront to human decency and values without being accused of antiarabism or being antipersian or antimuslim. Both States have residents within who are either arab or persian or muslim. Or one could say that the United States is uncivilised, barbaric and a mafia country - many do - without running foul of the Race Relations Act. Hence it wrong, stupid and dishonest to equate criticism howsoever severe and inaccurate of a State with racial hatred of its unfortunate citizens.


Although you are right that the IHRA definition has not been held up in court in the UK, many of the tropes in it have been rejected out of hand by an employment tribunal judgment in 2013. This was reported by Asa Winstanley at the time. Interestingly, the judgement ruled that Zionism was not a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act. We'll see what the EHRC makes of that in the coming days.


The EHRC appears to have done the Zionist lobby's work for it. Despite not being a supporter of either the party or its ex-leader, I'm appalled by the Labour Party's suspension of Corbyn over the EHRC report of "Labour anit-Semitism-gate", a cynically crafted and manufactured "crisis" if ever such there were!

Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London. He is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and co-host of our podcast.

He is author of the bestselling book Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2023).