University College London’s council will reconsider its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism after an internal board concluded it was “not fit for purpose in a university setting”.
The university governing council will consider drafting a new definition of antisemitism because a panel of academics raised concerns about the legal and academic implications of the IHRA description. The definition remains in place at UCL.
The decision follows a vote of the university academic board, which last year commissioned a working group of 11 academics – which included two academics from the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies – to consider concerns the definition may have an impact on academic freedom.
The subsequent report of the working group made two significant conclusions: that the IHRA definition “potentially conflates statements critical of the State of Israel with antisemitism” and lacks the “legal force” to be an effective tool in complaints procedures. The working group labelled the adoption of the definition by UCL a “symbolic measure”, and urged the university to find other approaches to tackle institutional antisemitism.
In a statement, UCL said: “Following a thoughtful debate this week which universally reaffirmed this commitment to tackling anti-semitism, 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.”
The vote comes as universities face intense government pressure to adopt the IHRA definition. In a letter to the new chair of the Office for Students this month, Gavin Williamson said he wanted the regulator for universities in England to identify universities “reluctant to adopt the definition”.
The working group warned that the adoption of the IHRA working definition “in the face of external pressure from government raises deeper concerns about UCL governance”.
“The recent letter from the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP urging universities to adopt the IHRA working definition – with the threat of withholding funding if they do not – demonstrates how university autonomy is under threat,” the report said, claiming that university “autonomy and independence are seriously in peril”.
The report acknowledged the likely ramifications of its recommendation to change the UCL definition.
“We are fully mindful of the fact that many people who advocated for the adoption of the IHRA working definition will feel acutely disappointed if that adoption is retracted. We do not wish to ignore or minimise such feelings.
“It is nevertheless our considered judgement that the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is not fit for purpose in a university setting, and that UCL’s symbolic adoption of this confusing and ambiguous document will be of little help in addressing the serious problem of antisemitism in our community; indeed, it may in some ways complicate and undermine it.”
The report recommends the university establish forums for academics and student societies to discuss antisemitism and increase “communal cohesion and a sense of community”.
The authors also noted that many Jewish students welcomed the adoption of the IHRA definition because their complaints of antisemitism “were not hitherto recognised by UCL”. It urged the university to improve its complaints procedures and create an independent ombudsperson “with sufficient resources to coordinate complaint processes at UCL” to bolster a “culture of reporting”.
However, UCL Jewish Society and the Union of Jewish Societies said it was “disturbed by the decision of the UCL academic board to support the recommendation to replace the IHRA definition”.
“Jewish student voices will not be silenced, nor dictated to by a small group of academics, who are more interested in theoretical discussion of antisemitism than practically supporting their students. We are confident that the Provost, Dr Michael Spence, will make the correct decision and reject the recommendation of the academic board.”