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The IHRA antisemitism definition is a useful guide, not a legal tool

Letters
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/PA</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/PA

Prof David Feldman’s critique of the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism (The government should not impose a faulty definition of antisemitism on universities, 2 December) complains that it is imprecise in its wording, but it is the nuances in the definition’s language that make it so useful. It stresses that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”, and that potentially antisemitic language must be assessed “taking into account the overall context” – a context such as, for example, the legal protections for academic freedom that exist in this country. The definition’s most ardent supporters and opponents take it too literally and exaggerate its power; used properly, it can be a useful guide to identifying potentially antisemitic speech, and should hold no fears for anyone other than antisemites.

Feldman points out that six of the 11 examples of antisemitic speech included in the definition “deal with discourse on Israel”; however, five of these six also mention Jews. They include “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust”, and “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”. This does not represent an “emphasis on Israel” that might inhibit criticism of Israeli policies. Rather, it reflects the fact that much antisemitic discourse today takes place in the context of debates over Israel and Palestine, or adopts the language of those debates as the medium through which to perpetuate older antisemitic themes. Any definition of contemporary antisemitism that does not acknowledge this fact is not fit for purpose.
Dr Dave Rich
Director of policy, Community Security Trust

• Prof David Feldman seeks to portray the Antisemitism Policy Trust as confused about the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. We are crystal clear. That definition is not a legal tool but a guide, and as such it requires nuanced understanding, as the reference in the IHRA text to “taking into account the overall context” demonstrates. Boycotts as a political tool are not explicitly covered by the definition, as both our guides make clear, but our second briefing seeks to further explain how boycotts can have an antisemitic impact (not that they always do) and provides additional context.

What Feldman fails to identify is how effective this little piece of text has been at helping people understand antisemitism, as governments, universities, and civil society organisations across the world have found. While the definition is all about context, its adoption is simple and sends a strong signal to students suffering antisemitism on campus. Failure to adopt IHRA has led to racist impacts for Jewish students that should be the focus of any discussion.
Danny Stone
Chief executive, Antisemitism Policy Trust

• David Feldman is right to say that Gavin Williamson must not impose the IHRA definition of antisemitism on universities. For teachers and students of law, philosophy, history and social psychology, the only good use that could be made of the IHRA definition would be in a lesson about what it takes for a definition to be, or not be be, fit for purpose. Leading UK lawyers (including Geoffrey Bindman QC, Geoffrey Robertson QC, Stephen Sedley QC, Hugh Tomlinson QC) have pointed out that the IHRA definition is open to misinterpretation, confusing, fails to cover some insidious forms of antisemitism, and could lead to the suppression of legitimate debate.
Jennifer Hornsby
London