Freedom of Speech in Universities

FSOI presented evidence to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights enquiry on Freedom of Speech in Universities about the threat posed by far right and Zionist disruption of events supportive of Palestinian rights. This evidence was presented in January 2018 but not published here through an administrative oversight.

Submission by Free Speech on Israel to the Inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights


Antisemitism in the UK is not epidemic, and is low by comparative standards.

Externally generated pressures based on an enlarged definition of antisemitism are encroaching on the freedom to hold campus events supportive of Palestine and therefore critical of Israel.

The UK government has adopted a contentious definition of antisemitism (now found not to have been agreed by its supposed promoting body), and has promoted it to all UK universities, as well as to local authorities.

The dissemination of this definition was followed by an upsurge, still ongoing, in university managements’ obstructions of campus meetings thought likely to adopt a critical stance on Israel.

Such action has frequently been triggered by complaints from external groups supportive of Israel.

There is a growing campaign of aggressive disruption of such meetings by far-right and Zionist activists.

We make recommendations for Government, universities and Universities UK to defend legally entrenched free speech.

Houses of Parliament

Freedom of Speech in Universities: the issue of antisemitism

Submission by Free Speech on Israel

to the Inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights

  1. Free Speech on Israel is a Jewish-led group formed in April 2016 out of concerns that the surge in accusations of antisemitism in British public life in no way reflects the reality in which we live.
  2. This submission will focus on growing limitations on the freedom to criticise Israel on UK campuses, resulting from unsubstantiated allegations of antisemitism. The origins of this pressure lie outside the university system, but the responses of some university authorities limit or even threaten to extinguish the freedom to make a range of legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel – for its treatment of Palestinians, its refusal of the right of return of refugees, and other violations of international and human rights law. Similar pressures also operate outside the university sector.
  3. We believe this broad front encroachment is harmful intellectually (constraining academic discourse), harmful politically (restricting national debate on a topic of significance); and harmful to the health of our democracy through the erosion of legally entrenched freedoms including freedom of speech and assembly.
Antisemitism in the UK
  1. Antisemitism is widely, indeed almost universally abhorred. (See the recent survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.) Some recent increases in antisemitic incidents appear to be responses to Israeli assaults on Gaza, and to increased racism and xenophobia in Britain following the EU referendum. Levels of antisemitism are however low by historical standards, and also in comparison with levels in the rest of Europe. Police figures on hate crime can help locate the scale of our problem. For 2016/7 there were just under 6000 cases with a religious hatred ‘flag’, as opposed to over 62,000 flagged as race hate crimes – so a ratio in excess of 10 to 1. It is reasonable to assume that the largest part of the religious hatred category is made up of cases of Islamophobia, not antisemitism.
  2. The current febrile level of debate (by politicians, in the media) might appear to indicate a national antisemitism emergency. The available evidence suggests this debate has lost touch with empirical reality.
Antisemitism, definitions, and public policy
  1. In May 2016 the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) announced the adoption of a rather unspecific 40-word definition of antisemitism, accompanied by illustrative examples of statements that it claims might, given the context, be antisemitic. (But see paragraph 10.) Of these examples, 7 out of 11 concerned Israel, rather than Jews. In October 2016 the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee recommended its adoption by HMG, but with 2 caveats explicitly requiring there to be evidence of antisemitic intent. In December 2016 the Government adopted the entire IHRA document and explicitly rejected the caveats. The effect on freedom of speech, through the conflation of criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews, has been serious.
  2. Free Speech on Israel, together with Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Independent Jewish Voices obtained an opinion from Hugh Tomlinson QC. This clarifies that
  • The wording of the IHRA document is unclear and confusing
  • It has no legal standing and no individual or public body is obliged to adopt it
  • All public bodies have statutory duties to respect and ensure the right of freedom of expression and assembly
  • Any feasible definition of antisemitism needs to limit its scope to conduct motivated by hatred of Jews, which the IHRA version does not.
  • Reliance on this document to ban or restrict events which are thought to be ‘anti-Israel’ but which express no hatred of Jews would be unlawful.
  1. The so-called IHRA definition has been widely circulated. In February 2017 Universities UK circulated it to all universities at the request of the Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson, with a request for action. (UUK subsequently circulated the critical Tomlinson opinion.) In late January 2017 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid sent the IHRA document to all local authorities with the advice “I would like to take this opportunity to strongly encourage you to formally adopt the definition and consider its application in your own authority”.
  2. Other groups have also been disseminating this definition. For example, in January 2016 We Believe in Israel circulated it to local Councillors with a proposal that they should adopt the IHRA definition. However their version used crucially modified wording. The text circulated by the IHRA press office had stated that the illustrative examples (seven of which reference Israel) “could, taking into account the overall context” be regarded as antisemitic. In the We Believe in Israel version this becomes “The guidelines highlight manifestations of antisemitism as including:”, followed by a list of all the examples. This doctored and strengthened version has been adopted by some councils, including the Greater London Authority.
  3. It has now emerged that the IHRA only approved the 40 word formal definition. The extensive ‘guidance’, which purports to extend the meaning of antisemitism to include criticisms of Israel, was not agreed, and so cannot be cited as part of the IHRA definition. This appears to call in question the UK government’s hasty adoption of it.
Practical consequences
  1. Interference with free and critical discussion of Israel/Palestine at universities is not new. One casualty was an international conference on International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, organised in 2015 by two professors at the University of Southampton, Israeli and Palestinian. Permission was first granted, then withdrawn after pressure from external pro-Israel organisations, plus an array of politicians. The conference was subsequently held in Cork without incident.
  2. Pressure on universities stepped up following Jo Johnson’s circularisation to UK’s universities (see paragraph 8), timed to anticipate Israeli Apartheid Week which is held on campuses round the world each February in support of Palestinian rights.
  3. A dossier of the resulting cases of restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly has been collected by the organisations that obtained the Tomlinson opinion (see paragraph 7). The measures taken by universities during Israeli Apartheid Week, described more fully in the dossier, include
  • Cancellation of a meeting due to be held on campus
  • Refusing permission for the staging of a mock check-point
  • Requiring a speaker to provide details of his speech in advance
  • Requiring a speaker to sign agreement with the IHRA definition
  • Replacing the scheduled chair, an academic, with a ‘neutral’ one
  • Requiring a speaker, a holocaust survivor, to change the title of her talk.

The extent to which these steps are formally the result of application of Prevent or of more improvised processes is unclear.

  1. In recent months a strategy of replacing respected academics as meeting chairs on grounds of previously expressed support for Palestinian rights has become widespread. However no campus meeting with an Israel-supporting agenda has been treated in this way.
Role of external pressure groups
  1. These university actions have often taken place following interventions from external bodies. They are known to include Campaign Against Antisemitism, Israel’s Embassy, North West Friends of Israel, StandWithUs, and Sussex Friends of Israel. The Board of Deputies of British Jews has claimed that as a result of its interventions ahead of Israeli Apartheid Week “a number of events have been significantly amended or cancelled”. Former senior office holders in organisations such as the Zionist Federation have also been active individually in demanding meeting bans.
  2. A worrying recent development is the routine disruption of campus meetings on Palestine. This occurred at an LSE meeting in March 2017 addressed by the ex-UN Special Rapporteur Professor Richard Falk of Princeton. In consequence, his talks at two other universities were cancelled. At Free Speech on Israel meetings held at SOAS in November, and in the House of Commons in December 2017, speakers were barracked by around 15 self-declared supporters of Israel. The screening of a Palestinian documentary at SOAS was brought to a premature end by similar behaviour.
  3. UK universities do not appear to have a strategy for combatting these disruptions, reminiscent of 1930’s anti-democratic movements, and for defending free speech. Instead they commonly react to strident advance complaints from a fringe of Israel supporters by putting obstacles in the way of the meetings taking place.
Discussion and Recommendations
    1. The IHRA definition has substantially muddied the water about what ‘antisemitism’ means. A previously well-defined and well-understood concept has been made problematic by an organised attempt to extend its meaning to cover a whole range of criticisms addressed to the state of Israel and its policies. The effect is significantly to weaken defences against the authentic antisemitism of hostility, discrimination and prejudice against Jews because they are Jews.
    2. Suggested actions to address the situation described in this submission are:
      1. Government to withdraw its seriously misguided adoption of the IHRA ‘definition’ of antisemitism, now shown to be inaccurately promoted
      2. Public bodies to cease adopting any version of this ‘definition’ for local use
      3. Universities UK to issue guidance to member universities emphasising their managements’ obligation to prioritise their statutory obligations under UK law to protect freedom of speech and assembly
      4. Universities UK to collect data on the organised disruption of campus events dealing with Israel/Palestine, and to propose appropriate strategies by which universities can preserve the freedom to discuss the issues raised by the Israel/Palestine situation.
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2 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech in Universities”

  1. Good. What happened to your 3 Feb 2021 post for the recent consultation, which was also good, but is no longer available on your website? Also it seems I don’t have permission to send you an email, because the email I just sent to ask this question bounced.

    1. It was uploaded in error. Submissions to Parliamentary Committees are embargoed until the committee reports. We’ll repost then with a commentary on the committee report.

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