UK Government’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism

On 12 December 2016, the UK Government formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism. This stated that:

“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

In a speech the same day, Prime Minister Theresa May said the adoption meant:

“There will be one definition of anti-Semitism – in essence, language or behaviour that displays hatred towards Jews because they are Jews – and anyone guilty of that will be called out on it.”

What is the IHRA?

The IHRA is an intergovernmental body established in Stockholm in 1998. It comprises 31 member nations whose purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance and research, both nationally and internationally.

Its new definition of anti-Semitism was adopted during a plenary meeting in Bucharest on 26 May 2016.

Did the UK Government also adopt the IHRA’s 11 examples of anti-Semitism?

Yes. Although the UK Government’s original statement announcing the adoption of the IHRA definition did not mention its 11 “contemporary examples”, it is clear they form part of Government policy.

First, the Government rejected calls from the Home Affairs Committee to insert two “clarifications” to the IHRA definition and examples:

  • It is not anti-Semitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent.
  • It is not anti-Semitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent.

The UK Government said it believed that an existing caveat, that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic”, was “sufficient to ensure freedom of speech”.

Secondly, in a written statement on 12 December 2016, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, referred to the definition as important in understanding how anti-Semitism manifests itself in the 21st century, “as it gives examples of the kind of behaviours which depending on the circumstances could constitute anti-Semitism”.

Finally, on 18 July 2018, the Prime Minister was asked in the Commons if she agreed that “all political parties should adopt [the IHRA] definition, and its examples, without amendments or omissions?”

Theresa May replied:

“We should all sign up, as the Conservative Party has, to the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and all its annexes.”

At that point, however, the Conservative Party’s code of conduct did not explicitly mention the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, although it was later updated to make it clear that its provision against discrimination based upon “religion or belief” should be “interpreted as fully adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism which the Conservative Party adopted in December 2016”.

Who else has adopted the IHRA definition and examples?

On 8 February 2017, the London Assembly unanimously agreed to adopt the IHRA definition, including the 11 examples. On 13 June 2017, the Scottish Government also announced it was adopting the definition, as did the Welsh Government ten days later (neither, however, mentioned the examples).

Initially, the Labour Party approved its own guidelines on anti-Semitism but rejected the IHRA examples (having adopted the definition – like the Government – in 2016). On 4 September 2018, its National Executive Committee adopted the 11 examples alongside a statement, “which ensures this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians”.

Is the IHRA definition legally binding?

No. The May 2016 plenary meeting of the IHRA adopted what it called a “non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism”, although it hoped to inspire international organisations into taking action “on a legally binding working definition”.

In his written statement on 12 December 2016, Sajid Javid said the Government believed that while the definition was “legally non-binding” it was nevertheless an “important tool” for criminal justice agencies and other public bodies. As Government policy, it would be for those bodies “to implement the definition and embed it within operational guidance as relevant”.

Hate Crime Operation Guidance from the College of Policing, for example, refers to all 11 examples.

In March 2018, campaigners associated with Christians United for Israel called on the Prime Minister to enshrine the IHRA definition into UK law.

Criticisms of the IHRA definition

Some have expressed concerns that the IHRA definition restricts freedom of speech by prohibiting legitimate criticism of Israeli government action in the Palestinian territories.

Geoffrey Robertson QC set out many of these concerns in an opinion prepared for the Palestinian Return Centre, arguing that several of the IHRA’s examples were drafted in a way that could be detrimental to freedom of speech. He also criticised the Prime Minister for adopting the definition without Parliamentary debate and without the caveats proposed by the Home Affairs Committee.

 

David Torrance is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in devolution, monarchy and religion.