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Balfour Fellows cast light on the impact of the IHRA definition

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

(Note: IHRA definition = International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance "working definition of antisemitism")

The Balfour Project has done fine work to inform the British Public and decision-makers about this country’s historic responsibility for the current dire situation in Palestine. In a series of talks and special events, it has meticulously chronicled the sequence of events from the Balfour Declaration of 1917, through the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 to the present day.

It has gone on to ask the British Government to “give a lead to advance equal rights for both peoples” and to immediately recognise Palestine alongside Israel, while urging the international community to push back against settlement expansion. In November 2021, it protested to the Foreign Secretary about the Israeli government designating six Palestinian civil society organisations as “terrorist”, for the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and for advancing plans to build an illegal settlement, cutting off occupied East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied West Bank. Here I discuss the Balfour Project's work on the way the Palestinian cause is represented in our news media and universities, and finish up by drawing out implications for other progressive voices and news outlets in the UK.

A stunning talk by Tim Llewellyn

Tim Llewellyn, former BBC Middle East Affairs Correspondent
Tim Llewellyn, former BBC Middle East Affairs Correspondent (and founding member of CAMPAIN)

In July 2020, the Balfour Project hosted a talk by Tim Llewellyn on the way the British news media had reported the Israel-Palestine question. He spoke from lengthy experience as a BBC Middle East Affairs Correspondent, and later as a free-lance reporter.

Tim mainly focused on broadcasters, particularly the BBC, but also mentioned newspapers like the Guardian which had previously been sympathetic to legitimate Palestinian aspirations, concluding that collectively, they “had not done their job properly”. He had particularly strong words for the BBC, though he remained a strong supporter of the corporation’s mission and existence.

The BBC listened to the voice of Government and took account of (pro-Israel) pressure groups, but it was failing to listen to public opinion which had over recent decades moved away from open support of Israel and was taking the Palestinian cause seriously. In effect, the BBC had let down the public who paid the license fee.

Tim provided a fascinating account of the history of the BBC’s reporting from the 1950s to the present day, tracing how it has changed both in response to events on the ground and political pressure. The most favourable time for honest reporting was the 1980s, of which he said: “I remember coming back after Sabra-Shatila, my stories had run without any demur, there was no question”.

However, around 2000 there was a major change in the mood of Government. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were strong supporters of Israel, the 9/11 attacks “cast a great shadow over the Arab and Muslim world”, “the BBC hedged its bets” and made “terrible mistakes”, notably by reporting the second Intifada in an unbalanced manner. Llewellyn said that since then, the problem had worsened, such that “reporting is still either missing completely or biased against the Palestinians”.

Towards the end of his talk, Tim mentioned the campaign to defame large parts of the Labour Party as “antisemitic”, though rather diffidently, as this was outside his brief from the Balfour Project. However, he went on to critique the BBC’s professionalism for treating the accusations as if they were established facts.

Enter the Balfour Fellows Programme

Until recently, the Balfour Project did not focus much attention on the media-borne antisemitism furore about antisemitism. However, it commended the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism, signed by eminent Jewish lawyers and academics, as a more precise alternative to the IHRA definition which “blurs the crucial difference between antisemitic speech and legitimate criticism of Israel”.

Jonathan Kuttab, co-founder of Al Haq
Jonathan Kuttab, co-founder of Al Haq

Some of its visiting speakers also raised the topic, notably Jonathan Kuttab, co-founder of the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, who warned about it being weaponised to police critical discourse on Israel.

The Balfour Project seems to be increasing its involvement in this area with its programme of Peace Advocacy Fellows.

It started in 2020/21 by recruiting 14 postgraduate students in UK universities, with the aim of recruiting a further 20 undergraduates and postgraduates in 2021/22. One team of Fellows (Gilang Al Ghifari Lukman, Jack Walton, Martha Scott-Cracknell, Omar Sharif, Sarah Chaya Smith) already completed a study on how the IHRA definition is being perceived by potentially interested parties, both staff and students, in British Universities.

Alison Scott-Baumann
Alison Scott-Baumann, Professor of Society & Belief, SOAS

Their research report can be seen on the Balfour Project website and, in our view, deserves to be more widely disseminated. Much has been written for and against the IHRA definition, but there has been an absence of systematic research on the way the definition is being received by those affected.

The team’s study methodology involved in-depth online interviews with 33 anonymous respondents, including Jewish students and academics, members of Palestinian Solidarity groups and community activists. Professor Alison Scott-Baumann acted as the Ethical Advisor and provided training on conducting qualitative research.

The Fellows’ findings in brief

Some respondents expressed considerable reservations about the IHRA definition, mainly because it fosters a climate of “implicit coercion” to steer clear from some themes related to Israel/Palestine, thus recognising that it is causing self-censorship and fear. Respondents also said that organisational pressure to use the definition was perceived as jeopardising professional careers of researchers who study Palestine and discouraging other people from getting involved in pro-Palestinian activism. The authors support these themes with many examples from the respondents’ personal experiences.

Interestingly, these observations coincide with the findings of Hadeel Himmo, who studied the cases of a number of other students and staff in British universities.

One of the Balfour Fellows’ most interesting findings is that understandings of antisemitism differed greatly among the Jews interviewed, with many expressing reservations or discomfort about the idea of a universal or objective definition of antisemitism. Some respondents also feared that the insistence on adopting the definition might unjustifiably prioritise confronting antisemitism over other forms of discrimination, such as Islamophobia.

Many respondents, both those who oppose and those who support the implementation of the IHRA definition at their institutions, believed that a broader programme of education and cross-community work was needed to tackle antisemitism in higher education. This would facilitate on-campus dialogue while respecting the different experiences of those impacted.

This research provides some empirical support for the widely held belief that the IHRA definition is having a very damaging effect on freedom of expression in British Universities, and suggests that it is proving largely unhelpful to Jews in those universities.

Implications for other "progressive" voices

The above discussion is relevant to a range of organisations that support progressive causes in the UK, including news outlets like Byline Times and Open Democracy. These have done invaluable investigative journalism to expose political lying, misinformation, dark money, and bias in Britain’s mainstream media. They sometimes feature articles about the mistreatment of Palestinians but are reluctant to call out the egregious “tsunami” of media-borne smears alleging antisemitism against those who support legitimate Palestinian rights. The "fact-checking" sites that have sprung up over the past decade have likewise been rather quiet on this topic.

When I attempt to raise this with the organisations concerned, I often get no response. However, some explanations are forthcoming. For example, an editor to whom I spoke started by asserting the existence of antisemitism in the Labour Party, but when pressed, admitted that the scale of it did not “in any way justify non-stop vilification in the press” such as had occurred since 2015. I then asked this interlocutor to take this fact on board in the news outlet’s reporting and editorial line - but I never heard back.

Other progressives within the public sphere are reluctant to speak up about this topic on the grounds that it is “controversial” or “toxic”, and some object that accusations about antisemitism are a distraction from the “real battle” that is going on in Israel/Palestine. I suspect other unspoken motives, notably to avoid alienating supporters of Israel or prominent public figures they wish to cultivate. Many of the latter have gone along with the wholly unsubstantiated media narrative about rampant antisemitism in the Labour Party.

I would argue that: to remain silent about the tsunami of smears is to take the path of least resistance, and damages both the interests of Palestinians and free speech in this country.

The current stand-off over Ukraine reminds us that we live in an age where wars are not simply fought with bullets, bombs and barbed wire, but with propaganda. It is particularly the case with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, where the current onslaught of accusations about “the New Antisemitism”, i.e. antisemitism of the left, is simply the last salvo in Israel’s fight for the hearts and minds of western people and their governments that started in earnest in the 1940s. To focus on bombs, bullets and barbed wire, while ignoring the propaganda, is a serious omission – one that sells short the long-suffering Palestinians and British sympathisers who are unjustly put through the mincer of smears. It is vital that we consider this issue in the round, including all its component parts.

It is good that the Balfour Project is increasingly discussing this topic and commissioning serious research into it. I hope that other entities on the progressive side of British politics, including Byline Times and Open Democracy – entities that CAMPAIN follows closely – take note of this development and do likewise.

Jonathan Coulter is Secretary of CAMPAIN - see brief bio HERE. Please add your comments and feedback below.


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