In a Department for Education conference on 26 January, the Secretary of State for Education made two highly questionable remarks inimical to the right to free speech on Israel. Our letter to him, seeking a meeting, is below.
Following our reminder letter to the senior official responsible for Higher Education, the Minister of State for Education replied to us, acknowledging that the questions we raised were important. She said neither she nor the Secretary of State had time meet us now but she would contact us if she has time in the future. We replied, asking for a meeting with a senior official.
Our letter to the Secretary of State
13 February 2022
The Rt Hon Nadhim Zahawi MP
Secretary of State for Education
Dear Secretary of State,
We are writing to seek a meeting with you following the conference on Antisemitism hosted by your department on 26 January. We are extremely worried by two remarks you were reported to have made.1
First, you were reported to have said that protesters chanting the pro-Palestinian slogan “From the river to sea [Palestine will be free]” should be referred to the police. You thought this remark was a Hamas slogan and therefore saying it is to support Hamas, which is now illegal.
However, putting aside the question of whether it was justifiable to proscribe all of Hamas as a terrorist organisation, the slogan is not unique to Hamas. It is used by Palestinians of many political parties and civil society groups as a rallying cry for one democratic state. It is not a call for Jews to be expelled, but rather for equal rights for all in Palestine. It is neither illegal nor antisemitic to advocate it.
Second, you were reported as saying that adopting the IHRA definition was “essential not optional” and calling for more universities to take it on board. The implication of coercion is concerning because the government’s “adoption” of the definition in 2018 has no legal effect and in any case is highly questionable. The definition is widely held to be vague, logically flawed and heavily biased towards interpreting legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic. We note the Opinions of Hugh Tomlinson QC2 and Geoffrey Robinson QC3, and the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee investigation into “Antisemitism in the UK”4 in this respect.
We also note, and recommend to you, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. The JDA is a much better document than the IHRA WD. It provides a logical, concise definition of antisemitism, and most important, it gives equal weight to unmasking allegations of antisemitism that are really attempts to delegitimise criticism of Israel and unmasking criticisms of Israel that are really expressions of antisemitism. We urge you to advise universities to adopt the Jerusalem Declaration. The JJP website carries an analysis of both documents5.
The JDA was created in May last year by an international group of 200 eminent academics in the fields of antisemitism studies, Holocaust history, Jewish studies, Middle East studies and philosophy. It was endorsed by more than 120 scholars from several countries, The framers and endorsers do not all share the same political views and are not seeking to promote a partisan political agenda.
We are sure it was unintentional, but your remarks, if reported accurately, were inimical to the rights of freedom of expression and assembly guaranteed by the Human Rights Act (1998) and the European Convention on Human Rights, Articles 10 and 11.
We would like to discuss these issues with you, and at the same time discuss the problem that distinguishing between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel or Zionism has become a highly contested issue in recent years. As a large Jewish group that supports Palestinian rights, JJP has considerable experience in negotiating this treacherous terrain.
We hope to hear from you shortly to arrange a meeting.
Parliamentary and Diplomatic Liaison Officer
c.c. The Right Hon Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities
1. Middle East Eye, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/uk-government-minister-says-pro-palestinian-river-sea-chanters-could-be-referred-police
2. Hugh Tomlinson QC, https://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/ihra-opinion/#sthash.H7LDrwN7.dpbs
3. Geoffrey Robertson QC, https://www.doughtystreet.co.uk/news/ihra-definition-antisemitism-not-fit-purpose
4. House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee investigation into “Antisemitism in the UK https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmhaff/136/13602.htm
5. JJP website, https://jfjfp.com/free-speech-on-israel-policy/