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Legal opinion finds major faults with government antisemitism definition


  • Definition cannot be used to judge criticism of Israel as antisemitic, unless it expresses hatred towards Jews. Describing Israel as a state enacting a policy of apartheid, as practising settler colonialism or calling for policies of boycott divestment or sanctions against Israel cannot properly be characterized as antisemitic.
  • The definition’s poor drafting means public bodies applying the definition could be at serious risk of “unlawfully restricting legitimate expressions of political opinion”.
  • Definition has already been used to close down student events at universities across the country; it is widely feared to have a ‘chilling effect’.
  • Eminent lawyers Sir Geoffrey Bindman and Sir Stephen Sedley endorse the legal opinion and will address the launch at the House of Lords.


A coalition of organisations has obtained an Opinion from Senior Counsel on the possible impact on freedom of expression and assembly of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism adopted by Theresa May’s government in December 2016.

Hugh Tomlinson QC examined the concerns of Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP), Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), Free Speech on Israel (FSOI) and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) that the ‘IHRA definition’ conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel and could be misused to curtail campaigning on behalf of Palestinians. The groups cite recent occasions when university authorities have forced student Palestine societies to cancel or postpone planned meetings and actions.

The Opinion states that the definition is badly drafted, creates scope for confusion and inconsistency, and potentially “chills” the debate around Israel/Palestine. Tomlinson stresses that the definition is not legally binding, public bodies are under no obligation to adopt it, and those that do must take care applying it or risk “unlawfully restricting legitimate expressions of political opinion in violation of statutory duties to ensure freedom of expression and assembly.”

He makes clear that the definition cannot be used to judge criticism of Israel to be antisemitic, unless the criticism actually expresses hatred towards Jews. He states:

“Properly understood in its own terms the IHRA Definition does not mean that activities such as describing Israel as a state enacting a policy of apartheid, as practising settler colonialism or calling for policies of boycott divestment or sanctions against Israel can properly be characterized as antisemitic. A public authority which sought to apply the IHRA Definition to prohibit or sanction such activities would be acting unlawfully.”

A spokesperson for the commissioning organisations said,

“We have years of experience of facing attempts by pro-Israel lobby groups to shut down activities that expose Israel’s denial of Palestinian human rights, increasingly by whipping up fears of antisemitism. We have a duty to advise local authorities, universities and other public bodies that they do not need to succumb to pressure to collude in the latest phase of this censorship campaign. Introducing attitudes to Israel into the equation makes combating hostility to Jews more difficult, not easier.”

The Opinion will be launched in the House of Lords on Monday, March 27 at 15:00. Speakers will include leading solicitor Sir Geoffrey Bindman of Bindman’s LLP, expert on freedom of expression and retired Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Stephen Sedley.

MPs, peers, media, prominent lawyers, academics, campaigning groups, local government authorities, and trade unions are also expected to attend.

The full text of the opinion is available online here.


Notes for Editors

The IHRA Definition

  • The IHRA Definition was broadly based on the working definition of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (“EUMC”). The EUMC Definition has proved controversial, see, for example, the report of Professor David Feldman: Sub‐report for the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism (1 January 2015). http://www.antisemitism.org.uk/wp-content/themes/PCAA/images/DAVID-FELDMAN- pdf
  • UK government measures to restrict activism for Palestinian human rights and raising awareness of the Israeli state’s abuses include the new definition of antisemitism (adopted December 2016) that includes criticism of the state of Israel.


Defining antisemitism to limit free speech on Israel/Palestine

  • The definition has been invoked publicly on numerous occasions where Israel has been publicly criticised, and always in the context of attempts to halt criticism of Israel. See for example the high-profile failed legal challenge to the university teachers union UCU in the United Kingdom.
  • Universities became embroiled in a free speech row during February’s Israel Apartheid Week 2017, when several events by Palestinian activists were shut down, and others were obstructed.
  • ‘Prevent Duty’ guidance and materials issued to universities identify activism for Palestinian human rights as a behaviour to watch – and even include ‘Opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza’. Israeli settlements are illegal under international law and run counter to British foreign policy.


About the coalition of organisations

  • Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) – a network of nearly two thousand Jews in Britain, stretching across the political and Jewish religious spectrum, who are opposed to the Occupation and campaign for the human, civil, political and economic rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to self determination.
  • Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) – Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) is a network of Jews in Britain from diverse backgrounds, occupations and affiliations who have in common a strong commitment to social justice and universal human rights.  The initiative was born out of a frustration with the widespread misconception that the Jews of this country speak with one voice – and that this voice supports the Israeli government’s policies. IJV promotes the expression of alternative Jewish perspectives, particularly with respect to the Palestine / Israel conflict.
  • Free Speech on Israel (FSOI) – a predominantly Jewish campaign group established in Spring 2016 to counter the manufactured moral panic over a supposed epidemic of antisemitism in the UK. FSOI promotes a non-Zionist Jewish perspective. It affirms that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Antisemitism is a form of racist bigotry directed at Jews because they are Jews.
  • Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) – The Palestine Solidarity Campaign is the largest UK civil society organisation dedicated to securing Palestinian human rights established in 1982. With more than sixty branches across the country, we campaign against Israel’s flouting of international law, the continued military occupation of Palestine, and systematic discrimination against Palestinians. We work to build awareness amongst politicians and the public of the continual injustices and advocate for peaceful and just solutions that respect the rights and dignity of Palestinians and Israelis.