PSC campaigns in support of the rights of the Palestinian people and against the injustices they suffer because of the actions of the state of Israel. This injustice is manifest in the ongoing process of colonisation and ethnic cleansing that saw over 750,000 Palestinians forced to flee from their homes in 1948, and subsequently denied the right to return, the continued occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and in the discriminatory policies embodied in Israeli legislation that denies equality under the law to Palestinian citizens of the state. Numerous legal scholars and human rights activists, joined last month by Israel’s largest human rights monitoring agency B’Tselem, have described these laws and policies as meeting the legal definition of apartheid.

Against a growing international recognition of the injustices faced by the Palestinian people, the Israeli state and its allies have sought to deflect these serious and legitimate criticisms via a project of delegitmisation that seeks to reframe activism for Palestine as something hostile, sinister, and anti-Semitic. This project of delegitimisation has fuelled the introduction of laws in many states that seek to inhibit and even criminalise action in support of the Palestinian led, peaceful call for boycott divestment and sanctions against Israel until it ends its violations of the core rights of the Palestinian people. This project seeks to conflate efforts to hold Israel accountable under International Law and human rights conventions with anti-Semitism via the utilisation of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

As a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society organisations warned back in 2018, the discredited IHRA examples attached to the definition, conflate criticism of the constitutional order, ideology and structure of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism. They erase Palestinian history and shield Israel’s far-right regime of occupation and oppression from accountability.

A key focus of those lobbying to have the IHRA adopted and used to chill activism for Palestinian rights has been directed at universities. The pressure being applied on universities by Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, and government advisor on anti-Semitism, John Mann, follows years of efforts by a range of pro-Israel groups to define motions supporting BDS or events that accurately describe Israel as a state practicing the crime of apartheid as inherently anti-Semitic.  The recent report by UCL’s Academic Board working group on racism and prejudice, even referenced a case study of attempts to cancel an art exhibition addressing stories of refugee displacement on the grounds of anti-Semitism because it contained exhibits focused upon the plight of Palestinian refugees. Mirroring tactics already used in the US targeting students and academics on campus, the delegitmisation campaign has seen the emergence of a website that claims to map incidents of anti-Semitism on campus, targeting individual lecturers for their academic output. Referencing Israel as a state practicing apartheid, calling for BDS or opposing the adoption of the IHRA are criteria for inclusion on this website.

This month saw the IHRA being cited by groups campaigning for an Oxford college to deny space for celebrated film maker Ken Loach to discuss his career. More recently we have witnessed calls from a range of groups, including student groups, for the sacking of David Miller, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Bristol. This followed Professor Miller condemning Zionism as a racist ideology, describing the role of the state of Israel in promoting and coordinating efforts to delegitimise activism for Palestine globally, and outlining the links between some pro-Israel groups and the promotion of Islamophobic narratives.

When addressing such issues, it is crucial to apply depth, context, and clarity, and to avoid narratives that oversimplify the interlinks between groups which oppose actions in support of Palestinian rights, and Israeli state actors. Doing so obscures our understanding of the way political actors’ function. At worst, it can risk drawing on anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power.

Whilst some have criticised Professor Miller for lacking such depth and clarity in the way he has couched his remarks, those leading the call for Professor Miller to be sacked are straightforwardly asserting that to define Zionism as a movement and political ideology that is racist is inherently anti-Semitic. They similarly seek to define any narrative that speaks of a lobby seeking to shield Israel from accountability for its racist laws, policies, and constitutional order, as itself being an act of racism. This denies the right of Palestinians to criticise both the regime that oppresses them, and the ideology that informs that oppression. It therefore violates core principles of academic freedom.

It is regrettable that the University of Bristol is one of those that has adopted the IHRA working definition. PSC has written to all vice chancellors of UK universities, including Bristol, to bring to their attention to the UCL Academic Board’s decision to uphold the findings of its working group report and recommend that UCL rescind its adoption of the IHRA.

We call upon all universities, including the University of Bristol, to make clear that they will protect the rights of academics and Palestinian students amongst their body to speak of the history of settler colonialism that has led to their dispossession, to challenge the apartheid practices of the state that denies them their rights, and to describe as racist the ideology of Zionism that underpins this oppression. The rights of all other students and academics to debate and discuss these facts of historical injustice and to call for action to resolve them must likewise be protected.