IHRA definition of Jew-hate ‘must not restrict legitimate political speech’

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IHRA definition of Jew-hate ‘must not restrict legitimate political speech’

Rishi Sunak's new free speech champion Arif Ahmed raises concern about IHRA antisemitism definition after his appointment in new government role is confirmed

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Professor Arif Ahmed addresses the Cambridge Union
Professor Arif Ahmed addresses the Cambridge Union

The Cambridge professor appointed as Rishi Sunak’s new free speech champion has warned in his first statement in the role that the IHRA definition of antisemitism “must not restrict legitimate political speech and protest”.

Arif Ahmed was, as expected, confirmed in the new role on Thursday, with his central task being the protection of freedom of speech on university campuses, along with a responsibility to investigate any infringements of the duties placed on universities to promote freedom of speech.

An outspoken advocate for free speech, Ahmed becomes the first person to do the job announced by the department for education (DfE) in 2021 as part of the higher education (freedom of speech) bill.

Jewish News has previously revealed how Ahmed had previously criticised the IHRA definition claiming it “obstructs perfectly legitimate defence of Palestinian rights” and how it “chills free speech.”

After his appointment by Sunak was confirmed by The Times, Ahmed appeared to partially tone down his criticism of IHRA in an op-ed written for the newspaper.

He said:”The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition is an important tool for understanding how antisemitism manifests itself in the 21st century. Adopting it sends a strong signal to students and staff facing antisemitism. ”

But the same op-ed also featured a warning about IHRA, stating:” But it must not restrict legitimate political speech and protest. I will act impartially.”

The appointment of a long-time critic of IHRA in a senior government role sparked immediate concern amongst some in the UK Jewish community. One communal figure described the appointment as “madness.”

The Conservatives have regularly stated their backing for the IHRA definition, with former education minister Gavin Williamson among those to urge all universities and higher education institutions to adopt the definition.

The government’s independent adviser on antisemitism Lord Mann has also been a staunch supporter of the definition.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came under sustained attack after he, and leading supporters condemned some of the IHRA working definition examples of problematic discourse around Israel.

Ahmed’s appointment was praised on Thursday by Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, who said: “[Ahmed’s] track record as a defender of free speech and academic freedom is exemplary.

The higher education bill became law on May 11, and also includes a new complaints scheme which could result in sanctions for universities that do not uphold freedom of speech.

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