Professor ‘lined up’ for government’s academic free speech role is IHRA critic

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

Professor ‘lined up’ for government’s academic free speech role is IHRA critic

Cambridge professor Arif Ahmed reportedly Rishi Sunak's favoured candidate for new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom role, aimed at ensuring university speakers are not 'cancelled'

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

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

A university professor reportedly being lined up by Rishi Sunak to become the first ever director for free speech on university campuses has been an outspoken critic of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in the past.

Newspaper reports have claimed that the Prime Minister favours Professor Arif Ahmed for the role, with powers to ensure visiting university speakers are not “cancelled” or banned from airing controversial views.

Ahmed has repeatedly warned that freedom of speech is under threat, and has argued that university should be an environment where “you can pretty much say anything you like.”

The Cambridge philosophy professor has also made clear his dislike of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

In a blog written in February 2021, Ahmed wrote: “I am strongly against Gavin Williamson’s requirement that universities adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.”

“This ‘definition’ is nothing of the kind; adopting it obstructs perfectly legitimate defence of Palestinian rights.

“As such it chills free speech on a matter of the first importance. I hope the Secretary of State reconsiders the need for it; but these new free speech duties ought to rule it out in any case.”

The new academic freedom role is being established under the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill which is passing through parliament.

It includes a call for universities to “actively promote” free speech, including student unions.

Ahmed has previously been critical of both left and right wing failure to allow free speech.

Earlier this month, the professor took part in a Cambridge Union debate, arguing in favour of the right to offend.

He spoke  of the “right” not to be prevented from discussing issues by the state “just because it is offensive.”

Ahmed then said that it is “very difficult not to offend somebody” when discussing the issue of Israel/Palestine.

“Just stating facts can offend somebody,” he added.

Ahmed then gave the example of a New York schoolteacher who had placed a New York Times headline “Israel kills dozens of Palestinians” on his door together with a statement saying “I support Palestinian rights.”

The teacher was ordered to take it down, said Ahmed, because it was deemed to cause offence.

He told the debate: “That’s an example of an issue that because it’s so important it’s inevitably going to cause offence.”

But Ahmed then warned about the consequences of not being able to discuss the issue.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education told Jewish News that no decision has been made yet about the appointment and the recruitment process for the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom is currently still ongoing.

Professor Ahmed has also been contacted for comment over his critical views of the IHRA definition.

Downing Street confirmed the appointment was being handled by the Department for Education.





Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: