Sunak’s free speech commissioner rows back on IHRA opposition

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Sunak’s free speech commissioner rows back on IHRA opposition

Cambridge professor Arif Ahmed admits past concerns about the antisemitism definition but now says he has 'seen at Cambridge' how IHRA 'can accommodate robust support for free speech and academic freedom'

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

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

Rishi Sunak’s new free speech commissioner has appeared to row back on his past opposition to the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

In a new statement Cambridge professor Arif Ahmed admits to having “concerns” about the working definition “in the past” but added:” I have seen at Cambridge how in practice the working definition can accommodate robust support for free speech and academic freedom.”

Ahmed, who was confirmed as England’s first director for free speech and academic freedom, also cited evidence contained within a report published by Lord Mann’s parliamentary task force on antisemitism.

He said this “indicates that none of the 56 university adopters who were asked reported that its adoption had in any way restricted freedom of speech.”

Ahmed made his latest comments on IHRA in an op-ed published by The Times newspaper to coincide with his appointment.

Jewish News revealed how Lord Mann, the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, had been among those raising concern about Ahmed’s past views on the definition.

In 2021 the professor raised objections to a move by the then education secretary Gavin Williamson to make all universities sign up to IHRA on the grounds that it “chills free speech” in relation to criticism over Israel.

In his latest remarks Ahmed continued to insist the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition “must not restrict legitimate political speech and protest.”

But he added it “is an important tool for understanding how antisemitism manifests itself in the 21st century.” 

Jewish News understands that the Board of Deputies will ask to meet Ahmed in the forthcoming weeks to discuss his view around tackling antisemitism on campus, along with his approach to IHRA.

Lord Mann has also requested a meeting. He told Jewish News:”His previous idea that IHRA restricts free speech was ill informed and reached without any empirical research nor any talking to Jewish students.

“In particular he has no answer to the intimidation of silence, where students choose not to say what they think because of the hostility that will occur.”

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