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UK to invest over £5m in 'politically motivated' antisemitism training in schools and universities

Campaigners warn new training uses controversial antisemitism definitions and could affect free speech
People take part in a protest to mark 100 days since the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza, in London, 13 January 2024 (Reuters)

Pro-Palestinian campaigners have criticised as "politically motivated" new plans by the British government that it says are aimed at tackling antisemitism in the education system.

Details of the £5.5m initiative, which the government says is intended to “tackle antisemitism in education” and to promote the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of antisemitism in schools and universities, were revealed on Tuesday.

According to the government website, the programme aims to “support schools, colleges, and universities to tackle antisemitism effectively” by “increasing understanding of antisemitism amongst staff and learners” and “increasing staff ability to identify and tackle incidents of antisemitism”.

"Alongside this, the Supplier(s) will also be responsible for the development and implementation of supporting resources, including on the situation in Israel following the terrorist attacks on 7 October, which tackle mis- and disinformation, and can be used in student engagement activity," reads the website, referring to the Hamas attack on southern Israel.

The procurement is split into two: the first is dedicated to programmes targeting universities, with the “cornerstone” of the contract being the rollout of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

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The second tranche of funding is earmarked for rolling out the initiative in schools and colleges.

Not fit for purpose

The new initiative comes amid what the University and Colleges Union (UCU) has described as “endemic” cuts to the arts and humanities at UK universities.

The English Language and Linguistics department at the University of Kent recently announced that they were at risk of “being cut entirely".

In this climate, some campaigners have claimed the new initiative is more about playing politics than ensuring safety for Jewish students.

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“The UK has decided to invest over £5m in the [IHRA] definition's implementation at a time when universities across the country, including places like Kent, are slashing programmes in humanities and firing staff members,” Neve Gordon, the chair of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES)'s Committee on Academic Freedom and professor of human rights at Queen Mary University in London, told MEE.

“There is money to invest in a politically motivated definition that has been used to shield Israeli crimes, but there has been no support offered by the government for Palestinian students and staff, no partnerships with Palestinian universities."

A report co-authored by BRISMES and the European Legal Support Center (ELSC), previously concluded that the IHRA definition was undermining academic freedom and the rights to lawful speech by staff and students.

The report analysed 40 cases in which UK university staff and students were accused of antisemitism based on the IHRA definition and found that in all but two instances, the accusations were rejected.

Describing the IHRA definition as "not fit for purpose", BRISMES and the ELSC said it was harming the mental health, reputation, and career prospects of students and staff who had been falsely accused of antisemitism. 

Over 200 universities, colleges, and higher education providers in the UK have adopted the definition.

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