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Letter to the Guardian from Prof Jonathan Rosenhead, Prof Conor Gearty and numerous British academics:

The spike in far-right antisemitic incidents on UK campuses that you report (UK universities urged to act over spate of antisemitic stickers and graffiti, 18 February) seems to reflect the increase in xenophobia since the Brexit vote.

Yet the government has “adopted” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which can be and is being read as extending to criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights, an entirely separate issue, as prima facie evidence of antisemitism. This definition seeks to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

Now Jo Johnson, the government minister whose brief includes universities, has written to Universities UK asking for this definition to be disseminated throughout the system. His letter specifically mentions Israeli Apartheid Week (a worldwide activity at this time of year since 2005) as a cause for concern.

The response has been swift. Late last week, in haste and clearly without legal advice, the University of Central Lancashire banned a meeting that was to be addressed by journalist Ben White as well as by academics. The university statement asserted that the meeting on “Debunking misconceptions on Palestine” contravened the definition of antisemitism recently adopted by the government, and would therefore not be lawful.

Meanwhile, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, a body set up during the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014, cites this definition in asking its supporters to “record, film, photograph and get witness evidence” about Israeli Apartheid Week events; and “we will help you to take it up with the university, students’ union or even the police”.

These are outrageous interferences with free expression, and are direct attacks on academic freedom. As academics with positions at UK universities, we wish to express our dismay at this attempt to silence campus discussion about Israel, including its violation of the rights of Palestinians for more than 50 years. It is with disbelief that we witness explicit political interference in university affairs in the interests of Israel under the thin disguise of concern about antisemitism.

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