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Alarmed by Special Rapporteur on Education

Written by Yoni Ish-Hurwitz, Executive Director, Human Rights Likeminded Office

Undermining the fight against antisemitism

A month ago, I shared in a newsletter some of my concerns about the statement of the Special Rapporteur on education, Ms. Farida Shaheed, at the end of her mission to the US. Perhaps I was too brief, but it pains me to speak critically of a Special Rapporteur’s work, given my deep respect for the Special Procedures, the crown jewel of the Human Rights Council. However, I was alarmed to read through her recently published thematic report on academic freedom. It addresses a number of important topics, such as censorship of sexuality, Critical Race Theory and indigenous history, among other subjects, as well as artificial intelligence, work conditions and ethical guidelines. However, other parts of the report exacerbate risks faced by Jewish students and professors.

Ms. Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on education (Photo from OHCHR website)

The most concerning claim she makes is that the IHRA definition conflates criticisms of Israel with antisemitism [para 44]. Amid skyrocketing antisemitic violence and hate speech, the Special Rapporteur spreads disinformation that undermines one of our most effective tools to combat antisemitism. Already, one of the NGOs has adopted her false claim without due diligence in its communications on key issues on the agenda of the June session of the Human Rights Council.

IHRA itself calls not to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism

The IHRA definition contains no such conflating or confusing statements. On the contrary, it includes clear wording that promotes the claimed objective of those campaigning against it, not to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Those genuinely seeking to advance this objective should support the IHRA definition, as it clearly differentiates criticism of Israel from antisemitism. However, more likely, the BDS organizations simply seek to silence Jewish voices, and the Special Rapporteur has been, at best, fooled to support their campaign.

"Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance,

A year ago, I cautioned against a joint letter by Human Rights Watch and BDS organizations for the UN Secretary-General not to endorse the IHRA definition. After I reached out to them for clarification, I could understand from them that the concern was not with the IHRA definition per se, but its potential misuse. I thought this was misguided, as any good medicine could be harmful if misused, but we now see the result of this campaign taken a step further, as the Special Rapporteur and NGOs following her are losing touch with facts.

As I said last year, well before the October 7 massacre, even the initial claim that criticism of Israel could be stifled by accusations of antisemitism proved to be disingenuous:

  1. Several leaders criticized Israel for its so-called judicial reform (such as Biden, Macron, Scholz and Sunak) and were never accused of antisemitism.

  2. The same NGOs critical of the IHRA deliberately avoided every opportunity to criticize Israel for its judicial reform and ignored human rights concerns that impact Israelis.

Perhaps the Special Rapporteur on education should consult with the former Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, who endorsed the IHRA definition.

43 Member States have endorsed the IHRA definition: Albania (22 October 2020), Argentina (4 June 2020), Australia (13 October 2021), Austria (25 April 2017), Belgium (14 December 2018), Bosnia (22 July 2022), Bulgaria (18 October 2017), Canada (27 June 2019), Colombia (2 June 2022), Croatia (20 January 2023), Cyprus (18 December 2019), Czech Republic (25 January 2019), Denmark (January 2022), Estonia (29 April 2021), Finland (17 February 2022), France (3 December 2019), Germany (20 September 2017), Greece (8 November 2019), Guatemala (27 January 2021), Hungary (18 February 2019), Israel (22 January 2017), Italy (17 January 2020), Latvia (11 April 2023), Lithuania (24 January 2018), Luxembourg (10 July 2019), Moldova (18 January 2019), Netherlands (27 November 2018), North Macedonia (6 March 2018), Panama (10 May 2023), Philippines (18 February 2022), Poland (13 October 2021), Portugal (28 July 2021), Romania (25 May 2017), Serbia (26 February 2020), Slovakia (28 November 2018), Slovenia (20 December 2018), South Korea (4 August 2021), Spain (22 July 2020), Sweden (21 January 2020), Switzerland (4 June 2021), United Kingdom (12 December 2016), United States (11 December 2019) and Uruguay (27 January 2020).

Silencing Jewish victims

Another grave concern, unconscionable really, goes to the Special Rapporteur’s portrayal of Jewish students (”students belonging to pro-Israel campus groups”) as no less than government informants, surveilling professors and reporting what “they deem” to be anti-Semitic speech or materials to university authorities [para 63]. This effectively silences Jewish victims, both local and foreign students, from seeking remedy and protection from hate speech and other forms of discrimination. Examples reported include explicit calls for the massacre to be repeated, marking Jewish students as targets for killing, waving the flags of the terrorist organizations that committed the massacre and other terrorist organizations, denying Jewish students’ access to parts of their campus and publicly singling out Jewish students to demand that they express their political position as a condition for their eligibility for being examined or graded.

To further silence Jewish students from seeking protection against violence and discrimination, including hate speech, the Special Rapporteur goes as far as comparing them to informants in Xinjiang, noting them as two examples of so-called government informants. A student at Columbia University, complaining of being threatened with murder, is compared to an informant in Xinjiang reporting an Uyghur individual for practicing Islam, which could lead to them being sent away to a re-education camp and facing torture.

Based on the Special Rapporteur’s end of mission statement from the US, there is reason for concern that she has been basing her reporting on one-sided comments from “interlocutors” on campuses, without talking to any Jewish students, victims of the antisemitism. Obviously a more inclusive approach is merited.

Denying Jewish donors’ autonomy and freedom of expression

Additionally, the Special Rapporteur criticizes donors for using their influence on universities that failed to condemn Hamas’ 7 October attack on Israel [para 56]. It is difficult to fathom the expectation that an individual may be expected to stay silent, avoid exercising their freedom of speech and perhaps continue forking large donations, to support such behavior, which could amount to condoning the worst forms of violence against their own people.

From a personal perspective as an alum of NYU, albeit a very small donor, I would be outraged if someone told me that I was wrong for avoiding donating to my university after October 7, when I was unconvinced that it was doing enough to combat antisemitism and protect students like me.

In addition, based on an understanding that investors should exercise human rights due diligence, as detailed in the latest report of the Working Group on TNCs and other businesses (A/HRC/56/55, para 53), it is surprising if, in contrast, donors are demanded to avoid any due diligence.


The arguments of the Special Rapporteur not only misrepresent the IHRA definition of antisemitism, but also threaten Jewish students and undermine the fight against antisemitism. It is crucial to remain vigilant against disinformation and ensure that harmful agendas are not inadvertently supported. It appears that the Special Rapporteur may have neglected to consult with Jewish victims of hate crimes and hate speech, particularly Jewish students and professors. It could be beneficial to encourage a more inclusive approach towards a corrigendum to the report and any future work by the mandate, bearing in mind the principle of "do no harm."


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