Monitoring shrinking space for civil society defending Palestinian rights in Europe

The ELSC documents and analyses the restrictive measures that result in “shrinking space” for civil society defending Palestinian rights across Europe and produces unique reports exposing incidents, policies, legislation and case law related to repression of the Palestine solidarity movement in Europe.

2023 ELSC Report: Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom in UK Higher Education: The Adverse Impact of the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

A controversial definition of antisemitism that conflates criticisms of Israel with antisemitism has been used on campuses, leading to restrictions on the freedom of speech of staff and students, the new report reveals. This is the first study to expose the harmful implications of the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism following its adoption in UK universities. It was conducted by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), the largest academic association in Europe focused on the study of the Middle East and North Africa, and the European Legal Support Center (ELSC). The report demonstrates that the definition is not fit for purpose and is infringing on academic freedom and freedom of speech, while also harming the mental health, reputation and career prospects of students and staff.


The report is based on an analysis of 40 cases, recorded between 2017 and 2022, in which university staff and students were accused of antisemitism based on the IHRA definition. In all instances, except in two ongoing cases, the accusations of antisemitism have been rejected. The final two have yet to be substantiated.

The findings demonstrate that the IHRA definition is undermining academic freedom and freedom of expression in relation to discussions of Israel and Palestine and risks being used in a way that discriminates against Palestinians and others on campuses who wish to teach, research, study, discuss, or speak out against the oppression of Palestinians.

The accusations have, in some cases, led to the cancellation of events that discuss the situation in Palestine and/or take a critical stance on Zionism, or the imposition of unreasonable conditions on the format of events. A common feature across several cases is the occurrence of significant and sustained levels of monitoring and surveillance by complainants including recording student speeches and staff lectures; monitoring student or staff social media posts; and reviewing academic publications, course syllabi and reading lists.

Staff and students who were subject to investigations and, in some cases, disciplinary hearings registered varying levels of stress and anxiety caused by these processes, despite being exonerated.

The reflections of one academic who went on leave due to stress are illustrative:

When you are in the process, you don’t understand how stressed you are. My nerves made me hyper vigilant for two years. The impact of the cases, continual media coverage, and constant communication to deal with the case resulted in chronic stress.

Another targeted academic expressed concerns about their reputation and career:

I feel like I’m on this emotional roller-coaster. I feel like I won’t get a job anywhere else. If I apply for another job, they might not hire me. Not that they would think that I’m antisemitic but because they would want to avoid controversy. That’s the reality for me now. It’s different for the people whose investigations didn’t go public. Reputation is everything for academics.

One student explained how the accusations interfered with their studies and threatened their future education:

It was really difficult to hear that you might be kicked out of university. It was very hard for me to focus on my studies. I had to do re-sits in the summer, so I didn’t graduate until recently. I nearly didn’t get into Oxford. I missed the deadline by two months. If it wasn’t for Oxford being really flexible, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.

These cases are creating a chilling effect among staff and students, deterring individuals from speaking about or organising events that discuss Palestine out of fear that they will be subject to complaints, or else will face considerable bureaucratic hurdles and even costly legal action. Academics employed on temporary contracts and students are particularly susceptible to self-censorship out of fear that any sort of accusations, even if not upheld, could jeopardise their future ability to obtain permanent employment or impact their mental health.

The authors of the report recommend that UK higher education institutions should rescind the adoption of the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism.

Neve Gordon, the Chair of BRISMES’s Committee on Academic Freedom and a professor of human rights law in the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London said:

What has been framed as a tool to classify and assess a particular form of discriminatory violations of protected characteristics, has instead been used as a tool to undermine and punish protected speech and to punish those in academia who voice criticism of the Israeli state’s policies.

Giovanni Fassina, Director of the ELSC added:

Not only does the documented pattern call into question the compliance of UK universities with their legal obligation to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression, but it is leading universities away from their core mission of nurturing critical thought, facilitating unhindered research, and encouraging wide-ranging debate.


2023 ELSC Report: Suppressing Palestinian Rights Advocacy through the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism – Violating the Rights to Freedom of Expression and Assembly in the European Union and the UK

The report is the first case-based account of human rights violations resulting from the institutionalisation and application of the controversial IHRA definition by the European Union and the UK. The growing concerns about the negative human rights impact of the IHRA definition, have so far been ignored by the EU.

The ELSC report is based on 53 recorded incidents between 2017 and 2022 in Germany, Austria and the UK, in which individuals, groups and organisations were accused of antisemitism based on the IHRA definition. All of the accused were targeted for advocating for Palestinian rights, denouncing Israel’s practices and policies and/or criticising Zionism as a political ideology. When legally challenged, most of these allegations of antisemitism were dismissed as unsubstantiated.

Analysis of the cases reveals a highly problematic pattern in which the IHRA definition is being implemented. Although it is advertised and promoted as “non-legally binding”, the definition is increasingly used by public and private bodies as if it was law. As a result, the IHRA definition chills free speech and curtails freedom of assembly, resulting in self-censorship of individuals afraid to face allegations of antisemitism.

As confirmed by the ELSC report, allegations of antisemitism invoking the IHRA definition are overwhelmingly aimed at Palestinians, Jewish activists and organisations advocating for Palestinian rights. This suggests the definition is being implemented in a discriminatory manner. Individuals who are targeted suffer a range of unjust and harmful consequences, including loss of employment and reputational damage.

Dr Younes, Independent Researcher and (Policy) Writer in Germany, said:

With the uncritical adoption at the political and academic level across Europe, it has become impossible to voice any critical opinion about Israeli policies in public or in academia without the risk of losing your job, contract, funding or future employment opportunities.

A student activist in a UK university reflected:

I found that the IHRA definition was deployed as a distraction tactic, where routinely I felt burnt out defending the right to freedom of expression and solidarity with Palestine […] I had crippling anxiety of who I could even trust, as it felt like the IHRA definition was a mode of surveillance in my day-to-day life.

The ELSC report also criticises the European Commission for consistently ignoring and dismissing the growing human rights concerns about the IHRA definition, and for failing to take measures to prevent any adverse impact of it on fundamental rights.

Giovanni Fassina, director at the ELSC, commented:

It is time for the European Commission to acknowledge and address that the policy it has been promoting and implementing on the basis of the IHRA definition, both at EU and member state level, is highly detrimental to fundamental rights and that it is fostering anti Palestinian racism.

The ELSC urges the European Commission, as well as the governments, parliaments and public institutions in the EU Member States and the UK, to cease and revoke the endorsement, adoption, promotion and implementation of the IHRA definition. While addressing and enforcing policies to combat antisemitism, the legal obligation of public actors to respect and protect freedom of expression and freedom of assembly must be upheld.


2021 ELSC Report: The Attempt to Chill Palestinian Rights Advocacy in the Netherlands

The Attempt to Chill Palestinian Rights Advocacy in the Netherlands” is the first monitoring report on the attempted repression of civic space for Palestinian rights. It documents 76 repression incidents between 2015 – 2020, aiming to expose civic space repression, and legally challenge it through advocacy.

Repression attempts include defunding, denial of space, restriction on academic freedom, threats with violence or cyberattacks, threats with lawsuits, and smear campaigns that baselessly conflate legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and solidarity initiatives with antisemitism or support to terrorism. Despite broad protections for civic space in the Netherlands, and even though the attacks often don’t succeed, the report exposes a genuine chilling effect on Palestinian rights advocacy.

The primary perpetrators include Israel-advocacy groups, and the enabling actors include media outlets and political parties that play a role in amplifying the disinformation and/or attacks. To address the chilling effect, we urge the Dutch government, universities or city councils to comply more proactively with their positive obligation to protect civic space. In particular, members of parliament and civil society have a duty to leverage the government to comply with this obligation whilst media, donors and financial services providers also bear their own responsibilities to protect civic space to ensure open and democratic debate.

Read the report here

Read more about our monitor work

Growing mobilisation of civil society against Israel’s flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and Palestinian human rights has prompted an unprecedented campaign of stigmatization and repression, not only by the Israeli government but also by foreign governments, parliaments and other civil society actors.

Aimed at silencing criticism of the State of Israel and its policies and practices, this campaign of repression targets individuals, groups and organisations advocating for Palestinian human rights, as well as agencies, NGOs and charities providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

The means employed are smears, criminalisation and arbitrary restrictions of lawful advocacy, activism and humanitarian work. Political, legal, and media pressure is deployed to portray advocates for Palestinian rights as threats to Israel’s security and sovereignty. Following the USA and Canada, Europe has become the new battlefield for campaigns aimed at delegitimising discourse about Palestine by means of unfounded allegations (most of the times, allegations of antisemitism or terrorism).

In recent years, several European countries have adopted a new definition of antisemitism, the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. This includes a problematic list of illustrative examples conflating the criticism of Israel’s policy with antisemitism.

This inaccurate and illegitimate amalgam has, however, been progressively implemented through predominantly soft law instruments. Additional parliamentary motions or other policy tools suppressing the call to boycott Israel have been implemented in some countries, both at national and regional level, such as in Germany, Austria and France.

Although these policies are non-legally binding, they have a significant chilling effect on civil society’s free space to challenge the Israeli apartheid regime, leading to false accusations and reprisal. Solidarity groups, organisations, intellectuals, academics, students and artists have had applications for public spaces denied, funding cut off, invitations to events or prizes withdrawn, speeches cancelled, etc. This stigmatisation has also led to self-censorship to avoid backlash.

Monitoring and analysis by the ELSC and partners have outlined several tactics employed to suppress voices advocating for Palestine:

  • False accusation of antisemitism and/or terrorism;
  • Adoption of a restrictive policy or piece of legislation, concerning for example the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism or prohibition on BDS activities;
  • Threat of legal action or legal action;
  • Refusal / withdrawal / threat thereof of the use of a public/private facility for a Palestine related activity or event;
  • Closure or threat of closure of bank account or obstruction of access to fundraising and/or money transfer tools;
  • Closure, threat of closure, or removal of content from a social media platform;
  • Cutting off funding from public or private donors, or attempts made to influence donors to do so;
  • Physical interference or attack by authorities or private persons;
  • Cyber attack.

By making an exception from the fundamental rights, European states and societies contribute to the phenomenon of “shrinking space for civil society” that is arising worldwide, in both democratic and non-democratic states. Political struggles and social justice movements have less and less space to organise, to operate, to have a legitimate voice, to protest and to dissent.

Country Reports

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Advocates for Palestinian rights are facing a variety of attacks aimed at silencing their voices or hindering their work: from denial of public space, public funding or online platforms, closure of financial accounts, legal threats or lawsuits, to enforcement the adoption of anti BDS motions that falsely declare the Palestine solidarity movement as antisemitic.

Contact us if you or your group, association, NGO, foundation, have been intimidated, slandered, censored or banned from speaking out or carrying out solidarity actions, or if you are just seeking legal advice about your rights.

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