With the government seriously on the ropes this week and Theresa May’s future only secured by a thread, it could only be pure coincidence to find ‘Labour’s anti-Semitism’ story once again rearing its persistent head. On Monday, the Guardian reported that Labour faced a legal threat for not adopting in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Definition of Anti-Semitism (DA-S). The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) according to the Guardian was set to hand the Party “new legal advice which advises that the party’s decision to exclude some examples from an international anti-Semitism definition breaches the 2010 [Equalities] Act.” (Guardian, 16/7/18). The threat of legal action, if carried out would of course hand Labour’s opponents a several months’ long festival of lawyerly debate feeding the impression that Labour is endemically intent on preserving the rights of anti-Semites to remain in the Party.
It must be seen as somewhat curious then that the IHRA actually makes a distinction between the actual definition (and some possible examples), which as adopted at a conference in 2016 states:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The IHRA on its website says that this is ‘non-legally binding’ – but I for one can’t see why it shouldn’t be made binding. Anyway, if it is non-legally binding, it is difficult to see how the Labour Party could be breaching the 2010 Equalities Act, since the Party has adopted this very definition.
The definition on the IHRA website (viewed on 19/7/18) is highlighted in bold in a box. That is the definition. It is followed by examples which the website says “may serve as illustrations.” The first of these says “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” (emphasis added in both quotations). Other examples are mainly uncontentious – and are useful examples of what may constitute anti-Semitism. But now consider this headline which co-incidentally appeared in the Guardian on the 16th July “Jewish-only villages closer as Netanyahu defies bill’s critics.” This refers to the Israeli government’s ‘nation state’ law, which according to the BBC news website (viewed 19th July) “says Jews have a unique right to national self-determination there and puts Hebrew above Arabic as the official language.” One Arab Israeli MP apparently described the new law as ‘apartheid.’ Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted saying “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens." This all begs the question what is the difference between Israel as a Jewish ‘collectivity’ and a ‘nation state of the Jewish people.’
No wonder the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) found it couldn’t include all the examples in its adoption of the IHRA definition. Sensibly, the Party recognises that context is very important – the question arises, is one allowed to criticise this new 'nation state' law (and perhaps more importantly, the politics that made it possible)?
The mainstream media reporting of Labour’s anti-Semitism controversy is plainly skewed, fed as it is by its own partiality and the oft context-free press releases of those who take issue with the party. For example, the Evening Standard on the 17th July (p17) carried a column by the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the chair of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) saying “Most recently there has been the bizarre and brazen attempt to redefine anti-Semitism itself. The [IHRA] definition . . . contains 11 examples to help explain what is and what is not anti-Semitic. However without any consultation with us, Labour decided to put forward its own version.” Never mind that the examples on the IHRA website do NOT appear in the box with the definition, and never mind that they come with the caveats ‘may’ and ‘might’ – when it comes to upping the ante, context counts for nothing. ‘Bizarre’? ‘Brazen’? Nonsense!
There is another aspect to this story that bothers me, and that is the implication that only those people who feel victimised by a particular state of affairs are qualified to speak on it – that they alone must have the final say on it. Such a view has significant ramifications for our concept of democracy, social cohesion and the possibility of integration in a peaceful and respectful civitas. Margaret Hodge went too far when she allegedly swore at Jeremy Corbyn and accused him of being anti-Semitic and a racist. (emphasis added) That was not something she repeated quite so bluntly today in a piece in the Guardian (there it was simply that the ‘arrogance of the leadership takes one’s breath away’) based on the false premise that Labour’s NEC had adopted ‘its own definition.’ No, Margaret it has adopted the IHRA's definition, but not all the examples which come after it which are preceded with the word ‘may.’ I think the Party has done the right thing, but hey, I’m only a member. Perhaps there ought to be 20, or 30 examples. Why stop at 11?
Of course, as a Labour Party member I feel entitled to ask of the organisations that are so vehemently upset by Labour’s stance on the IHRA definition what they reckon is going on within the other parties. The Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA-S) website seems a useful place to check this out. For the record, this is what they have say about the Labour Party (website viewed 19th July) “The supposedly anti-racist Labour Party has failed to firmly and consistently address antisemitism, even proving incapable of expelling a Holocaust revisionist, a senior MP who said that “Jewish money” controls the Conservative Party, and another prominent official who claimed that Jews were “among the chief financiers of the slave trade”. It has compounded its antisemitism problem by shrouding all disciplinary matters in secrecy under guidelines introduced by Baroness Chakrabarti, thus concealing its failure to enforce discipline. Furthermore, senior figures commonly claim that the Jewish community’s collective complaints of antisemitism are essentially fabricated for concealed political purposes. The Labour Party has adopted the International Definition of Antisemitism.”
How one wonders did it come about that the phrase ‘supposedly anti-racist Labour Party’ prefaced the rest of this comment? Compare and contrast this with their entry for the Conservatives “The Conservative Party has been responsible for the United Kingdom’s adoption of the International Definition of Antisemitism, for which it is to be applauded. It is not immune from criticism, however. It has failed to discipline a sitting MP who referred to the supposed “power of the Jewish lobby in America”, amongst others alleged to have participated in antisemitic discourse.”
So, the Conservative Party itself has not been found by the CAA-S to have adopted the IHRA definition, and escapes the tag ‘supposedly anti-racist’ but in a mild rebuke ‘it is not immune from criticism.’ So where one wonders have been the e.g. JLC’s protests about the Conservative Party not adopting the IHRA definition? Perhaps I missed them, in which case mea culpa. But then, so did everybody else.
The timing of this latest appearance of ‘Labour’s anti-Semitic problem’ is of concern. It cannot but raise questions about motivation. There are people who detest every day that Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party – and the danger of a strongly pro-Palestinian British party leader getting into No.10 is abhorrent to them. The thought is abhorrent to the Israeli government too. They have not stinted in their efforts to influence the direction of the party (say what you like about Al Jazzera, but their undercover filming of the activities of Israeli embassy staff is revealing on this point –see their films and make your own mind up).
I have every right to ask what’s going on (without being accused of anti-Semitism), and to posit my own theories on what motivates some people to keep this controversy bumbling along. None of which by the way diminishes my support for the existence of the State of Israel.