Antisemitism and Labour's Labours: Behind the Rhetoric

It is, of course, all about Israel.

The IHRA antisemitism definition

The International Holocaust Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism (2016) reads:

"Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards 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."

This is expressed as a non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism. (As a side issue, whether the definition is capable of being legally binding is another matter; if it is not, then to state this arguably gives the chance for examples following to be in part at least criticised by those uncomfortable with Israel.)

Relevant is the IHRA wording that forms part of the introduction to the examples of antisemitism:

"Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish entity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic". [my italics]

Eleven examples follow the core definition. These are expressed to be in the context of the core definition and are further expressed as not being exclusive. 

The NEC antisemitism definition 

The widely circulated NEC Code of Conduct: Antisemitism, produced by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, is introduced via Clause 2.1.8. of the Party's 2018 Rule Book. At its heart, Clause 2.1.8 prohibits conduct by a member of the Party that in the opinion of the NEC is grossly prejudicial to the Party. In the context of what is being considered here, prohibited conduct includes any incident that in the NEC's view might reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on "race" or on "religion or belief".

The IHRA antisemitism examples 

The NEC document adopts the IHRA core definition of antisemitism. The contentious issues arise when we come to the IHRA's eleven examples of antisemitism. 

Below we will set out each of the IHRA examples, and will note those that are adopted by the NEC verbatim and then those where the NEC's position deviates. 

1. Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.

Adopted.

2. Making mendacious, dehumanising, or stereotypical allegations about Jews such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.

Adopted

3. Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews. 

Adopted.

4. Denying the fact, scope, mechanics (eg gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).

Adopted. The NEC text refers to Nazi Germany rather than National Socialist Germany. 

5. Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state of inventing or imagining the Holocaust.

Adopted.

6. Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

Not adopted. 

7. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination eg by claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour.

Not adopted. 

8. Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Not adopted.

9. Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (eg claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterise Israel or Israelis.

Adopted, but the NEC definition adds words:

"Classic antisemitism also includes the use of derogatory terms for Jewish people (such as "kike" or "yid"); stereotypical and negative physical depictions/descriptions or character descriptions or character traits, such as references to wealth or avarice and - in the political arena -  equating Jews with capitalists or the ruling class".

10. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

Not adopted. 

11. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel

Adopted.

NEC definition and the following supplemental comments

We should also summarise the supplemental comments that follow the NEC examples. This will be dealt below, using the NEC numbering. 10 is self-standing, but 11 to 16 are linked.

10. The NEC adds an antisemitism example of making unjustified reference to the protected character of being Jewish. The sense of this would be referring, eg in a media report, to someone being Jewish when a non-Jewish person in a similar situation would not have their race/religion identified. Paragraph 10 explains the point with the example of a crime suspect being labelled as a "black" suspect when a white suspect would not be so labelled.

11. The NEC raises what it describes as two difficult issues in the context of whether language or behaviour is antisemitic. The first issue is Israel's description of itself as a "Jewish state", and the second is the use of the term "Zion" or "Zionist". 

12. The NEC refers to Article 1(2) of the 1948 UN Charter, that article referring to "respect fo the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples". The NEC continues that Jews have the same right to self-determination as others. But the NEC adds that this does not preclude "considered debate and discourse about the nature and content of the right of peoples to self-determination."

13. The NEC now moves to the heart of its concerns. It states effectively that:

- Discussion of the circumstances of the founding of Israel (for example, in the context of the impact on Palestinians), is legitimate

- Ditto discussion of (including critical comment on) the differential impact of Israeli law and policies on different people within Israel or neighbouring territories

- It is not racist to assess Israel's conduct (or the conduct of any other state) against the requirements of international law or the standards of behaviour expected of democratic states.

14. Following on, the NEC cautions care in dealing with these topics, underlining that Israel's description of itself as a Jewish state does not permit criticism of Jews or Jewish institutions generally for alleged misconduct on the part of the state.

Further, the paragraph warns against double standards of condemning Jews or Jewish organisations more vociferously than for other groups - the paragraph joins this point with the issue of holding Muslims or Muslim organisations to a higher standard than others in terms of condemning illegal or violent acts. 

Finally, the paragraph states that it is wrong to accuse Jews of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations - NB this is odd, as the point covers the same ground as Example 6 above, and Example 6 was not adopted by the NEC.

15. This paragraph explores Zionism, and starts by pointing out the inevitability of the terms Zionism and Zionist featuring in political discourse about these subjects. It adds that the meaning of the terms will be debated in the discourse.

Within this, the NEC contends that it is not antisemitic to use the terms above as part of a considered discussion about Israel. However, the NEC adds that it is not permissible to use "Zionist" as a code word for "Jew". It refers to the counsel in the Chakrabarti Report that Labour Party members shoud only use the term Zionist "advisedly, carefully, and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse."

16. Finally, the NEC refers to international political discourse often using metaphors drawn from examples of historic misconduct. It goes on to state that it is not antisemitic to criticise the conduct or policies of Israel by reference to those examples unless there is evidence of antisemitic intent. However, it then points out (presumably by way of approval) Chakrabarti's recommendation that Labour members should resist the use of Hitler, Nazi, and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons, in debates about Israel/Palestine.

Analysis

What to make of this? We will now go back to the Examples where the NEC have deviated from the IHRA (this being the subject-matter that has caused inflammation) and try to work out what can be gleaned from these deviations, generally and in relation to the remainder of the NEC document. 

To do this most effectively, it is best to take first Example 9 (using antisemitic symbols and images), as the remainder deviation Examples can easily be grouped together.

For Example 9, the NEC adds an example - derogatory terms. This cannot be criticised, although equally was it essential, given that the core remains the definition of antisemitism and it would have been theoretically possible to add any number of detailed examples? This point can be debated, but the sceptic might say that the addition gives a hook for Labour to argue that overall it is strengthening from the IHRA definition, and thus there is something to obscure the serious issue of Israel.

Israel

To which we now come, and it will be useful to repeat the IHRA Examples that have not been adopted by the NEC:

6. Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

7. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination eg by claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour.

8. Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

10. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israel to that of the Nazis.

Israel, Israel, Israel, Israel. So the arena of contention is pretty clear, though one cannot go further without drawing in the discussion in NEC paragraphs 10 to 16 - see comments above. 

Examples 6 and 10 can be dealt with in shorter order than 7 and 8. 

6: We have already covered this. It is difficult to see the sense of the exclusion. NEC Para 14 includes the same content as IHRA Example 6. Ignoring any suggestion of incompetent drafting, can there be any reason for the approach? The only factor could be another part of NEC Para 14, which defends Muslims against criticism where they are held to a higher standard of behaviour than non-Muslims. Might it be that through sensitivity to Muslims you should not defend Jews in a statement without defending Muslims in the same body of wording? Another point for debate.

10. The exclusion of it is straight up odd. There could be a cheap rhetorical argument that the NEC supports comparing contemporary Israel with the Nazis. But that ignores NEC Para 15, which as noted above refers to the Chakrabarti report recommending that Labour members should resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors etc. The exclusion makes no sense.

7 and 8 take us to the heart of Labour's labours.

8 is potentialy wide-ranging, but the exclusion seems directed to Israel's behaviour in protecting and consolidating its position as a sovereign state. Two aspects of this stand out:

- Protection: Israel defending its borders

- Consolidation: Israel expanding its settlements, particularly on the West Bank.

The above is easily linked to two elements of NEC Para 13 referred to above:

- It is legitimate to discuss (and critically comment on) the impact of Israeli law and policies on different people within Israel or neighbouring territories

- It is not racist to assess Israel's conduct against the requirements of international law or expected behaviour standards of democratic states.

This is a very difficult area. There will be members of the Jewish community who, whilst fervently defending Israel's right to exist, will express discomfort at its expansionist settlement activities. Equally, rational discussion sparks contrary views on what is appropriate border defence (rubber bullets/live ammunition) against Arab protesters hurling stones/Molotov cocktails. 

In an effort to find some objectivity, we might consider "Antisemitism in contemporary Great Britain", a study of attitudes towards Jews and Israel, led by L. Daniel Staetsky and published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. 

The study is comprehensive (5,466 observations) and complex, but in the section "Antisemitic and anti-Israel attitudes: are they linked?", the study extrapolates (P33) that about 30% of the UK population hold at least one antisemitic attitude, but that about 56% hold at least one anti-Israel attitude, clearly an overlap but nowhere near a duplication. 

The most troubling NEC exclusion from the IHRA antisemitism Examples concerns Example 7: "Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination eg by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavour." To challenge Israel's right to exist negates the whole concept of a Jewish homeland.

Supporters of the NEC antisemitism definition could point to NEC Para 12. This asserts that Jews have the same right to self-determination as other peoples. But this is immediately qualified by the statement quoted above that this does not preclude "considered debate and discourse about the nature and content of the right of peoples to self-determination".

The words "nature" and "content". What do they mean? Do they mean that how Israel came into existence as a state in 1948 was wrong (part of NEC Para 13 suggests this)? Do they mean that the Jewish people have the right to exist as a state, but not necessarily in Israel? If not Israel, then where? Or do they imply that the concept of Israel as a state is just plain wrong, because of the negative impact of the establishment of the state upon the claims in the region of Arabs (and maybe others as well)?

Turning the argument around, are Jews wrong in perceiving any criticism of Israel as antisemitic? Maybe there is some oversensitivity in portions of the Jewish community. However, we also need to appreciate the deep emotional and spiritual connection between Judaism, expressed both religiously and secularly, and Israel. It is a subject written about by many commentators, including recently Danny Finkelstein in The Times of 24th July ("Jeremy Corbyn is blind to the racism in his party"). 

If you trace back through Middle Eastern history, you can understand the sensitivity. This is not just about the passage of events since the 1917 Balfour Declaration. To pick out a passage from "The Palestine-Israeli Conflict" by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami (4th edition), at P8 there is a reference to a publication in 1862 by the influential Moses Hess, titled "Rome and Jerusalem". Cohn-Sherbok describes Hess as arguing that "...anti-Jewish sentiment is unavoidable', and Cohn-Sherbok goes on to describe Hess's contentions as follows:

"For Hess, Jews will always remain strangers among nations; nothing can be done to alter this state of affairs. The only solution to the problem of Jew hatred is for the Jewish people to come to terms with their national identity."

The connection between perceived antisemitism and the developing quest for a Jewish nation state is pretty clear, and (as the secular Zionist approach) sits alongside the equally powerful religiously based claims to Israel as a Jewish homeland.

What appears to exist, without much evidence of Jeremy Corbyn or allies being pinned down effectively on the subject, is serious hard left antipathy towards Israel (the protagonists would balk at the word "hatred" as they would argue that they are advocating, using NEC language, "considered debate and discourse"). The 'Antisemitism in contemporary Great Britain" study referred to above, puts the claim robustly at P14:

"Antisemitism on the far-left has often been informed by certain interpretations of universalistic, atheist and anti-capitalistic ideals that leave little room for any forms of particularism and often end up stigmatising Jews - and, more commonly, Israel and Zionism - as corrupting, exploitative and colonialist forces."

What this causes is frustration, evident in the UK Jewish community, and hopefully evident to anyone who has read into the subject, that the Labour leader believes he can counter the claims of Labour Party antisemitism by repeated, solemn, but otherwise vacuous assertions that antisemitism has no place in the Labour Party.

Labour's Labours on Antisemitism

Finally, and stepping away from the rights and wrongs debate, what does this say about Labour's ability to manage the antisemitism furore of recent weeks and months? 

Well, being charitable, they have got themselves in a muddle. They might argue that they had to deviate from the IHRA definition and Examples in order to give proper balance to non-Jewish interests in the Middle East. But this does not take account of the already quoted introduction to the IHRA Examples of antisemitism. It is worth repeating this now:

"Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish entity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic". [again my italics]

Arguably the italicised words would give critics of Israel legitimate scope to complain about the state's modern behaviour, although less so on the fundamental issue of Israel's right to exist. 

Thus if the NEC is agonising over whether after further consultation to revert to the full IHRA definition and Examples, it needs to ponder on these words, and decide between principle and pragmatism. 

What must politically infuriate Corbynistas is that with the Conservatives in a state over Brexit and so presenting an easy target, Labour on antisemitism has chosen to shoot itself in the foot.

The author is former managing partner of the City law firm Nabarro (now part of CMS) and is enrolled from September on the Masters in Historical Research at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London

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