CST Blog

The arrogance of Labour’s antisemitism definition

10 July 2018

This article, by CST Head of Policy Dr Dave Rich, originally appeared in the Jewish News:

Mr Livingstone, did you intend to be anti-Semitic when you repeatedly hacked away at the most sensitive and painful point in Jewish history by claiming Hitler supported Zionism?”

“Of course not! I am a lifelong anti-racist”.

“OK then, off you go.”

That is how Ken Livingstone’s disciplinary hearing might have gone under the Labour Party’s new Code of Conduct for anti-Semitism, which has been rejected by all of British Jewry’s leading organisations and by the Party’s only Jewish affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement.

This new code is being spun by Labour as more comprehensive and practical than the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism that is used in full, with all of its illustrative examples, by the UK and Scottish governments, the Welsh Assembly, over 120 local authorities and several other governments. It is nothing of the sort, and the row over these two competing definitions has become emblematic of why the Labour Party still has not solved its anti-Semitism problem.

The authors of Labour’s new code have sliced up the IHRA definition, adopted some of its examples and wrapped the rest in ambiguities and equivocations described by the Jewish Labour Movement as “a get out of jail free card” for anti-Semites.

For example, the long-standing anti-Semitic slur that Jews are “more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations” – included in the original IHRA definition – is not among the things “likely to be regarded as anti-Semitic” in Labour’s code. Instead, it has been moved to a different section where it is simply described as “wrong”. 

Nor would comparing Israel to Nazi Germany be treated as anti-Semitism “unless there is evidence of anti-Semitic intent” – an almost impossible thing to prove in a party of self-declared anti-racists.

Both these things might still lead to disciplinary measures on the basis that they are detrimental to the party, but not because they are anti-Semitic. It is typical of Labour’s failed efforts to tackle antisemitism that the question of what hurts the party, yet again, takes priority over the question of what hurts Jews.

It is easy to get lost in the details of definitions and sub-clauses and wonder what the problem is. Actually it is simple: the Labour Party, with astonishing arrogance given the events of the past three years, thinks it knows how to define anti-Semitism better than the Jewish Labour Movement, its Jewish MPs, or the Jewish community’s main leadership bodies, all of whom want the party to use the full, original IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. 

On Saturday the Guardian published a letter from a long list of mainly Labour MPs calling for “robust action against antisemitism” based on “clarity about what antisemitism is”; and particularly to avoid “conflation of antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel’s laws or the policies of its government.”

The signatories of this letter did not include any of the Jewish Labour MPs who, during a Parliamentary debate on anti-Semitism back in April, described in gruesome detail the abuse, threats and harassment they receive on a regular basis, much of which comes from people on the left. Their absence is not a fluke: they are missing because the organisers of the letter did not invite any of them to sign it. The reality of how Jews actually experience antisemitism was not, apparently, of sufficient importance compared to the groundless fear that the IHRA definition of antisemitism would restrict people’s ability to criticise Israeli policies.

The IHRA definition does no such thing, stating plainly that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” This leaves room for the full range of rational, evidence-based opposition to Israeli laws, policies and actions. It doesn’t allow for the kind of obsessive, irrational hatred that depicts Israel as a Nazi state of unparalleled cruelty that needs to be wiped off the map, or that sees “Zionist” conspiracies behind everything from 9/11 to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and for good reason: because, as the IHRA definition recognises, antisemitism sometimes includes “the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

This distinction shouldn’t be difficult for an anti-racist party to accept, but one-by-one Labour has abandoned the basic principles of anti-racism when it comes to dealing with antisemitism and Jews. Instead of allowing its Jewish MPs and its Jewish affiliate to define antisemitism and lead the fight against it, the Labour leadership insists on doing this for itself. Whereas anti-discrimination law focuses on detrimental outcomes, Labour insists on proof of “anti-Semitic intent”. Consultation with external Jewish leadership bodies ranges from perfunctory to non-existent.

As long as Labour continues with this course of action, its problem of antisemitism will keep getting worse – and Jewish disenchantment with the Party will become ever more entrenched.

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