CST Blog

Labour’s antisemitism code exposes a sickness in Jeremy Corbyn’s party

18 July 2018

This article, by CST's Head of Policy Dr Dave Rich, originally appeared in the Guardian:

This week the Labour party achieved something remarkable, even unique, in the history of British anti-racism. They managed to get 68 rabbis from every religious stream in the country – Orthodox, Liberal, Reform and Masorti – to form a coalition to denounce antisemitism. These are religious leaders who normally agree on very little, some of whom would not even acknowledge each other as rabbis. But on this issue, they came together as one. The problem for Labour is that they did it to condemn the party’s handling of its own antisemitism problem under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

These rabbis wrote to the Guardian to urge the party to adopt the unamended, full definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which is used by the UK and Scottish governments, the Welsh Assembly, the Crown Prosecution Service, the College of Policing, the National Union of Students and more than 120 local authorities, most recently Bradford council, which adopted it yesterday.

Many of the rabbis who signed that letter to the Guardian are critics of the current Israeli government. The IHRA definition is also backed by Yachad, the UK Jewish organisation that campaigns against the occupation and the building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. The IHRA definition does not prevent them from doing this, because as the definition clearly says, “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. However, the IHRA definition also recognises that nowadays antisemitism often appears in discourse relating to Israel, either by targeting Israel itself as a proxy for Jews or by repeating old antisemitic slanders with “Israel” or “Zionist” swapped in for the word “Jew”.

This is where Labour’s alternative code of conduct on antisemitism, adopted by the party’s national executive committee yesterday to the fury of many in the Jewish community, falls down. The full IHRA definition includes 11 illustrative examples of how antisemitism might manifest (although it urges the need to consider the context before judging any specific cases). The Labour code accepts that seven of these “are likely to be regarded as antisemitic”, but has dropped, rewritten or fudged the other four.

For example, in the Labour code it is no longer likely to be antisemitic “to accuse Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations”. The code simply says this is “wrong”, as if imprecise or uncivil language is the problem, rather than the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes. Yet this charge, that Jews cannot be trusted or must always be suspected of having a hidden agenda, is central to the old-fashioned, rightwing antisemitism that the Labour party claims to oppose.

Similarly, the IHRA definition says it is antisemitic to compare Israel to Nazi Germany, but Labour’s code says this is only the case if there is “evidence of antisemitic intent”: a caveat it attaches to all “contentious views” relating to Israel. Nor does Labour’s code agree with IHRA that it is antisemitic to argue that the very idea of a state for the Jewish people is a “racist endeavour”.

Thus in today’s Labour party, it is possible to argue that Israel is a Nazi-like state that should be wiped from the map, and that any Jews who say otherwise are probably paid by Israel to do so, and not be hauled up for antisemitism. You may be told that your language is insensitive or impolite and asked to go on an education course, but your anti-racist reputation will remain intact.

All along, the Labour leadership has failed to explain why it feels it can’t use the IHRA definition. In taking this position they have gone back on the previous decision of Labour’s own equalities committee in 2016 to adopt the full IHRA definition with all its examples, and ignored the wishes of Labour MPs, who endorsed the IHRA definition at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party on Monday, and the experience of the Labour-run local authorities around the country that use it.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Labour leadership does not want to use the IHRA definition precisely because it addresses antisemitic attitudes that, for years, have circulated and become normalised in the parts of the left where Corbyn and his allies have spent their political lives. They would rather lead a party where it is not antisemitic to compare Israel to Nazi Germany, than lead a party where Margaret Hodge MP, whose grandmother and uncle were murdered in the Holocaust, feels she is welcome.

It has become a cliche to call antisemitism the canary in the coalmine, an indicator of deeper problems and divisions in society. It is not a particularly welcome metaphor: it places Jews in the role of the canary, whose sole purpose is to die so that other, more valuable, lives might be saved. But it does speak to a deeper truth, which is that the antisemitism that has become embedded in the Labour party is not only a problem for Jewish people, and it should not only be Jews who stand against it. This is a problem for everyone.

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