CST Blog

Clare Short, the IHRA definition and a case study in being wrong

30 May 2019

Clare Short’s appearance on Tuesday’s BBC Newsnight was a case study in being wrong, with her mistakes typifying the evasions and excuses for antisemitism that are repeated like a mantra by the anti-Israel left. Consider the following quotes:

“What’s happened is that there has been a widening of the definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel”

“They’ve broadened the definition to say criticism of Israel, which is in breach of international law, is part of antisemitism”

“Criticism of Israel’s breaches on international law is not antisemitism”

“The definition is being stretched to include criticism of Israel”

“Do you think the definition of antisemitism should include criticism of Israel?”

“Antisemitism is evil, extending this definition to prevent people having any sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians is a misuse of that allegation”

Six times in under four minutes the former Labour MP and ex-Cabinet member suggests that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which she is likely referring to, defines criticism of Israel as antisemitic. Short even alleges that the definition has been extended to “prevent people having any sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians”. This is wrong, misleading and an ultimately dangerous suggestion to have made on national television.

So let us look at the facts. The IHRA definition states unambiguously that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. The seven examples that it gives of Israel-related behaviour that may be antisemitic “taking into account the overall context” go a long way beyond “criticism” or “sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians”.

Put simply, all the allegations that Short made in relation to the definition of antisemitism were incorrect.

Short is certainly not alone in her claims. What she said was no different to the spin from the Labour Party during last summer’s disgraceful obfuscations around the party’s eventual highly grudging adoption of IHRA.

Unfortunately, the distrust sown by Labour and repeated by Short (and so many others) against the IHRA definition does not end there. If you believe, or more accurately are wrongly led to believe, that the IHRA definition is deceptive, mendacious and aimed at stifling free speech, it naturally and logically follows that the many Jewish communities and communal organisations that have supported and pushed for this definition must be guilty of the same crimes, namely being deceptive, mendacious and interested in shutting down free speech (all this allegedly in service of Israel and/or “Zionism”). This is the argument, whether she knew it or not, that Short was propagating on BBC Newsnight.

Short’s claims also suggest that antisemitism allegations in the Labour Party almost exclusively relate to matters on Israel-Palestine. She ignores the countless cases that employ what the Newsnight host Emma Barnett termed, “classic antisemitism”. Even when challenged on this issue Short doubled down, saying “maybe so, but what I have said about the whole dilemma is true, they’ve broadened the definition to say that criticism of Israel, which is in breach of international law, is part of antisemitism”. At this point there are two questions which Short must answer. Firstly, who are the supposed “they” she refers to? The Jewish community? The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance? Referring to a supposed “they” does not help challenge the idea that behind this controversy lies a shadowy, alien other.

The second question that Short must answer is why when asked a question about incidents of antisemitism in the Labour Party relating to, as the interviewer highlights, “Holocaust denial” and “discussion of Jews being people who are in control of finances” does she again almost immediately start talking about “criticism of Israel”? It seems that Short is guilty of the mirror image she says “they” are doing. Namely, for her this is all about the Israel-Palestine conflict, not about antisemitism. British Jews do not weaponise antisemitism to stifle criticism of Israel. Instead, the opposite happens, with Israel-haters using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to stifle discussion of their own antisemitism and/or antisemitism that exists on the left.

Short’s own record on antisemitism is less than admirable. Consider for example her decision in 2006 to host in Parliament the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir whose antisemitism was well-documented at the time of her inviting them. Writing in 2006 the Guardian highlighted that the group “has previously put out literature calling for Jews to be killed”. The meeting went ahead.

Or consider Short’s gushing praise for Alan Hart’s 2008 book – “Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews”:

"I hope that all who are concerned about the troubles of the Middle East will read this book. It is immensely readable and a magnificent piece of work which reflects Alan Hart s close relationship with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. We are in terrible trouble in the Middle East. The book explains how we got here and how we could move forward. The tragedy is hurting Palestinians, Israelis and the rest of the world. All who wish to engage in finding a way forward will be helped by reading this book."

In CST’s 2008 discourse report we discussed Hart’s books and how “Hart’s apparently pro-Jewish anti-Zionism is paradoxically underpinned by notions that appear to be rooted in antisemitic theory”.  

To conclude, Clare Short’s Newsnight performance further advanced the damage caused by the Labour Party’s IHRA definition nonsense last summer. It highlighted, yet again, the continuing false representations that lie at the heart of this debate. Short’s claims need to be challenged and debunked, as do those who continue to underplay the scale of the problem in the Labour Party.

The culture of antisemitism denial fuels the mistrust and bias that are central to Labour’s behaviour and to the decision of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to investigate it for antisemitism. On the bright side, if Labour is going to continue to be defended by such people, using such false arguments, then the EHRC’s job ought to be all the easier.

 [Image: BBC Newsnight]

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