The demand that Labour adopt a contested definition of anti-semitism is not about some choice of words or about fighting racism. It is about breaking the left and progressive movements as a political force in Britain. This legal opinion by Hugh Tomlinson QC explains much of what is wrong with the IHRA “working definition” of anti-semitism.
There is also this excellent piece in the London Review of Books last year by former Court of Appeal judge Stephen Sedley. When we see what is seriously wrong with this definition and document the Labour leadership is under pressure to adopt, the wider purpose of the attacks and slurs becomes clear.
Among other points Sedley highlights this from the IHRA definition:
“Manifestations [of anti-semitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.
“Applying double standards by requiring of [the state of Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour.”
He explains the serious problems with all that:
“The first and second of these examples assume that Israel, apart from being a Jewish state, is a country like any other and so open only to criticism resembling such criticism as can be made of other states, placing the historical, political, military and humanitarian uniqueness of Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestine beyond permissible criticism.
“The third example bristles with contentious assumptions about the racial identity of Jews, assumptions contested by many diaspora Jews but on which both Zionism and anti-Semitism fasten, and about Israel as the embodiment of a collective right of Jews to self-determination.”
It’s worth expanding on those points. Do all claims at all times by any group to nationhood and “self-determination” have to be accepted? Is it racist to deny any such claim? And should it be against the law or rules of, say, the Labour Party?
Clearly, that cannot be the case. All but hardened racists deny the “right to self-determination” of white supremacists claiming a “right” to a separate white state in South Africa.
Is it racist to deny a claimed “right” of the Loyalist minority in Ireland as a whole to a partitioned statelet in the north that means a sectarian set up that continues to this day?
The whole point is that Israel’s actualisation of a claim to self-determination is based upon the dispossession and exclusion of the Palestinians. There is a clash of rights claims, at the very least. But what this definition does is deny the validity, indeed to declare as racist, the central Palestinian claim to name the source and process of their dispossession.
Palestinian self-determination must surely mean the right to have their story told and heard – that the creation of the state of Israel and its continuation as a Zionist endeavour means the oppression of the Palestinians and their racial exclusion.
That brings us to two softening up arguments doing the rounds this weekend to smooth the path to getting the Labour leadership to capitulate on this question.
Unison union leader Dave Prentis gave legs to the first in an article yesterday claiming that the IHRA definition does not stop criticism of Israel or supporting Palestinian rights.
There is a sleight of hand here. Of course it does not stop all criticism of Israel. Even US president George Bush “criticised” the expansion of settlement building on the West Bank.
But it polices that criticism so that any fundamental opposition to Israel as a colonial-settler state based, therefore, on a necessarily racist exclusion of the Palestinians and a particular form of apartheid is not only illegitimate, but racist.
So you may criticise “excesses” but not the underlying reason for them. An entire political position shared by most Palestinians, Jewish opponents of the political doctrine of Zionism, and much of the left is banned. You may have all sorts of criticisms, so long as they all accept the central claims of the Zionist ideology at the heart of the state of Israel and that its structures cannot be questioned to the point of denying their “right to exist”. It is, of course, state structures that are being given this right – not people. You may criticise, but not oppose.
There is a self-serving contradiction in the IHRA text. You may criticise Israel as you would any other state, but defined as “a democratic nation”. That means you cannot criticise it as not being a democratic nation and say why it is necessarily undemocratic.
You cannot challenge a central propaganda claim by defenders of the state of Israel that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East”. You may not question its democratic status, mounting the argument that as no democracy can be based upon the expansionist racial exclusion of people from their homes and land, Israel is not a democracy just like any other.
Thus you may not compare it with apartheid South Africa, now nearly universally deplored: because few would say that apartheid South Africa was a “state like any other” and Israel may only be considered a state like any other. In reality, you cannot properly criticise the fundamental character of the state itself.
You may say that Israel should not put Palestinian children in prison through military courts. You may not say that the Palestinian children are right to say – as increasing numbers do – that the Oslo process is dead and their future depends on dismantling the Zionist structure of the Israeli state and its replacement with a single and truly democratic state for Muslim, Christian and Jew living in this part of the world or exercising their rights as refugees to return.
And if, like Barack Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry, you say that Israel can either be a Jewish state or a democratic state, but not both, then on this definition you could be accused of anti-semitism for “denying the right of Jews to self-determination”.
A hindrance to fighting real anti-semitism
The second softening up argument is that none of those accusations will be made if we just get on with accepting, for “tactical reasons”, this flawed and politicised definition. Or, if they are made, then people genuinely not anti-semitic can prove their innocence.
That is a shocking reversal of the burden of proof. The vague wording of the definition allows for such false accusations – and we are seeing them all the time – but the remedy is then to “prove your innocence”.
It is difficult to think of a greater inhibition on free speech or chilling effect – and that is precisely how this is being used. It is impossible to outlaw all criticism of Israel. The aim of this conflation of anti-semitism with anti-zionism is to limit such criticism to within the bounds that might be found on a good day from some progressive Democrat in the US Congress. That is someone who feels she really ought this time to call for “restraint” by Israeli forces using live sniper rounds against Palestinian civilians, and adds immediately that the Palestinians must “stop their attacks” also.
The target is the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party and also the whole left. That is not arising out of some groundswell support for the state of Israel or its policies. The opposite has been happening for years. A BBC poll earlier this year found 66 percent of people in Britain critical or “very critical” of Israel. The new head of the Jewish Agency, a pro-Israel organisation, Isaac Herzog, warned this week:
“… I’m very aware of the growing feeling that Diaspora Jews are drifting away from Israel. I will do everything in my power to act against this trend that’s increasingly dividing us.”
And for well over a decade survey after survey on both sides of the Atlantic has recorded declining support for Israel and a loosening affinity with it among Jewish communities. It is this that the right wing political offensive in Britain is designed to put a stop to by squeezing it out of the official political space. In so doing, of course, it provides a weapon to try to undermine and, they hope, oust the Labour leadership.
That hope rests not upon a swing in social attitudes but on some serious weaknesses on parts of the left that have set a course of capitulation on this question – the two arguments considered above being the latest staging posts to ignominious collapse.
As I argued in this Facebook post, it is naive in the extreme to imagine that if the Labour leadership does a U-turn and caves in this September, then there will be peace and goodwill in the Labour Party:
“On the contrary. Not only will they press on to oust the Labour leadership, it will have given them an arsenal to do so.
“For it will instantly mean that every single speech, article and intervention over decades by left wingers and supporters of the Palestinians in the Labour Party – at all levels – will be scrutinised to identify where they breach the new definition.
“And large numbers of them will – for people have been criticising Israel fundamentally and entirely legitimately for decades.”
Tomlinson points to how already under the IHRA definition the following positions have been charged with being anti-semitic:
- Describing Israel as a state enacting policies of apartheid.
- Describing Israel as a state practising settler colonialism.
- Describing the establishment of the State of Israel and the actions associated with its establishment, as illegal or illegitimate.
- Campaigning for policies of boycott divestment or sanctions against Israel, Israeli companies or international companies complicit in violation of Palestinian human rights (unless the campaigner was also calling for similar actions against other states).
- Stating that the State of Israel and its defenders “use” the Holocaust to chill debate on Israel’s own behaviour towards Palestinians.
Nor does the adoption of this definition help the fight against genuine anti-semitism. It has been embraced by the governments of Austria, Poland and Hungary – all of them hard racist right and, in the case of Hungary, headed by the most anti-semitic prime minister in Europe, Viktor Orban. He is also a firm ally and friend of Binyamin Netanyahu and professes wholehearted support for Israel.
Here, the false and widely disputed notion in the IHRA definition that Israel embodies some kind of “collective Jew” is revealed in fact to be permissive of anti-semitism. Orban says he cannot possibly be anti-semitic because he loves Israel, the “Jewish state”. But his recent election campaign and his authoritarian pronouncements are permeated with classical and vile racism against Jewish people. He singles out individuals such as the financier George Soros as representative of “the Jew” conspiring to bring down the Hungarian and European nations. Three weeks before election day in April this year, he said in a speech:
“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world,”
Orban’s government has signed up to the IHRA definition that Corbyn’s Labour is held to be shameful in not adopting in full because of its “examples” that conflate opposition to Israel with anti-semitism.
There’s a further problem. The definition is itself inadequate in identifying real anti-semitism. It starts: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” That is an extraordinarily vague and ill-formed definition. Anti-semitism “is a certain perception of Jews” (as opposed to what, a nebulous conception of Jews) that “may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” – may? So it may not. It may not be hatred toward Jews, or it may not be expressed? What is it then?
Tomlinson says that, at the very least, that would have to be reformulated as: “Antisemitism is a particular attitude towards Jews, which is expressed as hatred toward Jews”. But he continues:
“Even in these amended terms the definition is unsatisfactory. The apparent confining of antisemitism to an attitude which is ‘expressed’ as a hatred of Jews seems too narrow and not to capture conduct which, though not expressed as hatred of Jews is clearly a manifestation of antisemitism. It does not, for example, include discriminatory social and institutional practices.”
For any anti-racist, a failure to understand how a type of racism takes institutional and socially discriminatory forms is a major omission and a retreat from decades of gains by the anti-racist movements in Britain.
So it is not only the rights of the Palestinians, free speech and the socialist left that would be the victims of the capitulation to this dodgy definition that some labour movement voices are demanding. It would also be the fight against genuine anti-semitism and our understanding of racism as a whole as something structured into society and not just individual prejudices.
It’s past time to stop the retreat on this. A huge amount is at stake – on every progressive front. This meeting in London in ten days time is a good, broad effort building on lots that has gone before, to rally forces to do just that.
The risk is not that the right is advancing like a juggernaut. It’s that the left retreats and surrenders in complete disarray. That’s what can open the door to the right – both the establishment and far right. That cannot be allowed to happen. A big lie is being told – and all on the left should stand up to it.