After the IHRA. Where do we go from here?

The fight against antisemitism for the socialist left has to go hand-in-hand with resistance to all other forms of racism. Hostility to Jews as Jews, the essence of antisemitism, is a challenge of the same order as hostility towards people of African or Asian heritage and serves the same purpose of dividing the mass of working people against themselves. In this article Richard Kuper, of Jewish Voice for Labour, considers the implications which the party’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism will have for our struggle for “a vision of a future worth living”. Civility and a willingness to consider each other’s standpoint will be crucial if we are to make progress, and this critique of the IHRA definition and examples is offered in this frank and comradely spirit.

The Labour Party’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the full accompanying text and examples was a clear setback. But there is still room for manoeuvre, and reason for hope.

The intellectual argument against the IHRA document is unassailable and has been made countless times. The decision to adopt all the examples was made not on its intrinsic merits but in a (misguided) belief that this was the best way to lance the boil of allegations of antisemitism.

Our job now is to ensure that the Party’s disciplinary processes are fit for purpose and that sensible rules are drawn up for interpreting the rambling, discursive, ambiguous and non-legally binding set of statements that is the IHRA document.

It is vital that the relevant Chakrabarti recommendations about Party disciplinary procedures are implemented. The arbitrary and unpredictable processes that have dominated Labour’s disciplinary system until recently must go. We need ones that uphold the strongest principles of natural justice including a presumption of innocence, a restriction of the power of interim suspension, no presumption of guilt by association, and an end to subjecting members to trial by media. We also need on the agenda a wide and creative range of graded sanctions such as warnings, a requirement for apologies and/or some other form of sensitive reparation, a public warning or reprimand, suspension for a period, and expulsion. Where ignorance is the root of the problem we need education not punishment.

Under Jenny Formby much progress has already been made, but there is still a way to go and we must remain vigilant.

The IHRA document

In interpreting and fleshing out how the IHRA document is applied we have some guidance:

In accepting the IHRA document the NEC also stated: “This does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians. We re-invite organisations to engage in consultation on the Code of Conduct.”

Something like Labour’s Code of Conduct adopted by the NEC in July will have to be developed to guide everyone from branch officers to members of disciplinary tribunals as to what, precisely, is or is not to be deemed antisemitic misconduct. The IHRA illustrations don’t do this; they are only examples of what might – and therefore might not – be antisemitic, with no clear criteria to help make any decision.

Here the declaration by Jewish Voice for Labour and Free Speech on Israel called ANTISEMITIC MISCONDUCT: What it is – and what it is not can help.

It offers clarification to the debate based on the fact that there is no disagreement about the fact that antisemitism as traditionally understood has no place in the Labour Party or the wider society. It understands antisemitism in the following way, avoiding the obscurities and ambiguities of the IHRA working definition:

Antisemitism is a form of racism. It consists in prejudice, hostility or hatred towards Jews as Jews. It may take the form of denial of rights; direct, indirect or institutional discrimination; prejudiced-based behaviour; verbal or written statements; or violence. Such manifestations draw on stereotypes – characteristics which all Jews are presumed to share.

This approach is quite compatible with the 38-word IHRA definition but goes further, actually giving substance to our understanding, something we can work with. It doesn’t mention Israel, because Israel as such has nothing to do with a definition of antisemitism.

Criticism of the government or of the state of Israel may be robust, over the top, or even plain wrong. None of that makes it antisemitic. It can be antisemitic – but only, as the approach outlined above makes abundantly clear, if it is antisemitic i.e. if it takes the form of “prejudice, hostility or hatred towards Jews as Jews”.

This is where the Labour Party statement that acceptance of the IHRA document “does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians” comes in. It is clear that the IHRA document needs to be read in the light of this commitment, which is merely summarising the legal protection of free speech (Article 10 of the Human Rights Act) and of Palestinian rights, especially under international humanitarian law.

The IHRA document must be used against itself

Supporters of the IHRA, in selling the document, have made much of the two caveats contained within the document. The first is that, while “[m]anifestations [of antisemitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity… criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The second is that: “Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include [emphasis added], but are not limited to [followed by a list of 11 possible examples – seven of which refer to Israel].”

The problem, in both cases, is that no clear criteria are offered for distinguishing which criticisms of Israel might be problematic or why. The effect of this has undoubtedly been to create a presumption that criticism of Israel, unless shown otherwise, is likely to be antisemitic.

This presumption must be challenged head-on. It has been levelled at descriptions of Israel as an apartheid society (and the very existence of Israel Apartheid Week on campuses), at analyses of embedded racism in Israeli society, past and present, and at anyone calling for BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions).

Yet none of these descriptions, analyses, or proposed actions on or about Israel are in themselves antisemitic. Such challenges are licensed by the common misreading of the IHRA examples, in which the caveats are ignored and phrases taken out of context and antisemitism misunderstood.

Let us take the IHRA document and call on those who use it to read it. Let us provide “the overall context” that justifies and renders legitimate the vast majority of critical statements made about Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. And let us be clear that accepting that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” does not mean that criticism of Israel for its exceptionalism is antisemitic.

Palestine and antiracism

As part of moving on to the offensive we must renew our commitment to the struggle for Palestinian rights, buoyed up by the overwhelming support for Palestine at Conference and for a freeze on arms sales to Israel.

This support must include the right of Palestinians to describe their history and their dispossession in an appropriate language – which has to identify the Zionist movement and the Israeli state as the entities that deprived them of their rights, including that of self-determination.

The attempt to prevent any examination of the nature of the Israeli state or of the history of Zionism has unwittingly refocused attention on Palestinian history and experience. This offers a launchpad for constructive solidarity work within the party as well as for broadening out. International solidarity and antiracism must go hand in hand, with antisemitism being fought as part and parcel of the struggle against all racism. Recognising that each racism has its own specificities should not detract from recognising that there are also overlaps and family resemblances between them and they need to be fought together.

Reconstructing political dialogue

Freedom of speech is the freedom to say what one thinks (within the framework of law which does not permit hate speech). Many things said will cause others to take offence – indeed there is no freedom of speech worth its salt that isn’t likely to cause some offence to someone, somewhere. And while there is a right to free speech there is not a right not to be offended.

That said, the right to cause offence is not a duty to cause offence. Constantly tweaking the tail of those we disagree with may occasionally be fun, but it is not serious politics. It is also counter-productive, alienating many of those we should always be attempting to win over. The current febrile atmosphere in which passions are running high and trust is at a low ebb calls for a precision of language, and a care and compassion in speech.

How we approach the emotional minefields of antisemitism and of the Israel-Palestine question must also be part and parcel of a more general reconstruction of how we do politics and political dialogue. The toxic nature of these debates has been mirrored in those over Brexit or over immigration.

Within the multicultural, multi-political world we have become today civility is necessary, but it doesn’t simply mean being polite to each other. It means listening to each other’s deepest hopes, fears and beliefs – and trying to understand their reality even where we believe them to be unfounded. Too much of what passes for political discussion is dogmatic posturing. Labour needs to foster political discussion and debate on difficult and disputed topics as a central concern, in a way that fosters a climate of enquiry and civility. One that allows that we, as well as those we disagree with, might learn something from the encounter. Surely everything we do is premised on the belief that people can change their minds.

For if persuasion and the development of a vision of a future worth living is not our primary aim, what are we doing in politics?


IHRA statement – author intended as a draft for discussion

Interestingly, one of the IHRA definition document’s original authors, Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee, has condemned the use of this document to police campus discussion, arguing strongly that it has already had a chilling effect on free speech.

This is seen at its clearest in the version of the IHRA document circulated for adoption to all local authorities by Luke Akehurst, on behalf of an organisation calling itself “Local Government Friends of Israel”. The line “Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include [emphasis added], but are not limited to” has been doctored to read: “The guidelines highlight manifestations of antisemitism as including:”!

It was this falsified version that was passed overwhelmingly by the Greater London Authority and who knows how many other of the councils that have adopted it. No councillors appear to have bothered to read it, nor have in-house officers and lawyers been involved in confirming that the document was what it purported to be. And even worse, organisations like the CST and the Board of Deputies, selling the IHRA document on the basis that its caveats ensure that free speech is not restricted, have not uttered a peep of protest at this grotesque distortion. You could be forgiven for thinking they relish this confusion.


<strong>You can be antisemitic so long as you love Israel</strong>

Israel has historically had disturbingly close relations with some unpleasant regimes: apartheid South Africa, Argentina under the military junta; Pinochet’s Chile spring to mind. It has preferred to pursue realpolitik to confronting fascism or militarism. It has sold arms used in the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, to the junta in Guatamala and, very recently, to the Burmese. Shocking as all this is, this willingness to work with unsavoury regimes is not attenuated even where these regimes and their leaders are clearly and visibly antisemitic.

Indeed, it is fair to say that if you show you love Israel, any antisemitism you may have expressed in the past, or indeed continue to express, can be washed away.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has compared himself to Hitler, was on a state visit to Israel in September. Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal daily, commented in an editorial: “In exchange for a mess of pottage – abstaining or supporting Israel in a few UN votes – a controversial leader has won a warm embrace from Israel. In the process, he has also won public absolution for his anti-Semitic remarks.”

This is not an aberration. Netanyahu and the Israeli governments’ natural allies form an unsavoury grouping: Poland’s Law and Justice Party, for instance; the Lega in Italy; the Austrian Freedom Party; the French National Front; Sweden’s Democrats; and Hungary’s Fidesz. Some have roots in post-war pro-Nazi circles which have denied the Holocaust or minimised its significance. They also share a visceral Islamophobia which has led to their antisemitism being downplayed, if not entirely overlooked.

Netanyahu has praised the Visegrád Group – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic –  as well as with the right-wing regimes of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, with whom he works “to balance the EU’s unfriendly stance on Israel”. The strong ethno-nationalism of these regimes seems to be particularly attractive to him: antisemitic elements, statements, histories are simply ignored.

A particularly telling example is Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán who was on a recent state visit to Israel. He has form, from having called migrants “poison” and “Muslim invaders”; expressing adulation for Miklos Horthy, the war-time leader of Hungary where some 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Nazi death camps; denying that Hungarians bore any responsibility for this murder of the Jews; and supporting “Christian values” which in Hungary is barely coded speech meaning “not Jewish”.

Orbán’s bête noire is George Soros, the Hungarian-born philanthropist whose Open Society Foundation consistently promotes ideas of democracy, human rights, participatory capitalism and political liberalism. He was attacked in July, complete with antisemitic cartoons of a visibly Jewish stereotyped Soros pulling the puppet’s strings.

This led to a howl of outrage from Israel’s ambassador in Budapest and a call for the posters to be taken down. But within a day orders came from Netanyahu’s office. In a new statement, the foreign ministry’s spokesman refrained from criticizing Viktor Orbán and strongly denounced George Soros instead!

And of course this didn’t stop Netanyahu from welcoming Orbán to Israel in July this year as a “true friend of Israel” .

In Poland, too: the Law and Justice party can’t bear the idea that any Pole might be held responsible for complicity in Nazi crimes. After a bitter row, and with Israel’s agreement, it is now a civil offence to “publicly and against the facts” accuse the Polish state or nation of being “responsible or complicit in” Nazi crimes. The arbiter of the acts is the Institute of National Remembrance, run by the very politicians controlling the country today! So the Israeli government is prepared to whitewash the facts of Jewish extermination in order to maintain its working relationship with the Polish regime.

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