A fortnight ago, Brian Klug - one of he word’s leading authorities on antisemitism - welcomed the Labour national executive committee (NEC)’s recently developed code of conduct on antisemitism, and called for calm in the debate raging about the issue in the Labour party. Last week, an front page story shared by the three leading Jewish newspapers in the UK ignored Klug’s call for calm and reason with the astonishing claim that Jeremy Corbyn represented an existential threat to Jewish life in the UK. Further, the threat posed by Corbyn could only be extinguished, we were told, if the Labour NEC voted in September to adopt the full guidance attached to the 38-word International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
There are two assertions underpinning the charge that the Labour NEC code represents an attempt to water down the definition of antisemitism and thereby creates a “racist’s charter”. The first is that the IHRA document is universally accepted and uncontroversial. Indeed, so successful has this narrative been that the mainstream media has begun to routinely describe the document as the “internationally accepted definition.” The second, closely linked, assertion is that the document does not prevent legitimate criticism of the policy and actions of Israel.
The first assertion does not survive any serious scrutiny. The forerunner to the IHRA, the EUMC working definition - which uses almost the same text - was abandoned after serious criticism of the threat it posed to freedom of expression. The IHRA document has also been criticised by some, including Institute for Race relations, leading lawyers Hugh Tomlinson, Geoffrey Bindmanand Sir Stephen Sedley, and Brian Klug as already mentioned. Earlier this month, more than 40 Jewish groups from across the world warned about misuse of the IHRA to suppress activism for Palestinian rights.
So, far from the Labour party uniquely finding a problem with the IHRA document, their attempts to modify aspects of the guidance in the NEC code of conduct – while adopting the 38-word definition - comes in the face of widespread criticism of its flawed nature.
The reason for this controversy speaks to, what I believe to be, the falseness of the second assertion. The guidance in the document is allegedly being used by pro-Israel advocates globally to suppress activism for Palestinian human rights. One example, which says it could be antisemitic to “[deny] the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” is being used to assert that any description of the actions policies or laws of Israel as “racist” is antisemitic. In March for instance, a delegation including Labour Friends of Israel chair Joan Ryan MP and Conservative Friends of Israel’s Matthew Offord MP petitioned Theresa May at Downing Street calling for legal action to prevent events on UK campuses that describe Israel as an apartheid state, citing the IHRA document as justification.
The second example in the IHRA guidance says it could be antisemitic to apply double standards to Israel “by requiring of it behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”. This is being used to label the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as “antisemitic” because it does not simultaneously campaign for boycott of all other nations abusing human rights. In fact, just last night Barnet Council passed a motion calling for the local authority - and companies in the London borough - to deny space to individuals and organisations promoting BDS, explicitly citing the IHRA definition as justification for calling the boycott movement “antisemitic”. I believe this sets a very worrying precedent in the UK. Similarly, Dr Manfred Gerstenfeld, former chair of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs used such an argument to claim that proposals by the Dutch government to introduce labelling for goods from Israeli settlements were “antisemitic”, because they violated the IHRA document.
I am the grandson of Palestinians expelled from their homes in West Jerusalem in 1948 during the Nakba (catastrophe) that saw 750,000 people driven into exile. I believe Palestinians have a right to describe their history and the continuing injustices that deny them their rights whether as unequal citizens of State of Israel, living under military occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, under siege in Gaza, or as refuges denied the right of return. Others have a right to hear this information and, in line with a commitment to fighting racism in all of its forms, to respond to the Palestinian call for global action including via Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. I think no public body should adopt any definition of racism that undermines such rights and the Labour NEC is to be applauded for its efforts to create a code of conduct that tackles antisemitism while resisting attempts to undermine the Palestinian struggle for justice.