POLITICS
28/08/2018 21:50 BST | Updated 28/08/2018 23:13 BST

Labour NEC Set To Adopt International Definition Of Anti-Semitism

‘Compromise’ plan will also safeguard free speech on criticism of Israel

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Labour will try to defuse its damaging row over anti-semitism by adopting an international definition of the issue, senior sources have told HuffPost UK.

The ‘compromise’ plan, expected to be discussed by the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) next week, will also seek to safeguard the rights of members who want to criticise Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.

In a bid to heal relations with Jewish groups, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition and all its 11 examples of anti-semitic abuse are set to be formally endorsed in full, NEC sources said.

But a further clarification or expansion of the examples is also expected to be drafted to enshrine the right to free speech of those critical of the Israeli government.

The clarification could even include protection for those who claim that the state of Israel could be termed ‘racist’ in its handling of the Palestinian issue.

One option being considered is for Labour to follow the lead of the Commons Home Affairs Committee’s own amended definition of anti-semitism, which in 2016 included two key caveats on the need to protect free speech. 

The committee stated: “It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.

“It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.”

It is understood that the NEC may include both these caveats and add its own.

Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images
Jeremy Corbyn and Shami Chakrabarti launch Labour's 2016 anti-semitism report

The ruling body sparked anger among Jewish community groups in July when it endorsed a new code of conduct that failed to adopt all of the IHRA examples.

Jeremy Corbyn has been dogged by the controversy this summer and faces a vote by his own MPs next week to adopt the IHRA wording in full. The NEC meets the day before the vote and its change of stance could now render the ballot academic.

Corbyn faced fresh criticism on Tuesday when former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told the New Statesman he was an “anti-semite”.

Sacks added that the Labour leader’s remark about Zionists in 2013 was the most offensive statement by a senior UK politician since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.

Labour spokeswoman said the Powell comparison - in response to Corbyn’s comment that British Zionists had “no sense of irony” despite “having lived in this country for a very long time” - was both “absurd and offensive”.

Yet with senior MP Margaret Hodge no longer facing disciplinary action for her own outburst on the issue, many in the leadership are keen for the party to draw a line under the wider row.

Crucial to the shift towards the IHRA definition has been pressure from trade unions, including the powerful trio of the GMB, Unison and Unite. 

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Unite general secretary Len McCluskey accused some Jewish community leaders of ‘intransigent hostility’ towards Corbyn this month, yet he also made clear the definition had to be adopted with all its examples.

However, one senior Labour figure also told HuffPost that while the adoption of the full IHRA guidance would defuse the controversy in the short term, rule changes at party conference next month could reignite the row by raising the bar for disciplinary action.

The party’s draft ‘Democracy Review’ includes a section on expanding the National Constitutional Committee (NCC), the disciplinary body that handles cases of anti-semitism and other abuse. 

It recommends that “rule changes are brought to this year’s Conference to increase the number of NCC members to hear cases”. 

Critics believe that this may be used to water down the IHRA definition through the back door, possibly through further rule changes that allow the NEC itself to deal with more ‘borderline’ cases of abuse by issuing warnings, temporary suspensions or anti-racism training.

Labour agreed at its 2017 conference to include anti-semitism along with other racist abuse in its definition of conduct that is “prejudicial” or “which in the opinion of the NEC is grossly detrimental to the party” – grounds for disciplinary action.

“The ‘Democracy Review’ could be the vehicle for the dilution of the disciplinary process, even if all the IHRA examples are adopted,” one party source added. “It could be the sting in the tail of this.” 

Momentum founder and NEC member Jon Lansman, who has been leading the push for a solution in the party’s anti-semitism working group, will be crucial to way in which the changes are projected to the annual conference.

Allies of Lansman dismissed claims that he could be ousted from the NEC by the Left if he backed the adoption of the IHRA definition in full.

In his blog for HuffPost this month, McCluskey wrote: “Let’s look at the one genuine question still unresolved - the definition Labour should use of anti-Semitism, a sensitive issue not just for the Jewish community but for all those concerned about Palestinian rights too.

“Clearly, it would have been far better for the party to have adopted at least ten of the eleven IHRA examples in their original wording. 

“Not doing so - and particularly without adequate consultation - was insensitive and bound to lead to misunderstanding, and also served to distract attention from the real issues at stake.  It would be for the best if all eleven were now agreed, so the party can move on.”

Euan Philipps of the Labour Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, said: “For the Labour Party to claim that it has re-adopted of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism then the party would need to ensure that the definition has a functional place within the organisation’s disciplinary process.

“If it is watered down by caveats and addendums then the party cannot claim that it has been fully adopted. It is a false compromise that will only make it harder identify and tackle racism in the party.”

Richard Angell, director of the moderate group Progress, said: “An antiracist party would not find a ‘compromise’ on tackling racism. Labour should adopt the IHRA in full now - no more delays or caveats.”