What do you do when the rights and collective memories of different peoples who face racism collide? That is a question which has been much in my mind recently over whether Labour should adopt all 11 examples attached to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism without any additional words to clarify their meaning.
At the centre of disagreements has been whether describing Israel as a “racist endeavour” should be regarded as prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. Those who urge Labour to define such descriptions of Israel as anti-Semitic insist that doing so in no way inhibits criticism of Israeli Governments or their policies. Rather, they ask us to acknowledge the alarm bells which many Jews hear when arguments about the conflict in the Middle East appear to call into question Israel’s right to exist.
We are right to be reminded of those alarm bells. Denying the right of Israel to exist can feel to many Jews far more visceral than a comment about a particular state structure. It feels like a threat to Jewish identity, to the right of Jews to self-determination and ultimately to their own survival. The collective memory of the Holocaust is real and it is raw. Nobody should doubt the importance to Jewish identity of knowing there is a refuge of last resort.
A couple of years ago, a Rabbi put it to me like this. She said that Israel is not only the place where you know your safety as a Jew is paramount. It is also where you know your right to be yourself as a Jew is secure - whatever may happen elsewhere. A friend in my local Labour Party said something similar to me recently - relating what he felt explicitly to the knowledge that a third of his family had been murdered in the Holocaust.
The depth of shared experiences like these live on in the collective memory of successive generations. They underpin the pain and anger which so many in the Jewish community feel when they hear that Labour is neither listening to them nor acting on their concern about anti-Semitism. Understanding those things - and being seen to act on them - will be vital if Labour is to win back the trust of that community.
Where then is the collision with a different set of shared experiences? Let me tell you about Chris - someone who I have known for many years and who is a longstanding member of the Labour Party. Chris is also the son of a Palestinian. His father was studying in England on a British Council scholarship in 1948 when the State of Israel was created. He was never allowed to return to his home near Nazareth. In response to arguments about how Labour should define anti-Semitism, Chris wrote to me recently to tell me that his own family’s history has led him to indeed “view Israel as a racist endeavour.” His father was denied the right to return home because he was an Arab, not a Jew. Chris’ letter also reminded me that this was the reality for hundreds of thousands of other Palestinian families who became refugees in 1948. Unlike Chris’ father, most were not abroad during the war in which the state of Israel was created. Their lives as refugees began when they were either driven from their homes or fled for their lives. Yes, of course this was not the whole story of what happened in 1948. For Palestinian refugees, however, the experience was one of ethnic cleansing. In Arabic, they call it the Nakba or “catastrophe”. Over 70 years on, most Palestinians today accept the existence of the State of Israel as a reality. But the shared experience of the Nakba lives on through the generations in the collective memory of every Palestinian I have ever met.
This is not about comparing one people’s shared experiences to another. Still less is it about trying to “rank” those shared experiences. It is about understanding their reality for the peoples concerned.
So could a Palestinian who describes their dispossession as racism be an anti-Semite? Of course he or she could be. There are racist Palestinians just as there are racists amongst every people of every nationality and of every religion. Most, however, are not and Chris himself is no racist. The issue is one of context – something which the IHRA says should be taken into account when judging the circumstances in which language should be regarded as anti-Semitic. So should Chris be accused of anti-Semitism – and potentially be expelled from Labour - when the context of his own shared experience as the son of a Palestinian refugee has led him to describe Israel as “a racist endeavour”?
I do not suggest that Labour should endorse Chris’s view. In all conscience, however, I also cannot accept it would be right for Labour to prohibit Chris from describing the injustice his family has suffered in the way he experiences it. After all, we do not prohibit people affected by what they perceive as racism in other situations from describing it as such – whether or not we share their perception. Indeed it could be argued that such a prohibition would be contrary to the so-called Macpherson Principle, established following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which emphasised the weight that should be given to victims’ perceptions when defining what should be regarded as racist incidents.
So is it possible both to respect the shared identity which the vast majority of Jews feel with Israel while also recognising the shared experience of dispossession which Palestinians feel just as deeply? And can any definition of anti-Semitism adopted by Labour be sensitive to both of those realities?
As I have argued elsewhere, a framework for doing so already exists in the 2016 Report of the Home Affairs Select Committee. This recommended the adoption of the IHRA definition in full, but with the addition of caveats to protect it from misuse and to ensure that that context of language used about Israel and Palestine is recognised in practice as well as in theory. Plagiarising the words of a Jewish friend, I have described this as “IHRA Plus” rather than “IHRA minus”.
It is a welcome step forward that Labour’s National Executive Committee has now accepted that it does not have all the answers to these questions and that it has launched a consultation with the Jewish community and beyond to address them. My plea is for both the party and Jewish communal organisations to identify common ground on which to build effective strategies for tackling anti-Semitism going forward rather than remaining locked in an atmosphere of recrimination.
For that to happen, I also know that Jews – and everyone else horrified by arguments now taking place – need to be confident that Labour is serious about getting our own house in order. For the party, that means rooting out the appalling anti-Semitic abuse that appears on social media - too often posted by people claiming to be Labour supporters. I am pleased Labour have committed to strengthening and speeding up Party procedures to ensure this happens. Insisting on this or that definition of anti-Semitism will not achieve this, whatever the precise form of words involved. More evidence of concrete actions to stamp out the abuse in practice might just do so.