POLITICS
04/09/2018 18:09 BST | Updated 05/09/2018 10:21 BST

Labour's NEC Approves Full International Anti-Semitism Definition As Corbyn Avoids Defeat On Anti-Israel Criticism

Corbyn's lengthy free speech caveat withdrawn amid clear opposition

Dan Kitwood via Getty Images
Jeremy Corbyn arrives for the NEC

Labour’s ruling body has tried to draw a line under the party’s damaging anti-semitism row by adopting internationally agreed guidelines on the issue.

In a move to defuse the controversy, a general statement was also agreed on protecting freedom of speech of critics of Israel.

But in a significant blow to Jeremy Corbyn, the NEC decided not to vote on stronger statement defending those who attacked Israel’s creation as a ‘racist’ endeavour, as well as a reference to the tradition of anti-Zionism, HuffPost has learned.

After a tense four-hour debate, the National Executive Committee (NEC) decided to unanimously adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition and all its 11 examples of Jew hatred.

The move is a bid to heal relations with the Jewish community, which was furious with a previous code of conduct designed to allow flexibility for those investigated or suspended for anti-semitism.

After a summer of protests and controversy, the NEC veered away from a further row - and a divisive vote among its members - by adopting a general statement defending free speech.

The statement on ‘the protection of freedom of speech and Palestinian rights’ agreed by the NEC says: 

“We recommend that we adopt the IHRA in full, with all examples. 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.” 

A stronger, more specific statement, proposed by Jeremy Corbyn to protect those who describe the creation of Israel as ‘racist’, was not tabled for a specific vote after it appeared it would not get enough support, one source said.

The longer statement was dubbed ‘Code Plus’ by some on the Left to make clear it was about a caveated definition to govern the party’s code of conduct.

The section that sparked the strongest opposition was this: 

“It cannot be considered racist to treat Israel like any other state or to assess its conduct against the standards of international law.

“Nor should it be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict”

Other references to Zionism - including a tradition of anti-Zionism within Labour and the Jewish community - were also opposed by colleagues on the NEC.

Significantly, Momentum founder Jon Lansman and outgoing NEC member Rhea Wolfson, expressed their concerns about formally adopting Corbyn’s longer statement, one NEC source told HuffPost.

Wolfson and Lansman, both of whom are Jewish, were key members of the anti-semitism working group set up to try to find a way out of the crisis.

Wolfson was “very vocal” in saying she could not support the longer Corbyn statement, while Lansman cautioned against causing more disagreement, one source said. However, a source close to Lansman insists he did not indicate which way he would vote if there had been one.

Empics Entertainment
Momentum founder Jon Lansman

“The leadership would have lost if put to a vote. Basically people indicated they were not prepared to accept the JC statement and didn’t want to be put in a position where they would have to vote on it,” one NEC souce said.

“They wanted a reference to Jeremy’s statement, hence the wording about the NEC welcoming his statement on ‘Palestinian rights’ as well as ‘solidarity with the Jewish community’.”

But hopes that the issue will be settled were dashed when leftwingers managed to ensure that the definition will be subject to further consultation as part of Labour’s ‘democracy review’.

The late move was seized on by some Left groups as a vital chance to keep the issue alive once the NEC’s balance of power shifts further after the party conference.

Jack Taylor via Getty Images
Protestors demonstrate outside the NEC

In his personal address to the NEC, Corbyn spoke of Labour’s commitment to “eradicating the social cancer of antisemitism” and “deep concern and pain” across the party over the loss of confidence among Jewish communities. 

He said the adoption of the full IHRA text and examples was part of the process of “rebuilding trust and as an act of solidarity with Jewish communities”.

In lengthy paper presented to the NEC only in the meeting, the Labour leader set out some of the clarifications and protections needed to ensure that IHRA text would not be used to “undermine the rights of Palestinians or their supporters, to identify and campaign about their history or experience of racism”.

NEC members were not allowed to take the Corbyn statement with them, but as screengrab has been sent to HuffPost.

HuffPost UK
HuffPost UK
The Corbyn statement

He spoke about the NEC being united, which was met with a round of applause, but one source said it became very clear that his own longer statement of clarifications was not palatable to the meeting.

A Labour Party spokesperson said: “The NEC has today adopted all of the IHRA examples of antisemitism, in addition to the IHRA definition which Labour adopted in 2016, alongside a statement which ensures this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians. 

“The NEC welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s statement to the meeting about action against antisemitism, solidarity with the Jewish community and protection of Palestinian rights, as an important contribution to the consultation on Labour’s Code of Conduct.” 

To crack down on leaks, the NEC also agreed a new practice that in future no member will be able to ‘dial in’ remotely from home and all will have to hand in mobile phones. Anyone popping out will have to sign their phone in and out. No laptops or iPads will be allowed either.

There will be no advance papers for NEC meetings, also because of fears of leaks. It is likely meetings will start earlier to include ‘reading time’.

Paul Waugh’s Analysis 

 

Jeremy Corbyn has the vast majority of the Labour membership behind him. His supporters dominate party conference, occupy every senior post at Labour HQ and have a tight grip on the ruling National Executive Committee.

 

But today, as he tried to find his own way out of the anti-semitism row that has dogged him all summer, he was confronted with a phenomenon that has not existed since his general election surge: possible defeat by the NEC.

 

And sources say it was Momentum founder Jon Lansman, as well as fellow Momentum member Rhea Wolfson, who were crucial in making clear that Corbyn’s solution could have caused more division, not less.

 

Both Lansman and Wolfson are Jewish and both have worked hard on the anti-semitism working group to come up with an answer to the crisis that could heal community relations and splits within the party.

 

After they spoke up with their concerns, Corbyn and his allies realised that the numbers were against them. Leftwing hardliners complained of ‘betrayal’ but with union backers and other NEC members wobbling, the spectacle of rejecting the advice of the two Momentum experts on the issue was too much to contemplate.

 

Some on the Left had the crumb of comfort that the code of conduct will continue to be consulted on, fuelling their hopes that they can revisit the Corbyn agenda once they are back up to full strength on the NEC – with Eddie Izzard and Wolfson both due to be replaced after conference.

 

Lansman’s critics will argue that he should have realised much earlier that this whole row could have been avoided if he’d picked up sooner the pain the revised Code of Conduct would cause among the Jewish community.

 

Yet what is perhaps striking is that Corbyn himself put his reputation on the line with his lengthy statement, including the highly controversial sections about anti-Zionist traditions and about Israel’s creation being a ‘racist’ endeavour. 

 

Moderates on the NEC felt they secured a significant victory and are baffled by the ‘overreaction’ of some groups condemning the frankly vanilla statement on freedom of speech that was unanimously agreed to avoid any vote.

 

But for his supporters and enemies alike, the lasting memory of the day for many may be that the leader of the Labour party felt so strongly that greater protections were needed for Israel’s critics. That in itself is likely to hinder any real rapprochement with Britain’s Jewish community.