Why Is a Definition of Antisemitism Tearing Britain’s Labour Party Apart?

Hint: It has to do with Israel.

Kieron Monks
August 22, 2018
Jeremy Corbyn delivering a speech in Apri 2017. Photo: Dominic Dudley via Shutterstock

IN JULY OF THIS YEAR, three rival Jewish newspapers published identical front pages that denounced Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party as an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country.” The Board of Deputies, the UK’s oldest Jewish communal body, announced that “Labour is failing British Jews and failing as an anti-racist party.” Sixty-eight rabbis from across the religious spectrum attacked the party as “arrogant and insulting.” One Labour MP labeled their own party “institutionally racist” and another branded party leader Corbyn (her colleague of 40 years) “a racist and an antisemite.”

The proximate cause of this explosion was Labour’s new code on antisemitism, and its divergence from the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The IHRA, an intergovernmental Holocaust education group with 31 member states, had introduced a two-page document in May 2016 comprising an unwieldy 38-word core definition and 11 illustrative examples of antisemitism. Several examples concerned the discussion of Israel. The IHRA said the document aimed to “illustrate how antisemitism can manifest” and to provide “an essential mutual starting point for addressing these issues at the national level.”

The definition was swiftly adopted by the governments of member states including Germany and the UK. Jewish communal groups in the UK insisted that the Labour Party follow suit, a demand that gained vehemence as the party pinballed between antisemitism scandals.

On July 5th, Labour announced a new code on antisemitism that included the core definition and seven examples; the remaining four, all pertaining to Israel, were expanded or modified. Most of the changes were minimal. Labour’s code agrees with the IHRA that comparing Israel to Nazis is likely, if not certain, to be antisemitic, and reproduces a warning against the charge of “dual loyalties” in a longer paragraph. The IHRA’s example of “double standards” has been changed to apply to “Jewish people and organizations” rather than to Israel.

The most significant departure from the IHRA in the new Labour definition is the omission of the second half of the following example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Labour’s code affirms the right of Jews to self-determination but invites discussion of the nature of self-determination and allows for robust but respectful debate on the nature, history, and effects of Zionism.

Reaction to the code among the British Jewish establishment was swift and scathing, uniting the aforementioned newspapers, communal groups, and religious leaders in condemnation. The authors of Labour’s code attempted to explain themselves. Jon Lansman, a Jewish member of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), described the new Labour code as a “gold standard” on antisemitism, arguing that it incorporated the vast majority of the IHRA document and went further by covering additional forms of prejudice. Lansman also warned that the original IHRA wording could deny Palestinians “their right to speak about their own oppression.”

sparked the latest flare-up of controversy. But the fuel was provided by three years of antisemitism scandals and the Labour Party’s perceived failure—or refusal—to properly address them, which have made the party and its leader’s names curse words for many British Jews. The often toxic debate has exposed deep and bitter divides over Israel, Zionism, and the nature of antisemitism.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader in 2015 was greeted with dismay by much of the mainstream UK Jewish community, in large part due to a lifetime of associations with Israel’s enemies. Dismay gave way to fury as poisonous posts came to light on Labour forums and in pro-Palestinian Facebook groups that counted Corbyn as a member.

Labour has faced hundreds of allegations of antisemitism since Corbyn took charge, though many of these allegations concern incidents that precede his reign. The worst include cases of Holocaust denial, cartoons of hook-nosed Jews, and lurid conspiracy theories implicating party members, councillors, and high-ranking officials. Dozens of offenders have been suspended, including MP Naz Shah and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, although Labour’s disciplinary system has never been close to clearing its workload.

The crisis reached a crescendo this past March, after it was revealed that Corbyn had defended an antisemitic mural in 2012. That prompted Jewish communal groups to organize a protest in Parliament Square and demand serious action from the party.

Labour scrambled to douse the flames. Corbyn apologized to Jews for the “hurt and distress caused,” made statements condemning antisemitism, and demonstrated some awareness of the strains of anti-Jewish prejudice that affect the left. Labour sought to engage with Jewish groups and to overhaul its disciplinary process.

a new code on antisemitism was intended to be a foundation of this party overhaul. Instead it has highlighted the chasm that exists between Labour and Jewish institutions in their understanding of antisemitism, which mirrors a wider debate over defining antisemitism and whether certain criticisms of Israel should be included.

Many critics of Labour have presented the IHRA definition as universally-accepted and therefore sacrosanct. In fact, the definition has been the subject of fierce contention since its earliest iteration was produced for the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in 2005, primarily as a tool for data collectors.

The definition was dropped by the EUMC’s successor body, but picked up and campaigned for by groups such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League. These organizations have argued for the highly disputed notion of a “new antisemitism”—the idea that hostility toward Israel and Zionism represents a distinct form of anti-Jewish prejudice—and wished to see it codified in various ways. Opponents deny that such a phenomenon exists and argue that antisemitism is better addressed without ruling on the discussion of Israel. One alternative was proposed by antisemitism scholar Brian Klug, who argued for a simpler definition of antisemitism: “Hostility towards Jews as Jews.”

Proponents of the “new antisemitism” theory initially struggled to secure popular acceptance for the definition, which was rejected by several British universities and the University and Colleges Union (UCU) on the basis that it would restrict free speech concerning Israel. But a breakthrough came with adoption by the IHRA in 2016, which then led to adoption by several national governments and institutions. In the US, the State Department uses an adapted version of the definition and the proposed Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would mandate its use by the Department of Education.  

Opponents have attacked the core IHRA definition—“vague and unclear,” according to leading lawyer and civil liberties expert Hugh Tomlinson—but most of the controversy has centered around the illustrative examples, specifically the examples pertaining to Israel, those which Labour chose to modify.

Former Judge Sir Stephen Sedley objected that the example of applying “double standards” to Israel places “the historical, political, military and humanitarian uniqueness of Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestine beyond permissible criticism.” Professor David Feldman of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism warnedthere is a danger that the overall effect will place the onus on Israel’s critics to demonstrate they are not antisemitic.” The UK’s leading human rights group Liberty claimed the examples could be used to prohibit the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, while the Home Affairs Select Committee advised that the government include additional safeguards to protect free speech. The lead author of the definition, Ken Stern, has argued against its use by the US Department of Education on the basis that it could “chill, if not repress, political speech,” a concern shared by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Campaigners for Palestinian rights are also skeptical. Palestinian activist Fadi Quran, part of the “Freedom Riders” campaign on West Bank settler buses, told Jewish Currents that “examples . . . are framed more as a means to silence criticism of Israel, and less as a means to fight real antisemitism.” Peter Prove of the World Council of Churches, which runs the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), says the “double standards” clause is “poignant,” as much of the criticism of Israel “is founded precisely on an expectation that Israel, together with all other states, should be held accountable to the same obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.”

However, Dave Rich of the UK’s leading antisemitism watchdog, the Community Security Trust (CST), believes critics of IHRA are reading the definition too literally and ignoring a requirement to examine context.

“The definition should be treated as a starting point for investigation rather than as a strict legal code,” Rich says. “I think if used in the right way as intended, with the caveat that context is respected, it shouldn’t cause a problem.”

Rich adds that, seeing as much of contemporary antisemitism occurs in discourse around Israel, an effective definition of antisemitism must address that discourse.

INITION is not inherently inimical to Palestine solidarity activism, it is frequently used as a blunt instrument against activists.

One London council has cited the definition as basis for a motion calling for prohibition of the BDS movement against Israel on the basis that it infringes on the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Pro-Israel activists and supportive MPs have sought to ban events accusing Israel of apartheid as this falls foul of the “racist endeavour” clause, and have succeeded in some cases.

Watchdog groups have accused Jeremy Corbyn of antisemitism for criticizing the Israeli army for shooting protesters at the Gaza fence, claiming this violated the IHRA clause against applying “double standards” to Israel. The same clause has been used to argue that labeling goods from illegal Israeli settlements is antisemitic.

Internationally, particularly in the US, Israel advocates use the definition to attack, defang, and suppress Palestinian activism and criticism of Israel. The AMCHA Initiative and StandWithUS have used the State Department’s adapted IHRA definition to secure resolutions at universities that condemn BDS as antisemitic. A coalition of Israel advocacy groups cited the definition in a successful campaign for the cancellation of a course on Palestine at UC Berkeley, although the course was eventually reinstated. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has used the definition to claim that figures such as Jimmy Carter are antisemites as part of their campaign against pro-Palestinian speakers on campus. Groups such as the Brandeis Center and The Israel Project were recently successful in persuading South Carolina to adopt the definition, requiring colleges in the state to use it.

“There are lots of problems with how the definition could be operationalized if it is adopted by institutions,” says Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “[Palestinian advocacy] groups could lose funding or be shut down.”

And even where such interpretations do not succeed in shutting down activism, they can intimidate activists, according to Ben Jamal of the UK Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

“We are seeing real efforts to utilize this to try to prevent Palestinian activism,” Jamal told Jewish Currents. “To actually prevent events would be legally challengeable . . . But the wider concern is the chilling effect [IHRA] creates in suggesting that advocating for Palestinian human rights is some kind of suspicious activity.”

Both campaigners see the definition as part of a wider, global attack on solidarity activism, that has resulted in a raft of anti-BDS legislation being introduced in the US and Europe. Political leaders are increasingly adopting the position that anti-Zionism—a foundational principle for many Palestinians—is antisemitism. Other staples of solidarity activism, such as arguments for a one-state solution and use of the term apartheid, are now routinely denounced as racist. The proliferation of blacklists of pro-Palestinian activists has introduced social and reputational costs to campaigning. If IHRA further heightens the barriers to activism, Palestinians and their supporters fear they will be fighting with both hands tied behind their backs.

that if Labour adopts the IHRA definition without altering the clauses regarding criticism of Israel, it would increase the pressure on Palestinian activism. But it is unclear whether the definition would help Labour Jews facing antisemitism from within their own party.

Antisemitic behavior as described in the IHRA definition fails to cover common forms of antisemitism such as racial slurs, use of the term “Zionist” as a pejorative, and gratuitous references to Jewish identity. Furthermore, Yair Wallach, head of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, points out that the definition has no mechanism for identifying elements of institutional antisemitism, which he suggests might have contributed to poor handling of complaints and a reluctance to expel offenders.  

“It is now commonly accepted that beyond obvious racist incidents, rhetoric and policies, bigotry operates by institutions creating a hostile environment for certain groups and systematically disadvantaging them, whether deliberately or unwittingly,” Wallach wrote in an op-ed for Haaretz. “Yet the concept of institutional racism is entirely missing from the IHRA definition.”

It is also questionable whether a definition so open to interpretation would lead to better outcomes for either victims of antisemitism or a party seeking to demonstrate its suitability for government. IHRA would open the door to many more allegations, more confusion, longer disputes, and more factionalism as accused parties protest they are being persecuted for political beliefs. As the definition has no legal basis, disciplinary cases could be challenged in court.

Nor would adoption be likely to significantly reduce the distrust and anger that exists towards the party in large parts of the Jewish community. Trade unions and Labour MPs have begged the leadership to accept the definition in order to shift the agenda and headlines back to Labour’s core platform of fighting austerity and the manifesto that took the party to the verge of power in last year’s general election. But several groups campaigning against antisemitism in the Labour Party have made clear that nothing short of Corbyn’s resignation will do, and party staffers are convinced that any respite that might come from adopting the definition would be short-lived. The circumstances have become so toxic that any attempt by the leadership to engage with the Jewish community, from holiday greetings to interviews with Jewish newspapers to antisemitism initiatives, is taken as a grave insult. Labour has committed to further consultation with Jewish groups in an effort to find a consensus and may yet adopt the full IHRA text. But there is little prospect that a flawed definition of antisemitism can help the Labour Party emerge from a mire that threatens to swallow it whole. 

Kieron Monks is a London-based writer for outlets including CNN, The Guardian, and Prospect magazine, covering social issues and political movements.