With two high-profile reports now circulating on antisemitism within the Labour party, it’s time to finally address this problem head on. The latest, from parliament’s Home Affairs Committee, warns that the party has shown “demonstrable incompetence” when dealing with people within its ranks who have been accused of antisemitism.
The committee says the fact that such incidents have “found their way into a major political party is a new and deplorable phenomenon”. This stands in marked contrast to the profoundly disappointing findings of an earlier report produced by Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of Liberty and now a Labour peer.
Somewhere between ten and 50 members (reported numbers vary) were suspended from the Labour Party between April and June amid allegations of antisemitism. Yet the Chakrabarti Report appeared to downplay the problem.
It argued that comments like those made by Bradford MP Naz Shah that Israeli Jews should be “relocated” to America as the “solution” to the Israel/Palestine problem were merely evidence of “minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours festering within a sometimes bitter incivility of discourse”.
Shah has since apologised for her remarks but Chakrabarti’s failure to appropriately label such comments implicitly supports the view that concerns about antisemitism in the Labour Party have been manufactured. Key allies of leader Jeremy Corbyn argue that these concerns are an attempt to smear him and the party. The suggestion is that people play the “antisemitism card” to stifle criticism of Israel.
The key difference
The parliamentary committee sees things differently. It is very clear in its conclusions that antisemitism does infect the Labour Party. It warns that in failing to deal with antisemitic incidents in recent years, it “risks lending force to allegations that elements of the Labour movement are institutionally antisemitic”.
The committee has clearly grasped something that eluded Chakrabarti. It has realised that in order to investigate allegations of antisemitism, you first need to define what you mean by the term.
The Chakrabarti report refused to provide a definition of antisemitism. It even said there was “no need to pursue an age-old and ultimately fruitless debate about the precise parameters of race hate”. This is incredibly short sighted.
Chakrabarti also failed to understand that antisemitism changes with the times. Contemporary antisemitism masquerades as anti-Zionism. It comes in the form of a demonising discourse that replicates antisemitic tropes in relation to criticism of Israel.
The committee recognises this. It proposes a definition of contemporary antisemitism which finds “an acceptable balance between condemning antisemitism vehemently in all its forms, and maintaining freedom of speech – particularly in relation to legitimate criticism of the government of Israel”. To achieve this, it recommends that the British government and all political parties should adopt the definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
By embracing the IHRA definition, the committee has shown that it understands the protean nature of antisemitism and its current manifestations in the form of antisemitic anti-Zionism. Antisemitism is no longer merely the use of epithets to criticise people for being Jewish.
The definition states that antisemitism can mean “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, such as by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour”. It also includes applying double standards by expecting from Israel a behaviour not expected of any other state and applying the images and symbols of traditional antisemitism (e.g. the blood libel) to Israel. The IHRA equally raises concern about comparing contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis and about holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
This definition was originally formulated by the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in 2005 to respond to the rising tide of antisemitism across Europe. Known as the “working definition of antisemitism”, it was formulated with input from academic scholars, law enforcement agencies, civil liberties organisations and community leaders across Europe. It is the first definition to embrace the idea that antisemitism can target Israel as the Jewish collective and has been so widely adopted that it is often referred to as the “international definition of antisemitism”.
It is unfortunate that both Corbyn and Chakrabarti only seem fully to understand antisemitism when it comes in the form of state sponsored genocide and verbal and physical assaults on Jewish people. Indeed, the committee remarks that it is “not persuaded that [Jeremy Corbyn] fully appreciates the distinct nature of post-Second World War antisemitism”.
It is unfortunate, too, that Chakrabarti trivialised the evidence she heard of antisemitic anti-Zionism in the Labour Party as “a series of unhappy incidents”.
Those on the anti-racist left, and indeed all those who care about race hate, must accept the the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Corbyn and his supporters must also accept, once and for all, the committee’s conclusion that antisemitism is happening in the Labour party. Only then can they resolve to stamp it out.
As left-wing journalist Owen Jones recently said: “It is incumbent on the progressively-minded to take antisemitism seriously. We wouldn’t belittle other forms of bigotry or seek to deflect from it. Discussion about serious antisemitism should not be launched into a debate about Israel.”