Despite Theresa May’s claims that the Conservative party had adopted the full definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), thei party rulebook mentions neither antisemitism nor the IHRA’s definition.
A worldwide coalition of 40 Jewish groups from 15 different countries has issued a joint statement condemning attempts to stifle criticism of Israel with false accusations of antisemitism. The statement has been published in the Independent.
The statement is timely, as the UK Labour Party is currently facing pressure to adopt the full guidelines accompanying a definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
Labour adopted the 38-word definition long ago. They include two controversial examples of antisemitism, which are directly connected to criticism of Israel.
The guidelines have already been used to target organisations campaigning for Palestinian rights. Supporters of Israel have called on government to stop the annual “Israeli Apartheid Week” on university campuses on the grounds that it breaches the IHRA. The guidelines suggest that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” could itself be racist. Secondly, it’s claimed that “applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected of any other democratic nation” is potentially antisemitic.
However, antiracist principles must surely permit us to legitimately criticise Israel for its discriminatory policies, whether its segregated road network, its dual justice system, or the “Jewish nation state” bill passed on Wednesday, which entrenches ethnic inequality in law.
Maliciously or perversely labelling critics of this ethnic-based discrimination as “antisemitic” also silences Palestinians who object to Israel’s historic and ongoing commandeering and occupation of their land, and who are experiencing violations of their fundamental human rights as a consequence.
One of the key principles of the IHRA guidelines is that it is the victim of racist (or antisemitic) words and behaviour who has the right to say this is unacceptable and must stop, not the perpetrator. The problem is that has given rise to people insisting that they have experienced antisemitism, when it has been quite clear that they haven’t. On more than one occasion, the alleged perpetrator has not been given space to defend themselves against individuals who have used this principle in malice.
Palestinians have collectively called for solidarity through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement until their fundamental human rights are observed and upheld, including the right of return for refugees to their homeland.
Supporters of Israel have already used the idea of “double standards” to attack the BDS movement. Supporters of Israel claim that unless all nations that violate human rights are boycotted, there must be some antisemitic intent underpinning calls for BDS. Of course this isn’t a reasonable argument.
The IHRA definition states that holding Jewish people collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel is antisemitic. I agree. However, this at least recognises the potential for a state to act in ways that may attract international criticism, such as ethnic discrimination.
The “double standards” clause, however, and some interpretations of “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” – bearing in mind that Israel has expanded beyond internationally agreed boundaries – may be used to exempt Israel from international norms and human rights obligations.
There is a world of difference between denying Jewish people “the right to nationhood” and recognising that Israel is systematically denying Palestinians the right to nationhood. We must ensure that antiracism guidelines are not used to permit and excuse other forms of racism, too. Human rights are, after all, universal.
Another problem is that our own government offers military, financial and diplomatic support to Israel and are therefore deeply complicit in Israel’s human rights violations. Implementing a boycott strategy in the UK therefore is no different in terms of motivation as the boycott of South Africa was – on which BDS is modelled – which helped to bring an end to apartheid there.
In conclusion to their letter, the authors say: “BDS is indeed working, as worried pro-Israel groups themselves acknowledged last year. Due to the success of the movement, a global response by Israel’s supporters is in full swing, with legislation to repress the boycott initiated in many countries.
“What is happening in the UK is but one example of attempts to redefine antisemitism to include criticism of Israel. In the US, the Antisemitism Awareness Act does the same.
“As Jews who support the BDS movement, which is based on universal human rights principles and opposition to all racisms, we find it distressing that some imply Jewish communities are unanimous in their support of the IHRA.
“On the contrary, we believe that by dangerously conflating opposition to Israel’s discriminatory policies with anti-Jewish racism, IHRA politicises and harms the fight against antisemitism as well as the struggle for justice for Palestinians.
“We take the threat of antisemitism seriously. Indeed, from our own histories we are all too aware of the dangers of increasingly racist governments and political parties. The rise in antisemitic discourse and attacks worldwide is part of that broader trend.
“In such urgent times, it is more important than ever to distinguish between legitimate critiques of unjust Israeli policies and “hostility to Jews as Jews”, as leading expert Brian Klug defines antisemitism.
“It is profoundly wrong to label the Labour party “antisemitic” for refraining to adopt IHRA guidelines in their entirety. Criticising Israeli policies – or indeed the tenets of Zionism – must be allowed to be part of political debate. That’s why Labour’s national executive committee has found aspects of the IHRA guidelines wanting.
“Leading lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC has criticised the IHRA on these grounds. Civil liberties champions Liberty recently cautioned public bodies that it could constitute a threat to freedom of expression. Tellingly, even US lawyer Kenneth Stern – a key figure in crafting early incarnations of the IHRA – has warned that it could “encourage punishments of legitimate expressions of political opinion.
“Last weekend, two Palestinian teenagers in Gaza were killed by an Israeli air strike. Since the beginning of the Great Return March protests on 30 March, more than 130 people have been killed – including 25 children. These are just the most recent examples of why we call for a non-violent boycott of Israel until it complies with international law.
“With Jewish and Israeli organisations across the globe that have varying approaches to the BDS movement, we stand united against harmful definitions of antisemitism and together for human rights and the freedom to protest.”
Antisemitism and the Labour party – a deeper look (cont) – Jewish Voice for Labour.