On 1st August 2019, the Jewish charity, the Community Security Trust (CST) which has monitored anti-Semitic activity since 1984 reported a record increase in anti-Semitic incidents for the first six months; 892 in total, a 10 per cent increase on the same period last year when the total stood at 810.
Although by no means stating that it is the only causative factor, the chair of the British Board of Deputies for Jews, Marie van der Zyl, stated in a Sky News interview that there is a correlation between the rise in anti-Semitic hate crime to the accession to and consolidation of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. 55 of the incidents reported to the CST related to the Labour Party in the months of February and March comprising over half of the 100 incidents compiled for those two months Ms van der Zyl theorised that the publicity accruing from the steady flow of allegations of anti-Jewish behaviour within Labour and the tardy responses of the leadership has given permission to people with an animus towards Jews to act out their hostility (in the same way that the vote for Brexit gave permission to racists of other hues to verbally and physically abuse people of colour and from EU countries).
Labour’s anti-Semitism malaise has recently been solidified by two developments: ongoing investigation by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into institutional racism (only the second political party to have been the subject of an EHRC enquiry since the British National Party) and the BBC Panorama documentary made by the renowned investigative journalist John Ware into the rise of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and the how it has been dealt with by the Labour leadership and its bureaucracy. It was a programme that so upset the Labour high command that it has requested that it be taken off the BBC I-player service.
Since much (but by no means all) of the controversy on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has revolved around whether criticism of Zionism and the State of Israel can be considered anti-Semitic with supporters of Jeremy Corbyn arguing that allegations of anti-Semitism are made in bad faith to deflect criticism of Israeli human rights abuses and war crimes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and/or to undermine Corbyn’s leadership of the party from embittered “Blairites” with the backing of all-powerful and secretive Israel lobby. These include the small but vocal minority group Jewish Voice for Labour which is avowedly antizionist. They point to life-long antiracist and human rights campaigning by Corbyn as evidence that it is impossible for him to be anti-Semitic.
Corbyn’s critics assert that, at best, he is ignorant of how contemporary anti-Semitism manifests itself in parts of the Left, particularly that left milieu which he has spent his entire political career operating in. Either he has been, in an ironic categorisation by Dave Hill of the CST, “the unluckiest antiracist in history” due to his, coincidental or not, sharing of political space with Holocaust deniers, Islamist hate preachers, 9/11 conspiracy theorists and terrorist supporters, in the course of his deep and long. commitment to the cause of Palestinian rights. Or, if not anti-Semitic himself, he has enabled anti-Semitism to grow on his watch just as Donald Trump has enabled and assisted in the growth of racism and race prejudice since becoming President of the USA.
Since one of the kernels of the Labour anti-Semitism dispute relates to Israel and Zionism, I wish to discuss the origins of the document at the heart of it, the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA)’s definition of anti-Semitism and, especially, the clauses that relate to criticisms of Israel in order to arrive at some sort of definitional clarity.
The descriptor of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is:
A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. (Lipstadt, 2019)
The IHRA definition came out of the EUMC (European Union Monitoring Centre) on Racism and Xenophobia, now the Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) Working Definition on Ant-Semitism. This definition, in a tweaked but practically identical form, was later adopted by the US State Department, 34 international governments, the UK government plus the devolved Scottish and Welsh administrations. After lengthy, not to say tortuous, deliberations, it was adopted by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in late 2018.
The aspects of the IHRA definition that have caused greatest controversy relate to Israel. It offers examples of things that may be termed anti-Semitic ‘taking into account the overall context’:
■ Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist or settler-colonial enterprise.
■ Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not demanded or expected of any other democratic nation.
■ Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism(e.g. the blood libel, Jews killed Christ and Jewish ambitions for world dominance as laid out in the notorious Tsarist forgery The Learned Protocols of the Elders of Zion or in the powers of the Rothschild banking dynasty) to characterise Israel and Israelis.
■ Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis (e.g. Shoah/Holocaust inversion or comparing Israeli actions to the Holocaust and the visual portrayal of such in the superimposition of the swastika onto the Star of David).
■ Holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel.
The definition then emphasises that, on the other hand, ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against other countries cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic (Hirsh, 2018).
Proponents of IHRA argue that the definition does not prevent advocacy on behalf of the human and national rights of the Palestinian Arab populations living under Israeli control or who live as refugees. It does not prevent condemnation of things the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank; the creeping annexation of the West Bank, the daily hardships imposed on the Arabs by Israeli defence and security agencies or the conduct of the Israeli military in the three recent wars with Hamas in Gaza or the continuing blockade of Gaza by Israel (as well as by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority). It is what they regard as the delegitimization of the State of Israel through campaigns like Israeli Apartheid Weeks and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). It is my personal belief that the ‘double standards’ and ‘similar criticism’ examples listed above require greater elaboration.
Anti-Zionist opponents of IHRA assert that the Jewish groups involved in its construction are, in the words of David Hirsh, acting in ‘bad faith’. Hirsh sees as ‘implicit’ in this accusation the belief that these Jewish groups are not really working in the interests of combatting anti-Semitism. Rather, he states that ‘they are secretly prepared to the sacrifice the struggle against “real” anti-Semitism by co-opting its political capital to a dishonest attempt to de-legitimise criticism of Israel’. (Hirsh: p.146).
In this ‘anti-Zionist narrative ‘, Hirsh, explains, these Jewish groups are conceived of as being ‘white’ and not antiracist; as part of the struggle between Israel and Palestine; and neither part of the Jewish struggle against anti-Semitismnot part of the global struggle against anti-black racism (Hirsh: p.146). As this contestation over the definition of anti-Semitism has become one of the fault lines in the often rancorous debates within the Labour Party over contemporary anti-Semitism and, indeed, among the global left over contemporary “anti-imperialism it is necessary to go back to the factors that gave rise to the need felt by many Jewish groups to formulate a contemporary definition of anti=Semitism.
Genealogy of IHRA Definition.
The origins of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism lie in the creation of a post-Berlin Wall human rights and democratic architecture for Europe. The animus for it came from events that occurred at the UN World Conference Against Racism (WACR) in September 2001.
At the 1990 Copenhagen Conference of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), commitments were made to combat all forms of racial and ethnic hatred, anti-Semitism xenophobia and discrimination. Preceding as it did the fall of Communism in East-Central Europe, the OSCE as a forum where Europe, the USSR and the USA could talk to each other, was ideally suited for the task of attempting to shape the post-Cold War new Europe, in particular by solidifying states’ commitment to the principles of human rights and democracy. The commitments entered into at Copenhagen were given the stamp of approval by heads of state in the ‘Charter of Paris for a New Europe’. (Hirsh, p.141)
In September 2001 the WARC was held in Durban in the newly democratic, post-apartheid South Africa. This conference took place in the shadow of the breakdown of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. At the conference there was a determined campaign to portray Zionism as the main exemplar of racism in the world and an organised and hostile anti-Israel fervour throughout the week-long conference. This atmosphere spilled over into overt hatred of Jews. One account by Ronald Eissens and published by ICARE, an anti-racist European NGO of a parallel NGO conference at a huge cricket ground gives a flavour of what it was like:
Jews were actively discriminated [against], shouted down, meetings on Anti-Semitism were hijacked by Palestinian Caucus members and supporters and people who protested against all this were branded ‘Zionist pig lovers’ and Jew lovers.
On the big September 1st demonstration, the most dominant slogan (of many) was Free Palestine. Pamphlets were handed out with a portrait of Hitler displaying the text:
What if I had won? The good things: There would be No Israel and No Palestinian’s blood shed – and the rest is your guess. The bad things: I wouldn’t have allowed the making of the new beetle – and the rest is your guess (Hirsh: pp.141-42).
Following these tempestuous (and for many Jewish delegates traumatic) events, occurring as they did against the background of the breakdown of the Israel/Palestine peace process and the later attacks by Islamist fanatics on the USA on 11th September 2001 and creating in the words of Eissen ‘a dark cloud of hate descending upon this world’; attempts were made to raise the issue of anti-Semitism within the European Union. After meetings between the EUMC director Beate Winkler and European Jewish Congress (EJC) officials a report on anti-Semitism in each EU member state was commissioned with a composite analysis of the reports to be published by the Centre for Anti-Semitic Research at Berlin’s Technical University. This report in 2003, however, was unfavourably received by the EUMC Monitoring Board for attributing much of the blame in the rise in anti-Semitism to Muslim communities. A second report in 2004 laid the blame for the majority of anti-Semitic activity on the far right.
More significantly though, the EUMC had noted in its 2004 report on anti-Semitism ‘the lack of a common definition’ and requested one from a small group of NGOs. What was to become the Working Definition which later morphed into the IHRA definition was disseminated in March 2004 and was intended to serve as a template for police services and antiracist campaigners, for use on the streets rather than incorporation into national legislation. However. it was expected to seep into universal usage by the relevant parties and this is what eventually happened with the All-Party Parliamentary Body into Anti-Semitism in the UK recommending its adoption in 2005 as did a number of similar initiatives around the world. It was in its ultimate form, the IHRA definition, adopted by the UK government in December 2016.
The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is the outcome of lobbying by Jewish antiracist organisations in Europe in response to the rising levels of anti-Semitism in Europe and the new forms in which it is manifests itself; Islamist Jew hatred and far left opposition to the State of Israel as well as the traditional (and still active) far right Judeophobia. It needs to be pointed out that small but vociferous antizionist Jewish groups such as Corbyn supporting Jewish Voice for Labour oppose the IHRA definition. It is alleged that Jeremy Corbyn took so long to finally endorse IHRA because he feared he would fall foul of it. Opponents of IHRA assert that it has led to a chilling effect on pro-Palestinian advocacy and campaigning with campus events such as Israeli Apartheid Week being subjected to restrictions and community events in support of Palestinians being prohibited such as the London Borough of Tower Hamlet’s cancellation of a recent pro-Palestinian bicycle ride because of (alleged) fears that it would fall foul of IHRA.
Supporters of IHRA argue that it does not forbid any criticism of any aspect of any Israeli policy. It is opposition to the existence of the State of Israel and the demonisation of Israel as some sort of unique evil in the world based on a reading of Zionism as a fundamentally racist, supremacist, settler-colonial ideology that IHRA advocates see as anti-Semitic. They point to the use of ancient, conspiratorial anti-Jewish tropes and stereotypes by opponents of Israel’s existence such as “Zionist” control of global financial, media and political systems through the Rothschild dynasty and the invocation of the ‘blood libel’ when accusing Israel of the killing of Palestinian children as evidence of this modern anti-Semitism.
Demanding that Israel not be subjected to demands for behavioural standards not required or expected of other democratic nations is arguably vague. This may refer to the relatively less vitriol that the USA, UK and other partners of the “coalition of the willing” have received for dubious practices in the War on Terror and Iraq and Afghanistan wars than Israel attracts whenever conflict breaks out in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The “double standards” criterion may have more validity when one considers the records of some of Israel’s most strident critics in relation to other conflicts and sites of human rights violations in the world. There is the reluctance of Jeremy Corbyn to utter the words in relation to Syria “I condemn the actions of President Assad and his ally, President Putin” and of President Maduro of Venezuela; George Galloway’s saluting of the “courage and indefatigability” of Saddam Hussein; Noam Chomsky’s defence of Diane Johnstone’s denial of the Srebrenica massacre and, earlier, of the Khmer Rouge; John Pilger’s defence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of the “anti-fascist” Putin and of Slobodan Milosevic and suspended Labour MP Chris Williamson summoning up of the academic network headed up by the Bristol University political sociologist David Miller (none of whom have any specialism in the area) dedicated to the denial of Assad’s chemical weapons atrocities to fight for his reinstatement. Williamson has form in relation to Syria through his gushing admiration for the fake journalistic work of the Assad devotee Vanessa Beeley which includes the slandering of the Syrian volunteer civil defence force the White Helmets as NATO backed Islamist terrorist. The positions of anti-Israel activists and propagandists on other conflicts looks like a good subject for further empirical and scholastic research but there are enough anecdotes such as the double and treble standards cited above as well as the silences from those cut from similar political cloth on other occupations such as Tibet by China, Western Sahara by Morocco and West Irian by Indonesia.
Denial of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the form of a nation state would not be seen as a priori anti-Semitic if those doing the denying were consistent across the board and opposed, on principle, all nationalist movements, all separatist tendencies and ethnostates. In which case Kurds, Catalans, Scots, Baluchis, Basques or any ethnic or national minority one can think of would not be allowed to assert this right.
Regarding perhaps the most inflammatory aspect of anti-Zionist, anti-Israel discourse and practice, comparisons between Israeli behaviour and that of the Nazis; a simple bland statement that Israel kills civilians just like the Nazis would not count as an anti-Semitic statement. But the trouble begins when anti-Israel protagonists appropriate the images and narratives of the Shoah/Holocaust as part of their linguistic armoury. Displaying images of the swastika superimposed on the Star of David, of Israeli leaders depicted as wearing Hitler type moustaches and the falsification of history in order to prove Zionist collaboration with the Nazi implementation of the Shoah or that Hitler supported Zionism do incite hatred and ultimately have anti-Semitic consequences. It is no coincidence, in my view, that KGB and Communist Party functionaries who prosecuted the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign with such vigour in the 1960s, 70s and 80s later became involved in far-right anti-Semitic groups like Pamiyat in Russia after the collapse of the USSR.
Perhaps the IHRA definition is too blunt an instrument for dealing with anti-Semitism in the same way that Prevent is a well-meaning but blunt instrument for dealing with extremist and the threat of terrorism (white far right as well as Islamist far right); perhaps modern anti-Semitism is better dealt with existing hate-crime and public order legislation. Subjecting false Zionist-Nazi analogies to the rigours of scholastic inquiry may well be a better method of refuting such calumnies. It is worth pointing out that academic debate and inquiry around the creation of the State of Israel is excluded from the purview of the IHRA and that the IHRA definition has individual institutional not statutory remit. But IHRA is, in my view, a legitimate response to the increasing levels of mutating, shape-shifting as well as “traditional” anti-Semitism (other forms of hate crime are equally deserving of such a response) which events in the Labour Party in the last three years have exemplified. It does not have to be a means of restricting freedom of speech or journalistic or academic inquiry.
David Hirsh, Contemporary Left Antisemitism London: Routledge 2018.
 Two-thirds of these 892 incidents took place in the UK cities with the largest Jewish populations; Greater London and Greater Manchester. Over a third involved social media and among the them included physical assault, the painting of anti-Semitic graffiti on the homes of Holocaust survivors and the portrayal of Gaza as a Nazi style concentration camp. The CST do say that is not clear whether the total increase is due to better reporting or an actual quantitative increase in anti-Semitic abuse; probably a combination of both. (Daily Mirror, 1 August 2019)
⏩ Barry Gilheany has joined the Jewish Labour Movement as an affiliate member and encourages fellow labour movement colleagues concerned about Labour’s anti-Semitism problem to do the same.