Antisemitism controversy: the next round
THE LABOUR antisemitism controversy is currently in a lull, but this period of respite will not last. Indeed, the forces behind the most recent episode of this saga - in which Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) was browbeaten into adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism - are already working to consolidate their gains.
On 19th September, Tower Hamlets council (Labour) passed an opposition (Conservative) motion to adopt the IHRA definition in full. On 10th October, Lambeth council voted unanimously to adopt not just the IHRA definition but a more extreme version of it. An attempt by the Green Party to insert a caveat protecting free speech was voted down by the Labour group. On 18th October, Brighton and Hove city council passed a joint Labour-Conservative motion to adopt the IHRA (none opposed, one abstention) following the passage of a similar motion by Leeds city council the day before.
The NEC’s pre-conference capitulation has greatly hampered the ability of dissident Jewish, Palestine solidarity, BAME and other activists to oppose adoption of the IHRA definition at local level. Indeed, it has given right wing Labour councillors the green light to work with the Conservatives to push the IHRA through. The coalition of interests driving the IHRA roll-out and the ‘Labour antisemitism’ campaign was never limited to pro-Israel networks seeking to undermine support for Palestinian rights. It also incorporated Labour rightists attempting to hold the fort against an insurgent leadership and its newly mobilised base. Right wing Labour councillors see in the IHRA a potential club to keep unruly members in line.
Local activists opposed to the IHRA definition have rightly emphasised the threat it poses to free speech. The document lists eleven “examples” of potentially antisemitic speech which “could”, depending on the “overall context”, be antisemitic; of these, fully seven concern Israel. In practice, the contextual qualifier is often overlooked and the IHRA’s illustrative examples treated as inherently illegitimate (as in Lambeth council’s recent motion). The IHRA document so construed is a potent weapon in the hands of political persecutors, and it has repeatedly been wielded to this effect. A motion put before Barnet council in July 2018 cited the IHRA definition to effectively prevent supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel from holding events in the borough. The motion argued that BDS activism constitutes antisemitism because it focuses on Israel to the exclusion of, for example, “the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus”.
Presumably, opponents of Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus would likewise be guilty of bigotry if they ignored Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank. (And what of those who concentrate their activism disproportionately on defending Israel, like the author of the Barnet motion?)
Similar cases of IHRA-enabled censorship abound. In a recent academic paper, Professor Rebecca Gould documents multiple instances where pro-Israel actors were able to use the IHRA definition, and in particular to exploit its misleading quasi-legal appearance, to pressure university administrations to alter, and in at least one case (at the University of Central Lancashire), to directly suppress events critical of Israel on campus.
Even the vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews was recently accused by two deputies of violating the IHRA’s illustrative example no. 8: “Applying double standards” to Israel. Her sin was to have suggested that “some of the measures” in Israel’s recent Nation State law were “regressive steps” (by contrast, liberal Israeli critics of the legislation have branded it “apartheid”).
Still more corrosive than these overt silencing attempts is the chilling effect the IHRA definition is likely to have on the broader Labour membership. Unsure what they’re permitted to say, members will steer clear of potentially troublesome topics altogether.
The IHRA definition’s potential for abuse explains why civil liberties experts and campaign groups have consistently advised against its adoption. In May 2018, the AGM of Liberty, the UK’s leading civil liberties watchdog, warned that the IHRA definition “risks undermining” the fight against antisemitism while posing a “threat to freedom of expression”, and called on public authorities “not to adopt” it. Liberty’s US counterpart, the American Civil Liberties Union, observed of a variant of the IHRA definition that it “equated” protected criticism of Israel with antisemitism such that “free speech will be chilled”. Hugh Tomlinson QC has written that “there is likely to be lack of consistency in its application and a potential chilling effect on public bodies”, while according to former Court of Appeal Judge Sir Stephen Sedley, “the IHRA definition offers encouragement to pro-Israel militants” who target critics of Israel for “abuse” and “censor[ship]”, not least through its “tendentious examples which look to immunise Israel from sharp criticism”.
Labour members and councillors tempted to concede over the IHRA definition for the sake of concord ought to heed these warnings. The Labour right has not reconciled to the Corbyn project and so the manufactured antisemitism controversy is bound to resurface. To equip the left’s opponents with instruments of censorship in the misguided belief that only a minority of Palestine solidarity activists will be targeted is not just unprincipled but unwise.
Jamie Stern-Weiner is a PhD student at the University of Oxford and the editor of Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions (2018).