Codes and caveats – the battle is not over yet!
THE NOISE FROM JEREMY CORBYN’S opponents across the establishment, from the Guardian to the far-right of the Tory Party, and from self-defined ‘Jewish leadership’ organisations, as Labour’s fateful NEC meeting on 4th September approached, was deafening. This was portrayed as make or break. Adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) document with the eleven contentious examples or be branded as antisemites.
The agenda of those pushing hardest among Jewish right wing organisations was revealed by the Jewish Chronicle editor, Stephen Pollard. He said Labour could not accept the IHRA examples without then having to expel thousands of Labour and Momentum members who breached the code.
The previous Labour NEC meeting had made a brave and perfectly responsible move. Outsourcing policy to third parties was unpalatable, given Corbyn’s determination to strengthen the membership in decision-making. Faced with enormous pressure, the NEC formed a working party, which drafted Labour’s own code of conduct on antisemitism. This incorporated the poorly drafted 38-word IHRA ‘definition’ and several unproblematic examples, but it reworked and added caveats to the more contentious ones.
Labour was traduced across the media and Corbyn slandered as an antisemite, but an impressive campaign to defend the code was launched which amplified dissident Jewish, BAME and Palestinian voices.
The deceptions around the IHRA were exposed. Only six governments among the 31-country IHRA members had actually agreed and endorsed the full IHRA document.
But key left wing NEC representatives including trade unionists were wobbling under the pressure to drop the NEC’s code in favour of the full IHRA. Two NEC members expected to support Corbyn withdrew on the day. One was Pete Willsman, embroiled in a controversy at a previous NEC discussion of the issue. Another was John Trickett, of part Jewish descent, and feeling uncomfortable about the atmosphere surrounding the issue.
With defeat almost inevitable, Corbyn worked to salvage something from the wreckage. He drafted a 500-word statement to sit alongside the IHRA document. This addressed the most contentious example which stated that calling a state of Israel a racist endeavour denied Jewish self-determination and was antisemitic. This simultaneously conflates Jewish self-determination with territory and denies Palestinians’ perceptions of the racism expressed through Israel’s birth.
While the IHRA arguments continued, Netanyahu’s government passed the Jewish Nation State law, formalising an apartheid system over Palestinians and other non-Jews in Israel. That law was passed as Israel welcomed Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban on a state visit. Orban openly used antisemitic, Islamophobic, anti- Roma and anti-refugee themes to assist his re-election. Apartheid Israel is one of the six full signatories to the IHRA document.
Corbyn’s document sought to protect Palestinians’ right to analyse the circumstances of Israel’s birth and protect campaigners for Palestinian rights today from being constantly suspected of antisemitism. This false notion of a paper-thin line between criticising Israel and being antisemitic was promoted by Margaret Hodge whose well-planned tantrums have grabbed inordinate media headlines.
Undoubtedly there are instances where arguments for Palestinian rights are expressed in antisemitic terms but several left wing Jewish groups affirm that it is possible to strongly support Palestinian rights and strongly oppose antisemitism. The converse is also true as Trump’s white supremacist, Christian fundamentalist friends show. They are simultaneously pro-Zionist and antisemitic.
It became clear that Corbyn’s document was likely to be defeated so he withdrew it. Jon Lansman, Rhea Wolfson and Ann Black all indicated that they wouldn’t vote for it. A one-line caveat was proposed and accepted in its place, defending free speech on Palestinian rights. This was important but, even more crucially, Corbyn succeeded in re-opening consultation in the light of the discussions.
This means that it will be revisited by the incoming NEC post-conference on which the left, if it stays united, will be numerically stronger.
Just as the ‘Jewish leadership’ organisations were preparing to celebrate the success of the campaign by them and more powerful bodies of the British establishment, in forcing a retreat, the implications of what Corbyn did became evident. The unelected Jewish Leadership Council, top heavy with Tories and Blairites, and a close co-operator with Israeli lobbying bodies, said Corbyn’s addition would "drive a coach and horses" through the IHRA definition. The Jewish Chronicle likewise bemoaned the ‘free speech’ commitment.
Good. If our opponents are reduced to complaining about Labour's desire for free speech on Israel and Palestine, it makes their true agenda of promoting censorship, and outlawing views other than their own, ever more transparent.
What should we do from here?
Resist any attempts by our opponents to use the IHRA examples adopted to unjustly target Corbyn and other members.
Stay calm and strategic in order to support the leadership and build support on the ground to get Labour elected.
Urge the leadership to confidently assert its support for the Palestinian struggle for equal rights and against the illegal occupation, especially welcoming anti-Netanyahu protests by Jewish oppositionists within Israel and their increasing co-operation with Palestinian campaigners.
Encourage the leadership to include a broad range of Jewish, BAME and Palestinian opinion in further consultations, and foster constructive relationships with Jews with whom Labour shares common ground, rather than with Jewish establishment organisations implacably opposed to Labour.
Encourage the leadership to focus on the real threat of racism, including antisemitism, on the right and far right, by building dialogue with representatives of minority groups, including Jews, over how the Labour Party can confront the revitalised far right here and abroad.