Opinion

Corbyn’s Labour, British Jews and anti-Semitism: Will Peace Now Break Out?

The party is, finally, starting to deal with its simmering anti-Semitism. But the saga has exposed a huge rift between the politics of anti-racism on the Left and opposition to anti-Semitism – and that may be intractable

Demonstrators outside a meeting of the National Executive of Britain's LabourParty discussing the party's definition of anti-Semitism. London, September 4, 2018.
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

First, there was the Chakrabarti report, then the Code of Conduct, now Labour has adopted the IHRA definition in full, including all its examples. Will this finally resolve the party’s rancorous and debilitating three-year row over anti-Semitism? Or are the conflicts too deep and the definition of anti-Semitismtoo flimsy? 

The saga presents a conundrum: why has an avowedly anti-racist party found it so hard to deal with anti-Semitism in a principled and decisive way? For many of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters there is a simple answer: The business is a smear concocted by Blairites and Zionists. Yet the simmering anti-Semitism is there to see. Lamentably, too many are unable to recognise it; including, at times, the Labour leader.

Jeremy Corbyn, UK Labour leader, arrives at a meeting of his party's National Executive Committee to discuss its definition of anti-Semitism. London, September 4, 2018.
\ HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

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Amidst the cacophony of claim and counter claim, underlying issues have been overlooked. Weighty in itself, the argument over anti-Semitism also encapsulates wider conflicts within Labour and the Left, and provides a field on which these battles are fought.  

The persistent row reflects a growing divide among the forces that resist racism. Half a century ago, opposition to anti-Semitism and opposition to other racisms were closely aligned, both intellectually and politically. Today, these connections are slender. For many there has been a parting of the ways.

This was demonstrated clearly last month when scores of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) organisations expressed dismay at the prospect of Labour adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism: it would, they said, supress any reckoning with colonial domination, past and present.

These tensions are played out in debates on Israel and Zionism, where the imperatives of postcolonial anti-racism and the politics of anti-Semitism collide.

Labour’s association with Zionism is longstanding. At the time of the Six Day War in 1967, two-thirds of the Parliamentary Labour Party was enrolled in Labour Friends of Israel. Ostensibly, Labour still supports a two state solution. But the election of Corbyn as leader has thrown this legacy into question.

For the first time in its history, the party is led by a committed supporter of the Palestinian cause. This is not only a matter of foreign policy. The vast majority of British Jews identify with Israel constituted as a Jewish state. Commitment to the politics of anti-Zionism is equally strong for many on the Labour Left.

Inevitably, these two groups carry divergent views on when and how the debate on Israel becomes anti-Semitic. Labour’s anti-Semitism row, then, not only connects with the debate over the party’s position on Israel but also serves as a proxy for it. 

Disagreement within Labour over the direction taken under Corbyn’s leadership, over the meaning and content of anti-racism, and over what would constitute justice for the Palestinians, have led many on the Left to dismiss Labour’s problem with anti-Semitism.

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This makes for painful viewing. Anti-racist and Jewish mainstream concerns are seen as incompatible. Jews say they are the canary in the coalmine; but others have decided that the canary’s vulnerability has nothing to do with their own. Too often the feeling appears mutual. The personal connections and institutional alliances that would create a consistent anti-racist practice have been in short supply.

Protesters hold placards and flags during a Jewish community demonstration against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Parliament Square, London. March 26, 2018
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

The current debate in Labour about the definition of anti-Semitism has its origins in these wider divisions over anti-racism, Israel and Zionism – all of which predate the rise of Corbyn. Infamously, they came to a head at the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, where the equation of Zionism and racism led US and Israeli delegations to walk out.

The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which the Labour party has now adopted, is the grandchild of this moment. It led directly to the publication of The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia working definition in January 2005, which disappeared from view, along with the EUMC itself, only to resurface in 2016 in a slightly amended form, endorsed by the IHRA.

Like its predecessor, the IHRA document has provoked controversy. Critics argue that it closes down freedom of speech and will hobble Israel’s critics. But this claim has stood in the way of a still more basic question: is the definition - "A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews" – fit for purpose? Alas, it is not.

As we can see, the definition has no specific content. This is why so much attention has been given to its illustrative examples. It turns out to be the only way to give the initiative any substance.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we find accusations of anti-Semitism widely made in ways not covered either by the IHRA definition or its examples. A case in point: the definition does not provide a basis for anyone to convict an organisation of "institutional anti-Semitism." Yet it has become commonplace for Labour’s critics to level this very charge.

A demonstrator takes part in protests outside a meeting of the National Executive of Britain's Labour Party which will discuss the party's definition of antisemitism, in London, September 4, 2018
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

The concept of institutional racism concerns outcomes - something that lies beyond the range of the IHRA definition, which deals only with perceptions, tropes and hatred. Equally, it is doubtful whether the IHRA definition would successfully capture transgressions in notorious individual cases such as that of the former Labour MP, Ken Livingstone.  

The IHRA definition is narrow and outdated in other important ways too. For example, it lags behind UK Equality Law which is more rigorous on the issue of discrimination and more demanding of public authorities as they respond to the presence of religious and ethnic minorities. These shortcomings are among the disadvantages that follow from the disconnect between campaigns against anti-Semitism and the wider movement to combat racism. 

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We have a situation in which the Jewish leadership has demanded the adoption of a definition that fails to match the ways the concept of anti-Semitism is now used in political debate.

This holds dangers for both the Jewish leadership and the Labour Party. The former will find that their prize tool is radically defective. But this also leaves the Labour Party in a vulnerable position. Having adopted the IHRA definition in full, it may still find itself unable to address cases of anti-Semitism that lie beyond the definition’s scope.

The definition too is a source of ambiguity. Properly understood and applied, the IHRA document does not prohibit Labour Party members from expressing support for justice for Palestinians. However, on some occasions, it has been abused to try to do just this. The row within the Labour’s NEC about the rider that "guarantees" freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians, as well as the angry response of the Jewish leadership, are portents of the trouble to come, and signs that the row is far from over.

Nevertheless, there are some slender grounds for hope; signs that it is still possible for opposition to anti-Semitism to find common cause with the politics of anti-racism.

Labour’s Code of Conduct recognised the specificity of anti-Semitism on the left, and its adoption of the definition does, at the very least, suggest a willingness to act. Notable, too, is the support the Jewish leadership has given to the Windrush generation and its condemnation of Boris Johnson’s "totally unacceptable" remarks about Muslim women.

The ethical and political challenge is to build on these initiatives and, in doing so, move towards a more principled and expansive anti-racist politics.

David Feldman is Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London where he is also a Professor of History. He was a Vice Chair of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into Antisemitism and other forms of racism in the British Labour Party.

Brendan McGeever is lecturer in the sociology of racialization and Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the Acting Associate Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, and is author of the forthcoming monograph The Bolsheviks and Antisemitism in the Russian Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Twitter: @b_mcgeever