Opinion

How to Properly Protect British Jews From Labour's Institutional anti-Semitism

The Labour Party’s disastrous behavior has opened it to accusations of systemic anti-Jewish prejudice. But the British Jewish community is championing a definition of anti-Semitism that is dangerously inadequate to tackling it

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a trades union rally in central London. May 12, 2018
\ Toby Melville/ REUTERS

Since the UK Labour party’s adoption of a new code on anti-Semitism, the storm refuses to abate.

The UK Jewish communal leadership unanimously demands that Labour adopt the "full and unamended text" of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)  definition of anti-Semitism, which addresses, in their words, not only "racial anti-Semitism" targetting Jews but also, crucially, "political anti-Semitism" targetting Israel. Labour defenders of the new code present it as an improvement on the IHRA text.

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The debate has entirely focussed on the question of what statements regarding Israel and Zionism should be seen as anti-Semitic. But the avalanche of responses, and the forensic attention to every word in Israel-related examples, left a more fundamental question undiscussed.

Is the IHRA definition fit for purpose? Is it sufficiently robust to cover most instances of anti-Semitism today? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Just last week, a regional minister in Lower Austria, from the extreme-right Freedom Party, put forward a decree that would limit the sale of kosher meat to Jews carrying a special permit and registered in a state database. Jewish organisations in Austria and Germany were outraged by the plan. The American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office asked pointedly whether Jews would soon be expected to wear the yellow star.

Surely such an egregious example could easily be called out using the "universal definition" of anti-Semitism? Not so fast.

The IHRA defines anti-Semitism as a "certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews." Yet the Austrian minister denied vehemently that the decree had anything to do with Jew-hatred: it was motivated by concerns about animal welfare, he insisted. The decree does not fit any of the "examples" in the IHRA definition – all of them deal with discourse, and most are Israel-related.

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Only at the very bottom of the IHRA text, almost as an afterthought, we find reference to anti-Semitic discrimination: "The denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others." Yet it is doubtful if this weak formulation would apply here, as according to the decree Jews would "benefit" from services that would be unavailable to others.

Using the IHRA definition to prove the racist logic of this initiative is not going to be straightforward.

Or we could take Poland’s infamous law from January 2018, which threatened prison sentence on anyone suggesting Polish complicity in the Holocaust. While criminal sanctions were dropped following negotiations with Israel, researchers in Poland are still at risk of civil suits if they pursue such research.

Downplaying Polish complicity could amount to Holocaust denial - which is denounced by the IHRA definition. But there is nothing in the definition to address a McCarthyist clampdown on research into Polish anti-Semitism before or after the Holocaust. Both Austria and Poland, it should be said, are members of IHRA, and adopted its definition.

These examples reflect the deep flaw in the IHRA text: its weakness in identifying structural anti-Semitism.

Indeed, the code was never meant to serve as a catch-all definition of anti-Semitism. It was put together in 2005 as a working tool for data collectors monitoring anti-Semitic hate-crime in the EU. In 2016, the definition was re-introduced by the IHRA, and since then formally adopted by the UK government and other bodies.  

The IHRA definition has remained contentious among Jewish Studies scholars, with many - including its original lead drafter - warning it could stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. But what received almost no attention is how out of step the definition is with current thinking on racism.

In the last two decades, the emphasis in the study and tackling of racism has shifted to structures, policies, and effects, rather than perceptions or emotions. It is now commonly accepted that beyond obvious racist incidents, rhetoric and policies, bigotry operates by institutions creating a hostile environment for certain groups and systematically disadvantaging them, whether deliberately or unwittingly.

A van with a slogan aimed at Britain's Labour Party is driven around Parliament Square ahead of a debate on antisemitism in Parliament, in London, April 17, 2018
\ HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

The awareness of structural racism is the basis of the 2010 UK Equality Act. It has also informed Professor David Feldman’s definition of anti-Semitism which puts the emphasis not only on discourse but also on social and institutional practices.

Yet the concept of institutional racism is entirely missing from the IHRA definition, which identifies anti-Semitism as an emotion (hatred), and hinges on intent and motivation. While it is difficult to prove internal emotions in individuals, it is almost impossible in organizations.

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British Jews' key demands from Labour are, indeed, about institutional practice. This means not only regulations and procedures but also environment and norms.

When disciplinary procedures into a clear case like that of Ken Livingstone's drags out over two years, there is an issue that goes beyond individuals. When the Labour leadership fails to come out against the anti-Semitic abuse of MPs in a timely and forceful manner - this is about institutional environment. 

The problem is that this definition does not help in these matters. Compare the IHRA to other widely-accepted definitions of institutional racism:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin [] can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping.

That is the language of the proposals made by the MacPherson Report (proposals made in 1999 to tackle Britain's "institutionally racist" police force). Or the formulation of the Commission for Racial Equality:

If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, that institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaning those practices have racial intentions.

All these are by far more useful than the IHRA definition - and they are not specific to anti-Semitism and Jews.

Anger and frustration with Labour’s recent record are understandable. Labour’s new code made IHRA worse by placing further emphasis on "anti-Semitic intent" rather than on context and effects.

The Labour Party’s disastrous handling of complaints of anti-Semitism in the past three years since Jeremy Corbyn became party leader has opened it to accusations of institutional anti-Semitism. Yet such charge could not be supported - or tackled - by the IHRA definition itself, which virtually exempts systemic racism.

Members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews outside Britain's parliament after a meeting with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, on his handling of anti-Semitism allegations. London, April 24, 2018
Jonathan Brady/AP

It seems that the question of what can and cannot be said on Israel has blinded participants in this debate from seeing the bigger picture. In the name of the struggle against anti-Israel "political anti-Semitism," a restrictive definition, which leaves out key forms of anti-Jewish prejudice, is being sanctified.

Right now, with far right elements in several governments, and anti-Semitism rising in the populist left, it seems short-sighted to champion a definition so narrow and inadequate that it fails to cover blatant examples of anti-Semitism.

True, anti-Semitism has particular traits, as do Islamophobia, racism against people of color, homophobia and misogyny (all of which do not have binding definitions). But insisting on a particularistic, Israel-centered definition has resulted in a poor text which provides Jews with far weaker protection than existing UK Equality legislation.

Understanding anti-Semitism as a systemic phenomenon, and tackling it in the wider struggle against racism and bigotry, remains a far better alternative.

Yair Wallach is a senior lecturer in Israeli Studies, and the head of the Centre for Jewish Studies, at SOAS, the University of London. Twitter: @YairWallach