The U.K. Labour Party’s recent adoption of a formal definition of anti-Semitism has been a long time coming – and is all the more disappointing for that.
The new and looser classification fudges a number of elements of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition (widely accepted both internationally and by official bodies in the United Kingdom), which says that Jewish people should be allowed to define what constitutes anti-Semitism.
Most notably, Labour’s new guidelines call for “evidence of anti-Semitic intent” – an inclusion that seems to be a useful way of whitewashing many of the incidents of alleged anti-Semitism the party is still investigating.
The move has caused widespread anger but little surprise within the Anglo-Jewish community. In April, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn met a delegation from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council to discuss his party’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism – talks described publicly by community representatives as “a disappointing missed opportunity.”
One source who was present at the meeting said that, even at the time, Labour representatives had signaled their intention to rollback the adoption of the IHRA definition. The latest move was “totally expected,” he added. “This allows them to have a definition that lets them continue saying the same things,” he said. “Who on earth is going to say, ‘I intended to be anti-Semitic?’”
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Despite generating many headlines, the issue of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party has failed to become a mainstream concern. This is not because British people are intrinsically anti-Semitic, but because they believe the country has far bigger problems – notably Brexit and a government struggling to deal with all of the associated issues of exiting the European Union.
Labour front-bencher and Corbyn critic Keir Starmer told the BBC on Sunday that his party had got it wrong on anti-Semitism, “and if we are not in a position of supporting the full [IHRA] definition, we need to get into that position and sharpish.”
His statement backed up the stance of Jewish Labour MPs led by Luciana Berger, who wrote last week to the party’s secretary-general, Jennie Formby, warning that the new definition risked giving anti-Semites “a get out of jail free card.”
But Starmer’s position was quickly overshadowed by political developments – not least the departure of Brexit Secretary David Davis and the bombshell resignation of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson from the cabinet in recent days.
With the Conservative government of Theresa May in tatters and a new parliamentary election looking ever more likely, Labour voters are seemingly willing to overlook what the party leadership has quite successfully managed to characterize as a fringe problem that is being dealt with internally.
Labour has done just enough to present a plausible argument to the wider public that it is the true party of anti-racism, as disappointing as that is to the mainstream Jewish community.
Crucially, it has engaged with some fringe Jewish bodies – such as the “Jewdas seder,” where Corbyn himself attended a Passover celebration organized by a far-left and happily non-Zionist Jewish group.
Such moves, along with calling for consultations and dialogue while delivering very little of either, have given the public appearance of addressing Jewish concerns.
Experts and insiders might disagree with Formby’s argument that the new anti-Semitism definition is actually more comprehensive than the IHRA position, which she claimed did not “go far enough for practical use by a political party.”
Labour’s subtle changes to the IHRA definition could be seen as speaking to the traditional far-left discipline from which Corbyn and his key allies emerged, which views Israel as an imperialist project that must be opposed by all good anti-racists.
One of the guidelines’ most contentious points relates to long-running allegations that accusations of anti-Semitism are being used to shut down criticism of Israel.
“Discourse about international politics often employs metaphors from examples of historic misconduct,” the guidelines say. “It is not anti-Semitism to criticise the conduct or policies of the Israeli state by reference to such examples unless there is evidence of anti-Semitic intent.”
But this clause alone could have gone a long way toward excusing comments made in two of the party’s most high-profile anti-Semitism scandals.
Veteran activist and former London Mayor Ken Livingstone resigned from the party earlier this year following his suspension for repeatedly insisting that Hitler supported Zionism, “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.” And another suspended Labour activist, Jackie Walker, notoriously described Jewish people as “the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade.”
“The big issue with the [new] definition is that of establishing anti-Semitic intent,” said David Hirsh, a sociology lecturer and author of “Contemporary Left Antisemitism.”
“It’s a really significant break with the understanding of racism in general,” he added. “Everyone accepts that institutional and cultural racism exist in social structures, and are not necessarily caused by conscious intent. But not anti-Semitism.”
It is particularly galling in the British context, where for nearly two decades policy on combating prejudice has been guided by the findings of the 1999 Macpherson Report – a public inquiry that followed the racially motivated murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.
One of its key recommendations was that minority communities must have the right to define the prejudice they face.
The Labour leadership has failed to do so at pretty much every stage of this dreary saga. Now, by adopting these guidelines, the Labour Party has not only ignored the advice of the entire mainstream Jewish community but also the expert in the field – the Community Security Trust, which monitors threats to U.K. Jewry.
It has also ignored the Jewish wing within its own party: Mike Katz and Adam Langleben of the Jewish Labour Movement made clear in a New Statesman article that they had not signed off on the new definition.
“For three years,” they wrote, the JLM has “been telling the Labour Party to adopt IHRA, not some bastardized version that requires intent to be proven.”
The JLM has now written to Labour’s National Executive Committee to formally request it “urgently and publicly” withdraw the decision, adding that otherwise it will bring a formal dispute against it. Yet despite this threat, the new definition is highly likely to be adopted.
The Jewish community itself is getting tired of fighting this seemingly intractable battle. There has been collateral damage, too, in the bitter arguments that are being waged on social media and in communal bodies with those Jews who have chosen to remain in the party. With the prospect of a Labour government led by Corbyn now looking more likely with the Conservatives in disarray over Brexit, Anglo Jewry is moving into damage limitation mode.