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A few thoughts on Labour’s new guidelines on antisemitism

A great deal of anger has been caused by Labour’s 16 point code of conduct on antisemitism. I agree with some but not all of the criticisms which have been levelled at it, and will go through some of the key concerns which have been raised offering a few reflections on these.

The first examples are taken from an article by Lee Harpin in the JC.

[C]rucially, the new Labour Party version omits some of the explicit references to how criticism of Israel can easily stray into antisemitic discourse.

What is immediately obvious is the attempt to weaken the guidelines around how and when criticism of Israel can stray into territory that is obviously antisemitic.

Under point 7 of the code of conduct there is a discussion of the importance of allowing debate on Israel and an acknowledgement that the precise relationship between Israel and antisemitism is contested; the importance of civility is emphasised.

While the document’s critics claim that the IHRA guidelines are being weakened – which is understandable – I think it is at least possible that this kind of clarification will help prevent straw man attacks, people whining that criticism of Israel’s government is being deemed antisemitic.

Some examples specifically identifying Israel as a vector of antisemitism are retained – e.g. accusing Israel of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust (9e).

Paragraphs 12 and 13 engage with this slightly elliptical clause from the IHRA definition:

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

It seems to me helpful and reasonable to suggest, as the Labour guidelines do, that this shouldn’t be taken as outlawing criticisms of the way non-Jews may be impacted by Israel’s laws or policies. Again, this might clear up straw man attacks on measures taken to deal with antisemitism.

I broadly agree with the guidelines that the same freedom to debate should hold true when it comes to discussions around early Zionism and the founding of Israel.  But more was needed here to balance protecting freedom of speech and the exchange of ideas with identifying racism.  It would have been helpful to include some examples of ways of discussing Israel which go beyond mere criticism – calls for its destruction or describing it as a tumour are two very obvious ones. Also a condemnation of the aggressive assertion, commonly made, that Zionists are racists would have been welcome.

Remarkably, the new guidelines even suggest that Israel’s “description of itself as a ‘Jewish state’ can cause particular difficulty in the context of deciding whether language or behaviour is anti-Semitic.”

I agree that it was unhelpful to flag this as a specific issue in isolation (11) although the cautions raised in 13 on this point seem reasonable enough.

They also say that the use of “Zionist” and “Zionism” in a positive way by pro-Israel supporters is also deemed problematic.

Here I disagree with Harpin’s interpretation of the document.  If you look at 15 you will see that the guidelines acknowledge an obvious truth – that ‘Zionist’ is not always, by any means, used as a term of abuse. This is not problematic in itself but potentially problematic in the context of working out if a tweet or whatever is antisemitic. You will need to evaluate the context; if one member of the ZF describes another member as a Zionist – there probably isn’t anything to worry about.

They also the contain the suggestion that there is a need to prove “antisemitic intent” in relation to criticism of the state of Israel along with the suggestion that: “It is not antisemitism to refer to ‘Zionism’ and ‘Zionists’ as part of a considered discussion about the Israeli state.”

Here I agree that an emphasis on ‘intent’ is problematic – however again the point being made here is pretty uncontentious.  If you are writing a history of Israel you are going to use the words ‘Zionism’ and ‘Zionists’.  The words, in themselves, are in no way an indicator of antisemitism.  That’s my reading of the point the guidelines were trying to make here.

In an apparent acknowledgment that it is acceptable to compare the actions of Israel with some of the most repressive regimes in history, the guidelines state: “Discourse about international politics often employs metaphors from examples of historic misconduct.

“It is not antisemitism to criticise the conduct or policies of the Israeli state by reference to such examples unless there is evidence of antisemitic intent.

I thought the first paragraph here was perhaps just a little sharp. However I completely agree with the point made in the second; here the emphasis on intent is not at all helpful, as, particularly in a Labour context, you will find plenty of people indignantly (and often sincerely) flagging their antiracist credentials when accused of antisemitism.

Now here’s an extract from Stephen Pollard’s article on the same topic. I agree with Stephen Pollard on such issues more often than not, but thought this rather overshot the mark:

This is the nub of it. The guidelines demand that “antisemitic intent” is necessary if any criticism of Israel is to be held as wrong: “It is not antisemitism to refer to ‘Zionism’ and ‘Zionists’ as part of a considered discussion about the Israeli state.” So you can feel free to go right ahead and scream “Zio” at any random Jew you encounter, and remain a Labour member. Labour has no issue with this, so long as you mean well.

Or go further, if you like. Scream “Zio-Nazi”, because so long as your heart is in the right place, that’s just fine. As the guidelines put it: “Discourse about international politics often employs metaphors from examples of historic misconduct.

This seems to completely overlook the clear condemnation of ‘Zio’ in 15 as well as the critique of Israel/Nazi parallels in 16.

Now here’s an extract from a summary of criticisms of the code of conduct taken from a Sky News report.

However, the code has provoked further controversy, as it does not include four behaviours identified as anti-Semitic by the IHRA:

:: Accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country;

This is covered pretty clearly under 14. The word ‘wrong’ could have been replaced with ‘antisemitic’ to clarify, I agree.

:: Claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour;

See above – I’d say this one was unpacked in detail, although perhaps not in a way which takes full account of the hateful discourse Israel attracts.

:: Requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations;

This could be said to be implicit in the second half of 13. However the thrust is reversed – Israel should be open to criticisms similar to those levelled at other countries – which does change the emphasis and impact of course.

:: Comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.

This is clearly covered under 15 – the point could certainly have been made more trenchantly but someone reading that Sky report would think it was omitted completely.

Some concluding thoughts:

I was struck by the contrast between what Labour have done with the IHRA definition and UCU’s treatment of the earlier EUMC definition. Labour asserts that it endorses the IHRA definition of antisemitism and explains that it has drawn on the examples as well as the brief core definition.  It does not attack the examples even if it seems to gloss over or reinflect some of them. However the UCU utterly repudiated the EUMC definition and outlawed its use in the union.

One of the criticisms levelled at the document was that it dragged in Islam unhelpfully and implied a connection between Islamists and Israel.  I understand that concern but think there could be another way of looking at this detail. Rather than just being a wearisome ‘and other forms of racism’ reflex, watering down the specific focus on antisemitism, it could function as a reminder to some in Labour that they are inconsistent in being more protective of Muslims than Jews. (Having said earlier that I agree that ‘intent’ isn’t the key issue, I’d be very curious to know the ‘intent’ behind the drafting of this and some other details  in the guidelines!)

I wonder if some of the extremely hostile responses to this document have been caused as much by the overall context of Labour’s increasingly bad relations with the Jewish community as by the words on the page. (For the avoidance of doubt one factor which I do not think is a cause is the wish to protect Israel from criticism.) The appointment of Claudia Webbe, the apparent sidelining of the JLM are just the most recent manifestations of Labour’s failure to reassure British Jews that antisemitism is being taken seriously.

Not for the first time I find myself on a slightly different position in this debate from many people I greatly respect.  In order to help provide further clarity and insight on this difficult question I’d welcome thoughts on what examples of antisemitism – Labour or otherwise – would fall through the net of these new guidelines?