New UK Government definition of antisemitism is not a definition and has nothing to do with antisemitism

The UK Government is to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

There are three problems with the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

First, it’s not a definition. It describes antisemitism as follows: ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews’. True enough, but this is too vague (‘a certain perception’) to be justiciable. The IHRA then appends to this vague ‘definition’ a non-exhaustive laundry list of ‘examples’ of statements which ‘could’, ‘taking into account the overall context’, constitute antisemitism. This resolves nothing, since in each instance, people will debate whether ‘the overall context’ is such as to render the allegedly incriminating statement antisemitic. A definition is supposed to resolve controversy, not internalise it.

Second, the IHRA’s laundry list attempts to expand the definition of antisemitism to incorporate criticism of Israel that does not imply and in many cases does not reflect hatred of Jews. Its ‘examples’ of statements which ‘could’ manifest antisemitism include: describing Israel as a racist endeavour; drawing comparisons between Israeli policy and Nazism; and ‘applying double standards’ to Israel. To take just the last of these, many supporters of Israel view any criticism of Israel and all mobilisation against it as evidence of ‘double standards’. This definition is a weapon in their hands to bludgeon critics of Israeli human rights violations into silence, which is to say, to enable and prolong the torment in Palestine.

Third, the concept of a legal definition of antisemitism is misguided. The ‘definition’ itself acknowledges that context is decisive, while, if certain words are criminalised, antisemites will find ways around them. At my secondary school, a prick for all the ages called Iba used to mutter under his breath the word ‘Morah’ as he passed me in the corridor. That’s not a word; it just sounds like ‘Torah’. Are we going to criminalise belligerent poetry?

The Government’s adoption of the IHRA definition has nothing to do with antisemitism, which, available evidence indicates, is a marginal and mild phenomenon in UK public life, whose few manifestations are dealt with effectively by existing institutions. It is just an attack on Labour and Palestinian solidarity activism; unfortunately, one made all too easy by the strategic missteps of its targets.

4 comments

  1. Howard Harris · · Reply

    Recently I was reading ‘The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt,’ Amos Elon’s introduction (2006) to Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’ originally published in 1963. Commenting on the virulence with which she was criticised in the US, “the published attacks on Arendt’s book are astonishing in their unbridled vehemence” Elon observes “Not long before [1963], Israeli diplomats had successfully convinced the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith that criticism of Zionism or Israel was a form of anti-Semitism.”

    It was a considerable surprise to me to discover how long the history of this particular ideological usurpation of anti-Semitism is.

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  2. Hi Jamie,

    Apologies for barging in here, but I saw on Twitter today that somebody had asked your opinion about Owen Jones speaking at a JLM event in a couple of months time; you said you weren’t familiar with the context, but wondered if the flak he was taking over it was counter-productive. I thought your stuff last year responding to Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis’ was excellent, and I think this could prove to be quite important, so it seemed worth giving my two cents on this (easier to explain here than in 140 characters).

    First of all, I think you’re right that the approach Ali and Asa were taking on Twitter in criticizing OJ was counter-productive, although perhaps not for the reasons you suggested. It boiled down very quickly to a debate about whether or not OJ supported the BDS campaign; he said he took the same line as Chomsky, the others said ‘so you won’t answer the call from Palestinian civil society’ or words to that effect, etc. Pretty soon it was a debate about the rights and wrongs of BDS, OJ insisting he had always been a support of Palestinian rights, and so on. Dialogue of the deaf stuff really.

    It would be far more important and useful, I think, to focus on what the JLM’s invitation to OJ means for the internal politics of the Labour Party (I believe the title of his scheduled talk is something like ‘Israel, left antisemitism and the Labour Party). I have problems with OJ’s record across a whole range of issues, but when it comes to the manufactured antisemitism crisis, I think he’s been especially poor. When the smear campaign was getting up a head of steam, his contribution was to write an article for the Guardian saying ‘antisemitism is bad, the Left should be against it’, as if there were many people on the Left or in the Labour Party who needed to hear that message. At that point it should already have been clear what was brewing; the allegations from Alex Chambers about the Oxford Labour Club had already been spattered all over the national media, there was a prominent op-ed from Simon Schama in the FT about ‘the Left’s problem with Jews’, etc. Jonathan Freedland followed OJ’s column within days with his trashy article claiming that Labour was now a cold place for Jews.

    I’m open to correction, but I don’t think OJ had a single article dedicated to the subject from that point on; he had things to say on Twitter (demanding Ken Livingstone’s suspension within hours if not minutes of his infamous radio interview, for example), but I don’t think he had an article addressing any of the stuff that was swirling around about antisemitism and the Labour Party. I don’t want to make too much of any individual, but I do think OJ has/had a unique position as a high-profile left-wing commentator; he has something like half a million followers on Twitter, his articles for the Guardian are very prominent, etc. The articles that people like you and Richard Kuper wrote for Open Democracy were really strong and I hope they were widely shared (I do remember Michael White of all people sharing your piece on his Twitter account) but they were never going to have the same impact as something OJ could have written.

    It’s very, very hard not to take a cynical view about his silence; he’s been harping on for a long time about Labour’s need for a better media strategy, but there hasn’t been any single issue that’s caused more bad press for them than this over the past year, and the whole thing was so transparently bogus that a strong push-back from just a handful of commentators could have made a real difference. That concerns me far more than his precise position on BDS; if he had written some hard-hitting columns in a similar vein to what you, Richard Kuper or David Rosenberg were saying at the time, as far as I’m concerned he could have been as equivocal as he liked about BDS. Kuper’s article taking down the House of Commons committee’s report in the autumn was brilliant and definitive, but I suspect the audience it reached was comparatively tiny; the report was allowed to pass into the public record as some kind of authentic document of ‘Labour’s antisemitism problem’ without real challenge; and of course now we have this bogus definition of A/S coming down the pipeline on the back of that report. The kindest thing I can say is that OJ doesn’t seem to have a great stomach for fights that are likely to prove dirty.

    So to cut a long story short, that’s why I think Ali and Asa were barking up the wrong tree, to some extent at least; they had the right idea when they said that the JLM had chosen OJ carefully as a guest speaker, but I don’t think it was because of his position on BDS (that wasn’t the major issue anyway). I think they probably perceive him as someone who’s not likely to come along to their event and give them both barrels (the format of the lecture, as a memorial event, makes it harder to do that anyway). He may well criticise Israel in general terms and defend Palestinian rights in general terms but he’s not expected to criticise the record of the JLM, Labour Friends of Israel, the JC, the Board of Deputies etc. and the way they’ve all tried to present Labour as a nest of antisemitic vipers over the past year.

    So the way I see it is this: there’s still a good bit of time before this lecture is going to happen; if it goes ahead the way the JLM leadership would presumably like it to happen, it’ll be a real coup for them, and another step towards imposing themselves as the gatekeepers of what constitutes antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel. Ideally I would like OJ to pull out altogether; but if he’s not willing to do that, he should be reminded of a few things well in advance: 1) the front-line for Palestine solidarity in Britain right now is inside the Labour Party; it would be a real disaster for Israel to lose one of the two major parties as a supporter, so they’re going to throw everything at it, and anyone who says they support Palestine rights but isn’t prepared to muck in for this particular battle is shirking the most important fight going on right now. 2) The JLM has been in the thick of that fight on the opposite side (the Al-Jazeera documentary really needs to be brought to his attention, no room for saying he didn’t know about it). At a bare minimum, he should be ready to go in there, defend Chakrabarti’s report to the hilt, point out all the bad faith and self-contradictions in the House of Commons report, and aim a few barbs at the pro-Israel faction inside Labour; a few pops at the indulgent attitude to pro-Israel antisemites from AIPAC, Stephen Pollard etc. wouldn’t go amiss either.

    (I’ve phrased that in a pretty finger-wagging way towards OJ, it doesn’t necessarily have to be put the same way but I think the substantial points are basically sound.)

    Sorry, I’ve ended up banging on for much longer than I intended here, but I think this is quite an important moment; it could be an opportunity to push back against some of the advances that were made by the JLM and their co-thinkers last year, or it could be an opportunity for them to consolidate their gains and close down the space for debate around Israel. And without naming any names, I think we’d probably agree that some of the people who’s gone into battle against the JLM in particular have shown themselves to be completely inept, with no sense of political tactics (or no sense at all, I’m tempted to say); picking the wrong battles, walking into traps and then making a principle of their right to walk into traps (‘are you going to let the Zionists stop you from walking into traps, eh?’—I’ve had a few of those arguments). So it’s important to get this right, and as I say, I thought you did as good as job as anyone of pushing back against this stuff last year, so I’d respect your take on how to handle this.

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  3. Dear Ed,

    Many thanks for this comment. It’s insightful and serious.

    There are two issues. One concerns the moral character of Owen Jones and/or his conduct on this issue. I agree that he was very poor on the antisemitism scandal. It was not just a sin of omission; he also went on television to talk about it and neglected even to point out the lack of evidence for the claims. I doubt he will do much better at the JLM event.

    The second issue is more significant. In the end, not just Owen Jones, but also Landsman, and even Corbyn himself backed down, not just in the face of the antisemitism smears but on the question of Palestine, about which Corbyn of all people has been largely silent. Whatever one thinks of Jones, one cannot doubt Corbyn’s bona fides on this issue. Why did Landsman, Jones, Corbyn, etc. — in other words, the left-most wing of the political mainstream, including one of the most pro-Palestinian political figures we have — back down?

    Of course, there was a political calculation made. They wanted to put the crisis to bed so as to focus attention on the NHS, etc. But the way in which the debate was framed contributed to this. In a nutshell, it became about the legitimacy of “anti-Zionism” and of terms like “Zio”. Well, “anti-Zionism” has almost no public support. In fact, a poll during the smear campaign found that more than half of UK respondents considered it antisemitic. Is Owen Jones going to go to bat to defend anti-Zionism? Will Corbyn spend precious political capital on behalf of “Zio”? Will Landsman risk Momentum’s reputation defending Livingstone’s comments (which were largely correct) on Hitler?

    No.

    That is the strategic lesson that should be learned from this.

    If we stake our flag on “anti-Zionism”, we lose the likes of Landsman, Jones and Corbyn. When the inevitable smears and attacks come flying, they will not go to bat for it.

    If the debate had been framed in terms of the legitimacy of critiques of Israel’s human rights record and advocacy of a settlement boycott, alongside recognition of Israel’s legitimacy within its legal borders, Landsman, Jones and Corbyn would have been on side.

    But not recognising Israel? “Zio”? And for that matter, Hitler and the Nazi analogy? You lose them.

    One might say, fine – so much the worse for Landsman, Jones and Corbyn. And one might call them traitors and lickspittles and lackeys and the rest of it.

    But if we’re willing to write off even Landsman, Jones and Corbyn, who represent the left of the left of mainstream politics, I don’t know what we think we’re doing.

    This constituency is open for alliance in support of real pressure exerted on Israel to bring about the international consensus two-state solution. Unfortunately, there is at the level of civil society a vacuum where this position should be, between BDS on the one side and fake two-staters like JLM on the other.

    I don’t want to exaggerate the responsibility of the solidarity movement in all this. The overarching factor is the absence of a Palestinian national movement, and the quiet in Palestine. But too many people are making it easier for the other side to smear them, while making it harder for potential and natural allies to support them. That’s bad politics.

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  4. Hi Jamie,

    Sorry, I meant to come back to you on this ages ago but I was very busy with work and didn’t get a chance. I mostly agree with what you’ve said here. In general, I think there has been a tendency in Palestine solidarity circles to drift into hollow maximalism; I’m sure you know exactly what I mean, people announcing that the two-state solution is dead and therefore the one-state solution is firmly on the agenda (the first statement may well be true but the second doesn’t follow by any means), and making support for BDS and the one-state model into litmus-tests for solidarity.

    When I was involved with the campaign in Ireland (I haven’t been involved since moving to Britain), we didn’t take that approach; we promoted BDS, and would try and push sympathetic journalists and politicians as far as we could; but we’d take what we could get in terms of support, and we framed our publicity material in the language of human rights and international law. But I see it a fair bit from the EI writers and others of that bent; they produce plenty of good articles but there seems to be a lot of tunnel vision as well, a lack of good tactical sense. These shortcomings have been brought into sharper focus by Labour’s shift to the left and the opportunity people have to put their case to a wider audience.

    In a different category are the unforced errors, some of the really gross incompetence from people who should know better; we just can’t afford to spend our time going around cleaning up messes and putting out fires that have been started for no good reason at all (Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker being prime examples of that over the last year; and I fully agree about the bone-headed stupidity of people who insist on using terms like ‘Zio’, or banging on about ‘Zionist’ this, that and the other when they could just say ‘pro-Israel’ or something similar).

    So on all of that I basically agree with you. Where I would differ is, I don’t think Jones has the same track record as Corbyn and Landsman over this stuff, I think he deserves much sharper criticism. It’s partly a question of context; a newspaper columnist has much greater freedom of action than a party leader, who has to balance all kinds of different responsibilities and try to maintain some semblance of unity among his MPs; Jones hasn’t been subject to any of those constraints, he can speak for himself without having to glance over his shoulder at who’s trying to knife him in the back this week, and without having to calculate whether he can afford to use up some political capital on THIS issue rather than the other dozen or so issues that are likely to come up in the next few weeks alone.

    But even without taking account of that, I think his record has been much weaker. Corbyn didn’t let the ridiculous House of Commons committee report go unanswered last autumn, for example; Jones was MIA then, as he was pretty much every other time. And now we’ve got his interview in this week’s JC, which is just appalling; that was what prompted me to return to this thread, it confirms all my worst suspicions about the trajectory that he was on. I don’t think there’s any question of Jones having been alienated or not having being won over due to shortcomings on our side; I think the fault is entirely with him. The JC interview gives his seal of approval to the entire smear campaign; he doesn’t challenge any of it, just blames it on a ‘collective failure’ of the Labour leadership, and wags his finger at the Left in general; he also talks about the need for Labour to support a ‘just foreign policy’, but that seems to come with the implied caveat that it should be a foreign policy that won’t bring any howls of outrage from Stephen Pollard, the Board of Deputies or the CST.

    I’d really prefer not to have to say this; I don’t take any pleasure in excluding or excommunicating people, I’d much rather win them over or at least have a working relationship with them; but I think Jones has crossed his own personal Rubicon here. I think the JLM knew exactly what they were doing when they invited him to this event (and he totally misrepresents the arguments of people who said he shouldn’t go), and they’ve already got a good return on their invitation in the shape of this interview. His line seems to be ‘I support Palestinian rights, but I won’t lift a finger to defend politicians like Corbyn who are vilified for supporting Palestinian rights’. How he manages to square the logic of that in his head I don’t know, but I can’t see him moving in the right direction from where he is now.

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