Labour's anti-Semitism controversy protecting Israel from criticism
The UK's Labour party has been embroiled in a controversy over anti-Semitism, which broke soon after the socialist candidate for the party's leadership, Jeremy Corbyn, won the contest.
There was no immediate accusation that he had ever harboured any dislike, let alone hatred for Jews. Corbyn is acknowledged to be a lifelong campaigner for human rights, who has defied his party on several occasions and voted against Tony Blair's decision to sanction the war on Iraq in early 2003.
Corbyn has supported the Palestinian people's struggle for freedom, justice and equality for decades, leading many marches and speaking at numerous rallies, with passion, but never blaming British Jews for the actions of modern-day Israel. He also hosted many meetings in parliament, helping raise the Palestinian issue at the heart of Britain's democracy.
He saw the comparisons between Israeli discriminatory policies and those of the Apartheid system which operated in South Africa. There too was a campaign of which he was a part until Apartheid fell, being arrested in the process in 1984. He was a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign prior to his election and has notably maintained that role.
At the heart of the current row in the party are accusations against Corbyn of not taking the issue of anti-Semitism seriously, an issue which was never raised as a major problem in the party before his election to the leadership.
|The question of whether anti-Semitism was a real problem in the party or had been exaggerated for political purposes was clouded by the demand... to adopt a new definition of anti-Semitism|
The accusations have been led by UK organisations which claim to represent the Jewish community, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), but which also have a record of unwavering support for Israel. In addition, two pro-Israel organisations within the Labour Party - namely Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) - have also taken up the fight against Corbyn.
The LFI was the subject of an undercover Al Jazeera investigation which showed it worked closely with the Israeli embassy in London.
The question of whether anti-Semitism was a real problem in the party or had been exaggerated for political purposes was clouded by the demand by pro-Israel organisations for public bodies, including political parties, governments and city councils to adopt a new definition of anti-Semitism, produced by the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which launched in 2016 as a non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism:
"Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."
While experts argued over those 38 words, it was the next part of the document that caused heated arguments among both supporters of Israel and supporters of the Palestinian people.
"To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:
Manifestations [of anti-Semitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic."
This was followed by 11 illustrative examples, seven of which made reference to Israel. Two in particular raised major concerns about their impact on freedom of expression and the freedom for Palestinians to impart facts about their continuing injustice and how they and their supporters might act to deliver justice 71 years after Israel's creation in their homeland through violent ethnic cleansing and terror.
Palestinians identified grave dangers in the example which claimed,"Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour" would be anti-Semitic.
|Read more: Anti-Semitism and UK Labour
What now for Palestine solidarity?
For Palestinians it is clear that Israel was created as a homeland for Jews from any part of the world to move to, while 750,000 were violently expelled to neighbouring Arab countries in 1948 and have not been allowed to return to their homes despite the UN passing resolution 194 in 1948 recognising their right to return peacefully.
They see the creation of this Israel as a racist endeavour but the application of the definition appears to be designed to label any Palestinian or supporter who wishes to impart this information to fellow citizens as an anti-Semite.
This danger was illustrated clearly by Joan Ryan, Chair of LFI, who wrote to Jeremy Corbyn in June asking him to clarify a tweet in which he said: "We must work for a real two state settlement to the Israel Palestine conflict, which ends the occupation and siege of Gaza and makes the Palestinian right to return a reality."
Her argument was that the realisation of the Palestinian right of return "…would effectively turn Israel into a Palestinian state and destroy the Jewish people's right to self-determination". Palestinians claiming their legitimate right to return to their homes becomes an anti-Semitic demand, according to Ryan, based on the IHRA code.
The other example given by the IHRA which supporters of Israel will use to close down debate is one which states that "Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation."
Israel often claims that it is singled out for criticism and that this is done essentially because it is the only Jewish state in the world. This essentially relates to support for the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against it until meets legal and moral demands for an end to the occupation, equal treatment for all of its citizens and the promotion and implementation of the right of return.
It is of course difficult to find another state which has been in continuous occupation of another people for more than 51 years, which denies the refugees it expelled the right of return, which builds illegally on another people's land and has just passed a law (the Nation State Law) which gives one part of its population a right to self-determination but denies this to any others.
While the Labour Party considered adopting the 38-word IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, it also developed a code for dealing with any accusations that might come against members, which attempted to contextualise the examples in the definition and to protect free speech.
The pro-Israel community organisations in the UK were outraged that Labour had not simply adopted the IHRA definition with all 11 illustrative examples, arguing that the definition still made it possible to criticise Israel. They exerted severe pressure on the party and led what many of Corbyn's supporters have described as a campaign to discredit him, which moved from accusing him from failing to deal with anti-Semitism to being an anti-Semite and racist himself.
Under mounting pressure and despite consulting with both Jewish and non-Jewish organisations including Palestinian organisations, and despite an opinion given by leading barrister Geoffrey Robinson QC - in which he claimed the IHRA definition was "not fit for purpose" - the Labour Party's National Executive Committee adopted the full definition with the illustrative examples. A party spokesperson said: "The NEC has today adopted all of the IHRA examples of antisemitism, in addition to the IHRA definition which Labour adopted in 2016, alongside a statement which ensures this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians."
Corbyn had argued, "It cannot be considered racist to treat Israel like any other state or assess its conduct against the standards of international law. Nor should it be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict."
However, there was insufficient support for this part of his longer statement and it was not put to a vote.
While this was a matter for the Labour Party, other public bodies will now be under pressure to adopt the IHRA definition under pressure from Britain's Israel lobby. Protecting Israel from criticism and silencing Palestinian voices is at the heart of the campaign by the lobby for the adoption of the problematic definition.
In a letter to The Guardian published before the vote, Palestinians had argued that, "The fundamental right to free expression, guaranteed by article 10 of the Human Rights Act, is first and foremost the right to 'receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority'."
They warned "any use by public bodies of the IHRA examples on anti-Semitism that either inhibits discussion relating to our dispossession by ethnic cleansing, when Israel was established, or attempts to silence public discussions on current or past practices of settler colonialism, apartheid, racism and discrimination, and the ongoing violent military occupation, directly contravenes core rights. First, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, who remain protected by international laws and conventions; and second, the rights of all those British citizens who stand by our side, in the solidarity of a common humanity."
That warning still stands, as it is inevitable that the pro-Israel lobby will now move to bring accusations of anti-Semitism against Labour members, citing the IHRA definition while working to pressure all public bodies to adopt it. However, what is important for Palestinians is that their supporters, who have been deflected from their campaigning work to try and influence Labour's NEC, now refocus the effort on campaigning for the cause, particularly as US President Donald Trump's administration works to impose a "deal of the century" that negates their rights.
Professor Kamel Hawwash is an academic at the University of Birmingham and a long-time campaigner for justice.
Follow him on Twitter: @kamelhawwash
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff