Labour in turmoil over the definition of anti-semitism

Yesterday the Parliamentary Labour Party voted to adopt the IHRA definiton of anti-semitism, in defiance of Labour’s NEC, which recently produced its own definition:

While Labour’s internal machinations are in a sense none of our business, I do think there are lessons to learn for all of us here. Anti-semitism is by no means confined to the Labour Party, and where we wish to criticise Israel, let us not undermine the moral force of our arguments by carelessly straying into anti-semitic territory.

The dispute revolves around four of the examples attached to the IHRA definition, and the question of whether evidence of “anti-semitic intent” is necessary.

The four examples are (from the BBC)

  • Accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country
  • Claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour
  • Requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations
  • Comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis

There is some coverage of the issues dealt with by the missing examples later in Labour’s document, though not in the same terms. For example, (para 16) Chakrabarti is quoted advising that “Labour members should resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors”. Read in conjunction with (para 7) “the expression of even contentious views in this area will not be treated as anti-semitism unless accompanied by specific anti-semitic content (such as the use of anti-semitic tropes) or there is other evidence of anti-semitic intent”, it seems pretty clear that the IHRA’s Nazi example has been relegated.

To give fair hearing to the defence of the Labour NEC position, I’ll link to this article – though I might paraphrase it as claiming Labour does meet the IHRA definition even though that definition goes too far.

And I do have some sympathy. Anyone who sees pictures of dead and injured civilians on the Gaza strip, anyone who is passionate about the Palestinian cause, is naturally going to want to find the strongest verbal barbs to throw at the Israeli government, and it might not be immediately obvious why it is wrong to start talking about the Holocaust. It is wrong. It is diminishing the Holocaust and further victimising its victims. You don’t need to do this to criticise Israel, and your criticisms will be stupid if you do.

I could make similar arguments for the other disputed IHRA examples, but we are in danger of missing the problem. I think the problem is that there are many people who have taken on false beliefs, without any anti-semitic intent, but that do fall foul of the IHRA definition. If we were talking about sexism or homophobia at this point, there would be no question of watering down the definition to accommodate people sincerely in error, or demand evidence of intent before acting.

Nor should there be here. People sincerely in error must be confronted with the fullest and clearest definition, and given the opportunity to choose between sincerity and error. Watering down the definition represents a dreadful lack of ambition to oppose anti-semitism.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Jul '18 - 4:24pm

    A fair and full piece from Joe.

    The Labour mps made it clear they agree with you and I and the police and the prosecution service and local councils and all the Jewish organisations as to the dfinition being appropriate.

    I remember the era when the Lbour NEC had Betty Boothroyd on it pre Speaker.

    They don’t make em like that any more!!!

  • There are problems with the definition as there will be with anything you try to replace it with. We have laws to deal with discrimination against people simply because of who they are, persons with specific identities. Discrimination against Jews is covered by these laws and should not require any exceptionalism. Oddly enough the 19th century original use of the term encompassed Arabs and others as well as Jews.

  • “The examples are:”

    “Claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour”

    This boobytrap criterion makes it very difficult to say that anything at all about the Israeli state’s behaviour is racist, without becoming tarred with the antisemitism brush. We had no problems with calling the South African apartheid state racist. People regularly call Trump a racist. Why must we be demonised as antisemites if we say that the Israeli state’s behaviour is racist?

    “Requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations”

    Who judges what is “requiring higher standards of behaviour”? Will it be argued that, if Israel’s standards of behaviour are deemed to be no better than those of Idi Amin, then that’s all right then, and, anybody who disagrees is an antisemite?

    Antisemitism is a real concern, but these tendentious “examples” just use it as an excuse to push the boundaries of debate and make it difficult to attack the Israeli government. It’s the political equivalent of the footballer’s dive. We need to penalise the diver, not the Palestinian rights campaigner!

  • David Allen 18th Jul '18 - 5:00pm

    Joe Otten quotes the IHRA “Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

    How damned generous of them! So – If you say “Israel is a bit bureaucratic, and/or not terribly good on climate change, and/or not always great at clearing up litter” – Then you are perfectly welcome to say these things, because those are criticisms that are also regularly levelled against many other countries.

    But – Don’t you dare talk about a defence force that regularly shoots unarmed civilians, because hey, most other countries don’t do that. It follows, by this perverted logic, that because Israel behaves worse than most countries, ergo it would be antisemitic to criticise Israel.

  • Steve Trevethan 18th Jul '18 - 6:39pm

    “At times like these it is more important than ever to distinguish between the hostility to or prejudice against Jews on the one hand and legitimate critiques of Israeli policies and system of injustice on the other.
    The IHRA definition of antisemitism, which is increasingly being adopted or considered by western governments, is worded in such a way as to be easily easily adopted or considered by western governments to intentionally equate legitimate criticism of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, as a means to suppress the former”.
    [Jewish Voice for Peace]

  • Is Judaism a race, or a creed?
    If Judaism is a race, then the foundation of the state of Israel to be a jewish state define that state on racial grounds. To argue that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour is certainly up for discussion and nothing to do with hating jewish people, given the social status, grading, and opportunities for
    – Jewish people of Arab/Persian background (‘progressive’ Golda Meir commenting how she saw them being from a backwards, inferior culture compared with her & israeli founders’ Eastern European background),
    – Israeli Ethiopians deemed to be a jewish ‘lost tribe’
    – Israeli arab non-jewish citizens
    – Israeli de-facto ruled Arab peoples in the occupied territories, excluded from Israeli citizenship.
    I don’t see Judaism as a race, but a creed, and the Israeli state as a sectarian endeavour that favours that creed.
    But contemporary convention in the west, and many jewish people, identify as a race. Does this belief make Judaism a race?
    My understanding is that Christianity and Judaism were competing evangelical faiths across the mediterranean until some point in the 5th century AD, when the new church of Rome placed strict edicts forbidding Judaism from competing with Christianity. Judaism was contained through anti-jewish laws, massacres etc and an explanation by Rome that the then still substantial Jewish populations were descendants of those expelled by Emperor Hadrian and the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple c.AD 70. Thereafter the idea of Judaism never having been an evangelical creed but a racial diaspora became internalised within Judaism, linked with the destruction of the 3rd temple etc, reinforced by earlier histories/legends (Babylonian exodus etc).
    This didn’t freeze the type of peoples who were Jewish- the rise of Islam meant more voluntary or forced conversion, as in Christian lands, while Judaism spread to new populations – the turkic kingdom of the Khazars on the Volga, c.900-1100 AD.
    David Ben-Gurion in the 1930s theorised that Palestine mandate’s muslim or christian villagers ancestors were Jewish…with their particular non-religious festivals that matched Jewish ones. This view was abandoned after the 1936 Hebron murders and Arab uprising, to favour the strict sectarian outlook that founded the state of Israel.

  • Jayne mansfield 19th Jul '18 - 11:20am

    @ Tomas HJ,
    As someone who believes that ‘race’ is a social construct, and that there are no such things as biologically defined ‘races’, I fear that ‘racism’, a powerful belief system will always attract those who wish to divide and attribute idiotic racial stereotypes that have no basis in fact.

    We are seeing the re-emergence of outdated scientific racism’ from right wing politicians and their followers across the globe. Unfortunately, ‘ethnicity’ a different concept is being used by some as a replacement for the term ‘race’ rather than being used in accordance with its true meaning.

    If someone wishes to define themselves or others by ‘race’ then I think that one should consider the possible negative implications of that, and whether the idea is supported by current scientific evidence.

  • Laurence Cox 19th Jul '18 - 12:41pm

    How do you deal with issues like this:

    Your IHRA definition does not allow one to criticise the Israeli Government for this and there are plenty of right-wingers (the Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, for one) who will accuse anyone who does of anti-semitism.

  • Joe Otten you posted the incident from Dame Margaret Hodge when she told Mr Corbyn: “You’re an antisemite and a racist.”
    Do you consider the Jewish Nation State ruling ‘racist’ ? If not, why not, and, if so, should Israel now be considered a racist state on a par with Apartheid South Africa?

  • Simon Banks 9th Sep '18 - 9:31pm

    Although Labour’s handling of this issue is an example of how little Corbyn’s team understand, there is a real issue here. Criticism of Israel easily becomes endorsement of antisemitism – true; but crititicism of Israel is too easily equated with antisemitism – also true. Of the four points at issue, I’m with the IHRA definition on the first as it reeks of traditional antisemitic accusations that Jews can’t really be loyal citizens. However, the claim that Israel is founded on racism, while wrong in my opinion (it was founded on the wish to escape antisemitism and then to rebound after the Holocaust), the Israel/Jewish connection is so strong that it must negatively affect Arab citizens of the state; so it seems to me, the argument is there to be had. As for the third point – higher standards than which other states? Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a highly-educated population, so isn’t it appropriate to expect higher standards on civil rights than Iraq or Myanmar, for example? On the other hand, a comparison with Sweden or Canada is hardly fair as they haven’t had to fight for their existence recently or face terrorist campaigns on a Middle Eastern scale. The fourth point is fair if applied to overblown and loose language, and any fair person can see the evil of the Nazis far exceeded anything Israel might do, but it appears to ban any comparison even if it points out a difference, for example that the Nazis glorified military strength while keeping their military under strict political control, while Israeli democracy is full of political generals. There – I’ve just contravened one of the guidelines.

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