Submission to the Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism – Robert Fine and Christine Achinger

1. The Labour Party and the vast majority of its members oppose antisemitism. This is to be welcomed and provides a base for future development. It should go without saying that the Labour Party, as a progressive party, should actively combat antisemitism whenever or wherever it shows its face and should do so with the same vigour it should show in combating other forms of racism and prejudice. Our experience, however, is that this is not the case. In our view there has been lack of leadership in combating antisemitism and poverty of theory in identifying and understanding antisemitism whether it arises from within or from without the Labour Party itself.

2. All too often we find unwillingness to confront the issue of antisemitism, doubt cast on the validity of concerns about antisemitism, distrust of the political motives of those who raise such concerns, and defensive reactions to their expression. The overall effect of these responses has been to foster within sections of the Labour Party, including its leading circles, a culture of suspicion in relation to concerns about antisemitism that is not equally present in relation to concerns about any other form of racism. This culture of suspicion is tied up with the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Middle East, insofar as it is premised on a dual prejudice, first that the ‘charge of antisemitism’ is merely a way of disparaging criticism of Israel, and second that Israel is defended covertly and dishonestly because it cannot be defended openly and honestly.

3. What is urgently needed within the Labour Party is leadership on this issue. To this end we would recommend that the Labour Party a) commits itself in principle and practice to taking antisemitism as seriously as any other form of racism; b) encourages respectful and compassionate debate on concerns that Jews and non-Jews express about antisemitism; c) defends the right to freedom of expression against those who attempt to boycott or otherwise silence the voices of those who raise concerns about antisemitism; and c) campaigns actively for a peaceful and just settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that declares a policy of ‘no tolerance’ for anti-Arab, anti-Muslim or antisemitic forms of racism and supports antiracist movements and individuals both in Israeli and Palestinian society.

4. There is substantiated evidence that the problem of antisemitism is growing in the UK, Europe and globally. This unwelcome and worrying development makes it all the more important that the Labour Party commits itself to learning how to recognise and combat antisemitism alongside its commitment to recognising and combating other forms of racism and prejudice. There are those who portray current concerns about antisemitism in the Labour Party as invented by ‘Zionists’ in bad faith in order to smear the left and silence criticism of Israel. The Labour Party should clearly recognise that this refusal to engage with the problem of antisemitism is itself part of the problem and would not be considered an acceptable response to analogous concerns raised by any other group. In support of these recommendations we add the following observations.

5. Antisemitism, like all forms of racism, has its own peculiarities. One feature that distinguishes it from other forms of racism is its tendency to see the Jews as a hugely powerful world conspiracy. It is, therefore, a characteristic of antisemitism to present itself as a form of justified resistance in the name of the oppressed, even where it persecutes minorities. In responding to antisemitism, however, the core principle the Labour Party should observe, but in many cases is not observing, is that antisemitism and other forms of racism represent the same bankruptcy of humanity and that there are universal norms to be followed in combating them.

6. Antisemitism is indicative of a failure of democracy. Victims of antisemitic regimes and movements are not only Jews but also people in whose name antisemitic movements and regimes purport to speak. In Muslim-majority countries the first victims of antisemitic movements are more often than not other Muslims, especially antiracist Muslims. The Labour Party ought to oppose antisemitism in order to defend the rights of Jews and non-Jews attacked and vilified by antisemitic movements.

7. In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, combating antisemitism is not an alternative to seeking justice for Palestinians but a pivotal part of the larger picture. These aims are inter-dependent. Antisemitism does no favour either to Jews or to the cause of justice for Palestinians. The Labour Party should not condone antisemitism within Hamas and Hezbollah any more than it tolerates anti-Arab racism within the right wing of Israeli society. A merely sanctimonious defence of Palestinians that leaves them in the same place it finds them is neither developmental nor challenging and offers no solidarity with Palestinian antiracists.

8. The Labour Party should not dismiss concerns over antisemitism on the spurious grounds that they restrict the freedom to be critical of Israel. Criticism of any country can be but does not have to be racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic or in other ways prejudiced. Similarly criticism of Israel can be but does not have to be antisemitic. Legitimate debate and criticism of Israeli politics and society – over its occupation of Palestinian land, the human rights abuses that flow from occupation, anti-Arab racism in the Israeli polity and civil society, discriminatory policies toward Palestinian citizens of Israel, military responses to aggression, etc. – does not remove responsibility to abstain from and repudiate antisemitic criticism of Israel.

9. The Labour Party should recognise that it is unacceptable to disparage through the use of derogatory language – like ‘manufactured outrage’, ‘fake outrage’, ‘casting slurs’, ‘insinuating’, ‘dredging up’, and ‘smearing’ – those who express concerns about antisemitism. Such abusive language would not be acceptable in relation to those who raise concerns over other forms of racism and is harmful at a number of levels: for example, it deters people from raising their concerns; it casts the claims of the Labour Party to consistent antiracism in a bad light; and it makes it more probable that antisemitism will be unrecognised and tolerated.

10. The Labour Party should resist any temptation to assume that the individuals and groups who raise concerns about antisemitism do so opportunistically and for illicit ends, such as destabilising the leadership of the party, protecting ‘Israel’ from critical scrutiny or merely pursuing private interests. Concerns over antisemitism and other forms of racism can of course be instrumentalised for other ends, but their misuse in particular cases does not invalidate the concerns themselves and does not mean that those who raise them are collectively guilty of misuse. The Labour Party should make it clear that it would be discriminatory to treat concerns about antisemitism differently from concerns about other forms of racism.

11. The Labour Party should not condone the tendency to dismiss concerns about antisemitism through the device of redefining what antisemitism is. It should not agree, with those who have refused to engage with the European Union Monitoring Commission Working Definition of Antisemitism on the grounds that it included in its definition antisemitic forms of ‘criticism of Israel’, like holding all Jews responsible for the actions of the state, or not recognising the distinction between state and civil society, or judging Israel by standards not applied to other states. The Labour Party should support cooperative efforts in Europe and the UK to define what antisemitism is, keep the definition of antisemitism open to rational debate and revision in the light of circumstances, entertain the views of those who raise concerns about antisemitism, and involve a wide range of representative organisations of a pluralistically conceived Jewish community.

12. The Labour Party should not accept justifications of antisemitism based on the grounds that it contains a rational kernel of truth about the way ‘the Jews’ or many Jews are. Just as it is not acceptable to hold people of colour responsible for causing the racism of which they are victims, so too it is not acceptable to hold Jews responsible for causing antisemitism. If the Labour Party does not accept justification of anti-Black or anti-Arab racism because of the alleged or real misdeeds of African and Arab rulers, or Islamophobia because of the actions of groups claiming to speak in the name of Islam,so too it should not accept antisemitism because of the alleged or real misdeeds of the Israeli government.

13. The Labour Party has a good record of Holocaust commemoration and education, but in some quarters it is regularly maintained that memory of the Holocaust is being ‘used’ to legitimate the actions of the Israeli government. Memory of the historical suffering of any people can be ‘used’ for particular ideological ends but this is not a reason to withdraw compassion from the victims, or blot out a crucial part of the history of European barbarism, or dismiss present-day fears that the genocidal impulse toward Jews remains intact. The Labour Party should recognise that it would be discriminatory to treat Holocaust memory as peculiarly manufactured and self-serving, or as the paradigm case of victims becoming victimisers, or as the sign under which a victimised people claims ethical immunity for all its own misdeeds.

14. It would be discriminatory to impose on Jewish organisations in the Labour Party a more restrictive autonomy than on other parallel organisations. If an organisation like the Jewish Labour Movement (founded in 2004 as the successor to Poale Zion founded in 1905) chooses to affiliate to the ‘World Zionist Movement’, as is currently alleged, this is its right. It does not necessarily indicate, as is being alleged in some quarters, enthusiastic support of many Israeli government actions. It may not represent those Jews who see themselves as ‘antizionist’, but this is a question of democracy within the movement. No single Jewish organisation could or should be expected to represent the plurality of all Jews.

15. The temptation to practice an economy of compassion that puts all compassion on the side of Palestinians and all culpability on the side of Israel is bad politics and bad history. It supposes inter alia that the genocidal antisemitism that once infused the European continent simply vanished once Nazism was defeated. The dearth within the Labour Party of intellectual, ethical and political leadership on the issue of antisemitism stems in part at least from a failure to recognise and a willingness to tolerate antisemitism among enemies of ‘Israel’.

16. The Labour Party should recognise that if it is not to be discriminatory, the ethic of conviction that declares that Israel must cease to be a ‘Jewish democratic’ state and must become a secular state should a) be coupled with the analogous ethic of conviction in relation to ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ states; and b) be compared with other states in relation to their respective record of democracy, human rights and treatment of minorities. Finally, it should be recognised that any ethic of conviction concerning what a state ought ideally to be should be tempered by an ethic of responsibility concerning the actual forces capable of bringing about this ideal – forces that may be neither secular nor democratic and that may profess antisemitic and other racist ideologies.

Robert Fine (Emeritus Professor, University of Warwick and member of the Labour Party since 1975)

Christine Achinger (Associate Professor, University of Warwick)

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