Understanding Labour’s disavowal of the IHRA definition

This piece, by David Hirsh, is from Jewish News. 

In September 2001 at the global conference against racism in Durban there was a campaign to construct Zionism as the key racism on

David Hirsh

the planet. Opposition to antisemitism was presented as incompatible with opposition to racism. Jews were said to be white, Israel racist, and both were constructed as enemies of antiracism. 9/11 followed a week later and the peace process collapsed at the end of that year.

A number of Jewish NGOs pushed back against the splitting of antiracism from anti-antisemitism. They wanted left wing, pro-Palestinian and Jihadi antisemitism to be taken as seriously as that from the right and the fascists. The Jewish NGOs won a hearing within the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) and the EU (European Union) but not within the UN (United Nations).

They drafted a definition which could help monitor and oppose antisemitism, especially in the newly democratic countries of Europe. This was eventually adopted by the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), the British Government and the US State Department.

Sometimes the IHRA definition is criticized for being political. But in the world as it is, how could a definition of antisemitism be anything else?  The point is what are its politics?  And what are the politics of those who denounce it?

In such a contested realm, no definition could substitute for political judgment. There can be no app for your phone to tell you what is antisemitic. The IHRA definition offers a framework which can be helpful in making an informed judgement.

It offers examples of things which may be considered, depending on context, to be antisemitic. It says that denying Jewish self-determination may be antisemtic if it is claimed that any state of Israel would necessarily be a racist endeavour. It says that it may be right in some contexts to judge that comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis is antisemitic. It offers less controversial examples too. And then it emphasises the point that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic’.

Opponents of the definition say that some of the things they want to do, like denouncing Israelis as Nazis, and treating people they say are Zionists as one would treat racists, are deemed antisemitic under the definition. They say that even though the definition is clear that criticism of Israel is legitimate, it does not really mean it. They imply that even within the definition of antisemitism itself, the Jews are up to something sinister.

In April 2009, President Ahmadinejad made an antisemitic speech at the UN. Seumas Milne, now a key advisor to Jeremy Corbyn, denounced those states which protested against the speech by walking out, in the following terms: ‘what credibility is there in Geneva’s all-white boycott?’ Milne was pushing the Durban understanding that opposition to left or Jihadi antisemitism was likely to be a kind of white supremacism, perpetrated by the powerful and functioning to silence the voice of the oppressed.

You don’t have to treat the IHRA definition as holy to be angry about Labour’s disavowal. People are angry because Labour is sacrificing its antiracist tradition to legitimize those of its members and allies who want to do things which the definition warns against. Labour doesn’t like the definition because it is a political definition which describes and opposes political antisemitism.

The biggest specific problem with Labour’s homemade definition is that it declares that hostility to Israel could only be antisemitic if motivated by antisemitic intent. This is a radical break from everything which is accepted in the scholarly study of racism and in antiracist practice.

The Macpherson finding that there was a problem of institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police was ground breaking because it recognised that there were threatening forms of racism which were not motivated by racist hatred. There could be institutional and discursive racism, racism in thoughtless common sense and racism in norms and practices which just seemed normal. The investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder was not messed up by the police because of malicious intent but because there was racism which was real but was not conscious.

The kind of antisemitism which is now legitimate in the Labour Party is pushed and defended by people who think of themselves as opponents of antisemitism. They have no antisemitic intent and so would not be found antisemitic by a tribunal using the homemade definition. Yet they still ostracize those who oppose antisemitism and they are responsible for a culture which nurtures and licenses antisemitic ways of thinking.

You could not even prove that Ken Livingstone himself is motivated by antisemitic intent.  He probably isn’t.

Macpherson did not say that the victims of racism should be allowed to define their own oppression.  What he said was that any investigation should start by taking the experience of victims seriously.

As the letter by 69 diverse rabbis shows there is an overwhelming consensus within the Jewish community in opposition to Labour antisemitism.  From all denominations, from all political parties, from the Union of Jewish Students to the Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust and the Jewish Leadership Council, Jews are fundamentally in agreement on this question.  This is not a case of two Jews three opinions, it is a case of 270,000 Jews, one consensus, and a tiny but noisy “asaJew” opposition determined to undermine it.

The refusal of the Party to accept the IHRA definition is symbolic of its refusal to oppose left antisemitism. Today’s Labour Party is led by people who embrace political antisemitism. Their politics on this issue comes from the Soviet Union, from Durban and from the Iranian regime for whom Jeremy Corbyn worked as a propagandist. He did not mis-speak when he claimed that his friends in Hamas and Hezbollah were dedicated to peace and justice; that is his worldview and has been for decades. Corbyn isn’t going to endorse a definition of antisemitism which may influence people to judge his political friends to be antisemitc.

  • David Hirsh is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism
This piece, by David Hirsh, is from Jewish News. 

2 Responses to “Understanding Labour’s disavowal of the IHRA definition”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    ” …. hostility to Israel could only be antisemitic if motivated by antisemitic intent”
    1. This is absurd because it is circular. If Labour has a watered-down definition, how can it be relied on to judge ‘antisemitic intent?’
    2. Some defenders of it in Labour claim that the Home Affairs Select Committee said the same thing. It didn’t.
    It said of two specific examples:
    #1. “It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.”
    #2. “It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.”
    But #1 goes without saying and is in the IHRA.
    And #2 is absurd – of course it is ‘not antisemitic to hold the Israel Government to the same standards’. That’s not what IHRA says. It says it’s AS to hold it to DIFFERENT standards!!

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “You could not even prove that Ken Livingstone himself is motivated by antisemitic intent. He probably isn’t.”

    Sorry, David, but I have to disagree. Livingstone said (and I went back to the programme in question – “The Politics Show”(?), chaired by Andrew Neill(?) – to ensure that I got the comment right – and these were the very words that led John Mann to look as though he was about to hit Livingstone when he confronted him on the stairs later that morning – fortunately, he restrained himself):
    “…a real antisemite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate the Jews in Golders Green and Stamford Hill…”

    So someone who ONLY hates the Jews in Israel isn’t a real antisemite? And that lets Livingstone off the hook? Note that Livingstone doesn’t criticise the government of Israel or Netanyahu or Likud, and/or their policies (all perfectly legitimate political comment) but states that just hating the Jews in Israel isn’t “real” antisemitism. At the time, I noticed that Neill looked either startled or shocked and looked as though he was about to intervene, but decided against it. Perhaps he thought that if he did, Livingstone would row back and diffuse his words, “oh, that came out wrong, what I meant to say was…” As it is, the words hang there, still.

    I am about to write to my MP, the estimable Catherine West, Hornsey & Wood Green, who has shown her mettle over confronting antisemitism in the Labour Party, and also joined Labour Friends of Israel, to ask her why I should remain a member of the Party, given the NEC’s failure to adopt the IHRA definition in full. I also raised this very issue at a meeting she called in the constituency over the rise (or re-birth) of the Far Right in England, citing specifically the clause on dual loyalty, and asking how people in the room would feel if we substituted, say, Afro-Caribbean, South Asian or Muslim for Jew in that cause, and replaced “Israel” with a different but appropriate other destination?

    I received significant support from the room and the MP looked as though I had made an impression on her.

    The situation is dire if the NEC decision remains Party policy. What next: registration of Jews as aliens?

    At least we now have somewhere can flee to. As a novelist (probably more than one of them) noted: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in”. Israel is that place. If I have to die prematurely, I’d rather it be on my feet than my knees.


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