Is the Israel lobby rewriting the Labour Party’s rule book?

Jewish Labour Movement chair Jeremy Newmark with former Labour leader Tony Blair in 2010. (Facebook)

An Israel lobby group in the Labour Party is trying to pass a rules change at the main UK opposition party’s conference, which starts this weekend.

The Jewish Labour Movement – which is closely linked to the Israeli embassy – claims the motion aims to “create a zero-tolerance environment for anti-Semitism” in the party.

But critics charge that the Jewish Labour Movement, which has been at the center of politically motivated exaggerations of anti-Semitism, is merely aiming to make it easier to push Palestine solidarity activists out of the party.

Labour’s National Executive Committee, its main governing body, on Tuesday approved a version of the rules change which will now be put to a full vote at the party conference.

Despite the Jewish Labour Movement taking credit, documents seen by The Electronic Intifada prove that the motion is substantially watered down from the one the group originally proposed.

But left-wing activists, such as Jewish Voice for Labour, are still wary of the rules change, even in its new form.

Potential danger

Jewish activists in Labour have told The Electronic Intifada that, although not as bad as the original version, the new rule could still endanger free speech on Israel.

Jewish Voice for Labour is a new group which will launch at the conference.

It rejects attempts by the Jewish Labour Movement “to extend the scope of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ beyond its meaning of hatred and bigotry towards Jews, particularly when directed at activities in solidarity with Palestinians.”

Leah Levane, a Labour activist in South East England, was due to speak at the conference in favor of an alternative that would explicitly protect “words or actions regarding Israel or Zionism that are part of legitimate political discourse.”

Jewish Voice for Labour activists have recommended that conference delegates back the alternative motion.

Media reports on a meeting of Labour’s national executive on Tuesday said that Levane’s local Labour branch in Hastings would be asked to withdraw its motion in favor of the compromise proposal.

Levane told The Electronic Intifada on Friday that her local party was considering whether to withdraw the motion. She argued that it does not negate the national executive’s modified motion, and that they could have been combined.

She said the national executive’s motion still leaves potential dangers for critics of Israel.

Thought crime?

Jewish Voice for Labour media officer Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi told The Electronic Intifada that even in the watered-down version, “the notion that ‘the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions’ should be taken into account when someone is accused of breaching party codes of conduct is alarming.”

Should the rule change be approved, Wimborne-Idrissi said, the Jewish Labour Movement is likely to push for new “codes of conduct” that define criticisms of Israel or Zionism as “anti-Semitism.”

This would be done by incorporating the controversial “IHRA definition” of anti-Semitism, which Israel lobby groups have pushed legislatures and institutions around the world to adopt.

The Jewish Labour Movement has strongly promoted the document.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s document alleges that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is an example of anti-Semitism.

It could also define advocating for a single, democratic state in historic Palestine, in which Jews, Muslims and Christians have full and equal rights, as anti-Semitism, because that could be construed as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

The Labour Party’s “Race and Faith Manifesto” formally endorses a two-sentence definition of anti-Semitism, contained in the controversial IHRA document, which does not mention Israel: “A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

It adds that, “Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This part of of the IHRA document poses no issue. It is the accompanying “examples” provided by IHRA that define criticism of Israel and its Zionist state ideology as anti-Semitism. The Labour manifesto is silent on whether the party accepts those examples as valid instances of anti-Semitism.

A spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in April declined to comment on the rest of the IHRA document.

Confusion

The news on Tuesday that the Jewish Labour Movement and Shami Chakrabarti, the party’s candidate for attorney general if Labour enters government, had secretly negotiated a compromise on the rules change was met by activists with confusion.

The strongly pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle claimed it was “a robust solution to tackle the problem of anti-Semitic harassment.”

But Darren Williams, a left-wing member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, wrote on Facebook that the deal “avoided the more draconian approach favored by the Jewish Labour Movement.”

Jewish Labour Movement chair Jeremy Newmark hit back in the comments section claiming that it “was the precise text that [the Jewish Labour Movement] promoted and asked for” and then implied Williams was an anti-Semite who wanted to “incite bad feeling towards the party’s only Jewish affiliate.”

Newmark has a long history of making false claims of anti-Semitism as a political tool to defend Israel. An employment tribunal judge in 2013 described as “preposterous” and “untrue” testimony he gave in a failed case alleging anti-Semitism at the University and College Union.

In a 2014 article about the boycott of Israel for a Tel Aviv newspaper, Newmark wrote that he had been at “the vanguard of the fight” against “the assault upon Israel’s legitimacy for many years.”

Not the JLM’s wording

Academic and activist Jonathan Rosenhead argued in an analysis on Friday that the compromise motion agreed by Labour’s national executive “is certainly not the Jewish Labour Movement’s wording, and does not have its very direct and specific targeting of anti-Semitism.”

Bob Pitt, an ex-researcher for former Labour mayor of London Ken Livingstone has also argued that the Jewish Labour Movement was “forced to accept a compromise which fell short of conceding their most dangerous and objectionable demand.”

The full text of the compromise rule change was obtained by left-wing Labour blog The Skwawkbox.

Comparing the rule change to the Jewish Labour Movement’s original text reveals it has been substantially watered down by the national executive.

Rules for Israel

The Jewish Labour Movement has removed from its website the text of its original proposal, but archived copies of the document can be found online.

It can be read in full below.

The original Jewish Labour Movement proposal would have allowed the party to discipline members accused of anti-Semitism in cases “where the victim or anyone else think it was motivated by hostility” towards Jews.

In other words, one politically motivated false accusation of anti-Semitism is all it would have taken for a Labour Party member to be expelled.

This most damaging clause has been removed from the compromise version which will be voted on at conference.

The Jewish Labour Movement also argued that its original proposal would have rendered it unacceptable “to use Zionism as a term of abuse.”

Zionism is the Israeli state’s official ideology, which advocates a “Jewish state” in Palestine, a country with a historic non-Jewish majority.

The Jewish Labour Movement is constitutionally committed to Zionism and is involved in the World Zionist Organization. The latter group is strongly involved in the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank by Israeli settlers.

A time of change

The rule change on anti-Semitism comes as party delegates will vote on sweeping reforms to the party’s governance, that left-wing trade union activist Michael Calderbank argues would represent “a significant step forward in empowering party members.”

But he cautioned that while the compromise on the proposed rule change may spare the party under leader Jeremy Corbyn from “being engulfed in controversy over its willingness to tackle accusations of anti-Semitism, it may also embolden Jewish Labour Movement supporters to push for a new round of disciplinary action targeted at those who have caused controversy on the left.”

The Jewish Labour Movement has been one of the main groups on the right of the Labour Party promoting a false “anti-Semitism crisis” narrative since Corbyn was elected in 2015.

This resulted in a witch hunt of members who had in reality done little more than criticize Israel or defend Palestinian rights.

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I am not sure why you say that the definition of antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” poses no issue. Even without the comma, it seems to me an impossibly vague and plastic definition. With the comma, it amounts to "antisemitism = a certain perception of Jews" – and that's essentially it.

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I agree. The issue of "perception" is one which by definition cannot be resolved objectively. The charge of harboring a perception is one that can be neither categorically affirmed nor refuted. The real question, subject to genuine examination, is whether a party member has expressed racist views about Jews. That's a matter susceptible to informed discussion. But no individual, no committee can isolate and weigh something called a perception. And attributing dangerous "perceptions" to an opponent calls to mind the days of witch trials and spectral evidence.

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I've just heard about the on going infiltration of the Labour party by the foreign Government of Israel.
The same Israel that was exposed plotting to bring down of a British government minister who mentioned the genocide of Palestinian people. As a Labour party member and a Jew, I strongly appose the un elected influence of an apartheid state having any input into our country's politics and wish to protect the human rights of all of us. If it this gag on the truth of Zionist oppression had happened during South African Apartheid, humanity would not have know the truth of Apartheid. If we are not allowed to speak for those who are suffering oppression and murder, what's to stop others speaking for us, were we ever face brutality and genocide in the future.

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UK's Labour Party has become infested with Israel lobbyists since Palestine Solidarity Campaign Patron Jeremy Corbyn was elected Leader. The operator of webelieveinisrael.com may be elected to the NEC this time and may stand for Parliament. A former Chair of Labour Friends of Israel is not Head of Strategy at the BBC, which has become a mouthpiece for Israeli propaganda.

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As a former member of the British Labour Party I supported Motions condemning a long list of tyrannical regimes: The Apartheid regime in South Africa; the US-installed puppet government in South Vietnam; the US-sponsored government of Reza Pahlavi in Iran; the discriminatory Orange State in Northern Ireland; Pol Pot in Cambodia; the Indonesian military in East Timor etc.etc. We who drew up and/or supported these Motions were never once accused of racism. It was recognised that where there is tyranny and oppression one must speak out against it. Attempting to silence those critical of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians - a policy whose clear aim is ethnic cleansing by degrees - on the ground that this constitutes 'anti-semitism', sets a dangerous precedent. Are we being 'anti-semitic' when we quote from UN reports, from Red Cross and Crescent reports, from NGO reports - all highly critical of Israel's behaviour? Are members to be expelled from the Labour Party for urging that Israel comply with international law and with the Hague and Geneva Conventions? If so, it would undermine democracy in the Party and we would witness abuses of power reminiscent of the notorious McCarthyite process.

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Caitlin Ni Chonaill, I agree with everything that you say regarding Freedom of Speech and Conscience in the Labour Party. Indeed whatever a persons politics are, freedom of speech is a fundamental human right and must be maintained at all costs.
If we lose that we lose everything.

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I would draw the line at providing a platform for fascists on the grounds that they do not support human rights and embrace an ideology of violence. However, this is my personal view and I'm aware there has been a long-running debate on the issue, with those opposed to this view arguing that 'freedom of speech' must be upheld as a universal principle.

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I am surprised that Asa goes along with this nonsense about the first two lines of the IHRA definition posing no danger. He is deadly wrong.

You can't separate out the first 2 lines from the rest of this definition. It may not mention Israel but it doesn't have to. The introduction to the definition states that anti-Semitism is “A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

The obvious question is if anti-Semitism is what else might it be expressed as (apart from hatred of Jews). And of course the answer is supplied by 7 of the 11 examples beneath it. Separating out the first two lines from the rest of the definition is like separating Jesus from the Resurrection! Dracula from the Undead. It is artificial. They go together like Torville and Dean. If you want a definition of anti-Semitism it is simplicity itself - hostility or hatred towards Jews and its manifestation.

The vagueness of the definition is necessary because it is intended to include more than hostility or hatred. The fact that it includes Jewish communal organisations which I do detest should set alarm bells ringing.

It adds that, “Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

A fish rots from the head downwards and any attempt to divide the IHRA into its good and bad parts is an exercise in futility.

If you want a take on the new Rule Change see http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2...

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Tony, I agree absolutely. And the sentence you quote is still more pernicious because of that damn comma! Forgive me – I know a lot of people get impatient about punctuation, but punctuation adds nuance and can be absolutely crucial in a court of law. The IHRA now defines antisemitism in terms of thoughtcrime – it is a "perception", whether or not that perception is ever expressed in word or deed. And how is that "perception" defined? It isn't – at all. Without the comma, the sentence at least implies that it's the sort of perception that may (though it also may not) be expressed as hatred of Jews. With the comma, the second half of the sentence becomes just an aside, a point of information, and the essential legal definition of antisemitism becomes "a certain perception of Jews" full stop. In effect, as I understand it, the IHRA definition boils down to: "It is illegal [and, of course, immoral] to think about Jews in a certain way. What that way is, we'll let you know."

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THe more one looks at this definition the worse it looks Huw is quite right about the comma. The key point is that antisemitism is not just a perception it is a practice often not based on perception but political stances.

But when it says anti-semitism 'is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred
toward Jews' the question is what else it may be expressed as and that something else is anti-Zionism.

It is also strange to include Jewish communal bodies in this as criticism of them, e.g. the Board of Deputies will count as antisemitic under it. I hope Asa rethinks this one.

Asa Winstanley's picture

Hi Tony, 

I take your point, and I accept that even the two-sentence definition has its issues. As I noted in my report from April about the legal opinion on the IHRA document, David Feldman considers it “bewilderingly imprecise” and unsatisfactory as a general rule of antisemitism.

What I meant by “poses no issue,” but perhaps did not express well, is that in theory it poses no issue for Palestine campaigners, since it doesn’t mention Israel or Zionism. Surely antisemitism can be expressed in other ways than outright hatred, such as the sort of philo-semitism often associated with Christian Zionists?

I am of the opinion that tactically speaking, our best bet going forward is to refuse to accept what the Israel lobby is pushing for: to characterize the entire IHRA document as the “IHRA defintion”.

This distinction is crucial, because, despite the claims in this letter to Moshe, the entire IHRA document (which includes the problematic examples about Israel/Zionism) has not actually been formally adopted by the party hierarchy. While the IHRA “definition”/”working definition” (which does not include the examples,) has been endorsed by Corbyn and in the Race and Faith Manifesto.

This kind of strategy eventually led to the defeat of the late, unlamented, EUMC ”defintion” (although it could be argued the IHRA document is a zombified version of that).

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Hi Asa,

Although I admire your writings and agree with you on most things I strongly disagree with you on this one. Your approach is very dangerous one. You could not be more wrong.

As is being demonstrated, the IHRA definition, including its definition poses extreme dangers for Palestine campaigners as we have just seen in the Labour Party with Moshe’s expulsion. Moshe is one of the foremost critics of Zionism. Much of what I learnt was as a result of his teachings. He took people away from the anti-Semitic bombast of people like Ahmad Shukeirei.

Yes the definition is bewilderingly imprecise. It also fails, as Sedley said, the first test of a definition in that it is indefinite. This is not accidental. The IHRA introduction is deliberately imprecise and open ended. Not because its authors had in mind stereotypes and philo-semitism. That was the last thing in their minds.
This definition was drawn up with one purpose in mind. How best to ensnare anti-Zionism within the definition of anti-Semitism. It is one thing to assert that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are one and the same thing but that convinces no one who isn’t already a zealot.

This is why the Zionists have fought tooth and nail to resurrect the EUMC Working Definition. Its imprecision and nebulousness is precisely what they want.
Hence a definition which defines anti-Semitism as a perception, not an act, not a state of mind born of a certain political viewpoint, but as something which can encompass more than hatred or hostility. The IHRA states that ‘Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which MAY BE expressed as hatred towards Jews.’

The obvious question is what else it may be. Of course it doesn’t mention Zionism or Israel. That is the whole point. That would be too obvious. It is precisely its studied vagueness which allows it to lead to a host of examples which do mention Israel!

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I’m not sure that philo-semitism is anti-Semitism per se but it embodies anti-Semitic ideas and stereotypes for example when Owen Smith, asked what he admired about Jews mentioned they are good entrepreneurs.

Christian Zionism’s philo-semitism is different because it is based on a solution to the Jewish Question which ends up in genocide.

There is a very simple definition which was put forward by Dr Brian Klug in his really excellent lecture in 2014 in Berlin: ‘What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Antisemitsm’? - Echoes of shattering glass.’ It is a simple definition 21 words long: ‘antisemitism is a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.’ That encompasses stereotypes and philo-semitism. It is also clear and avoids any conflation with Israel and Zionism.

You say the best bet is to ‘refuse to accept what the Israel lobby is pushing for: to characterize the entire IHRA document as the “IHRA defintion”.’ I completely disagree. It is like separating a child from its parents. It is going to cause untold grief and not to them but to us. The IHRA list of examples is the bastard offspring of the introduction. It is precisely the introduction’s inherent flaws which allow the examples to proceed unchecked.

The defeat of the EUMC Working Definition was not a product of the strategy you outline. It was opposed root and branch and quite rightly too. There are also other dangers including singling out Jewish community institutions.

I really think you should rethink your take on this because the strategy you are advocating is leading us to fall into a trap that the Zionists have set for us. Clear thinking is required not wishful thinking and a pragmatism that is self defeating.

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Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist and associate editor with The Electronic Intifada. He lives in London. Biography here.