Calling Israel racist isn’t anti-Semitic, rules UK Labour

Palestine solidarity campaigners have welcomed new rules on anti-Semitism passed by the British Labour Party’s ruling executive this week.

Left-wing group Jewish Voice for Labour gave the new rules a cautious welcome, saying in a statement that the code of conduct “offers a constructive framework for moving forward in this difficult area.”

But Israel lobby groups were furious on Wednesday, as details of the new rules emerged.

The new Labour code of conduct on anti-Semitism strips out several of the most damaging clauses of the controversial “working definition” on anti-Semitism published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

The new rules still endorse parts of the definition within the IHRA document. Yet they reject or rewrite some “examples” cited in that document of what allegedly constitutes anti-Semitism.

Last year the leading human rights lawyer Hugh Tomlinson criticized the definition as “unclear and confusing” saying it did not have “the clarity which would be required” from a legal definition of anti-Semitism.

The IHRA document claimed as examples of anti-Semitism, “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Bogus definition

The latter clause was particularly criticized by Palestine solidarity campaigners and groups like Jewish Voice for Labour, as it risked legally defining support for a unitary democratic state for Palestinians and Israelis alike as “anti-Semitic.”

In March, a delegation of anti-Palestinian groups and lawmakers (including Labour Friends of Israel’s Joan Ryan) lobbied the British prime minister, calling on her to ban the annual Israeli Apartheid Week from UK campuses

To back up their demands, they cited the IHRA definition, saying it provides “examples of behavior that qualifies as anti-Semitic, one of which is to claim that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Former appeal court judge Stephen Sedley wrote last year that “the IHRA definition offers encouragement to pro-Israel militants whose targets for abuse and disruption in London have recently included the leading American scholar and critic of Israel Richard Falk, and discouragement to university authorities which do not want to act as censors but worry that the IHRA definition requires them to do so.”

Jewish Voice for Labour stated that the new Labour code of conduct encouraged “free speech on issues to do with Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, and with Zionism.”

But the group cautioned that “much will depend on how this code of conduct is applied in practice, particularly in disciplinary cases. We are cautiously optimistic.”

Palestine Solidarity Campaign director Ben Jamal told The Electronic Intifada that he cautiously welcomed the new code of conduct, although it is imperfect and should not have embraced the seriously flawed IHRA document.

“The IHRA definition is deeply controversial,” Jamal said, “because of its conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.”

“Anti-semitic formulation”

He said it was important that Labour had rejected the examples in the IHRA document which pro-Israel groups use to “assert that calling Israel an apartheid state or calling for peaceful action to respond to its human rights abuses via boycott, divestment and sanctions are inherently anti-Semitic.”

This “not only demeans the struggle against anti-Semitism in which all should be involved but also prevents action to address the injustices perpetrated against Palestinian people,” he said.

But veteran Palestine solidarity activist and anti-Zionist blogger Tony Greenstein sounded a note of skepticism on Friday, telling The Electronic Intifada there were “really serious problems” with the new code of conduct.

He said that although he welcomed the fact the document had some caveats protecting activists, it was still essentially a “cut down version” of the IHRA document.

He said that Labour should reject the IHRA document and ask, “Why do you use it, when there is a simple definition of anti-Semitism which suits everyone, which is ‘hostility to Jews as Jews’?”

Greenstein has in the past stated that the IHRA document should be more accurately described as a “redefinition” of anti-Semitism.

As problematic, he pointed to paragraph 12 of the new code of conduct, which states that “the Jewish people” have a “right to self-determination” (albeit without reference to Palestine or Israel).

Greenstein said this is in practice an “anti-Semitic formulation” since it “assumes that Jews are a people apart.”

Israel lobby reaction

Israel lobby groups were apoplectic this week that Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee and General Secretary Jennie Formby had not acceded to all their demands.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council criticized Labour. In a joint statement, the two groups alleged that the new rules “only dilute the definition and further erode the existing lack of confidence that British Jews have in their sincerity to tackle anti-Semitism within the Labour movement.”

Both groups have been at the forefront of a dishonest smear campaign to portray the Labour movement as riven with anti-Semitism.

Stephen Pollard, editor of the right-wing, anti-Palestinian Jewish Chronicle, went into overdrive, strongly hinting that the document may as well have been written by “not AH [Adolf Hitler], but Nazis generally.” Pollard argued that it was “a cynical exercise in Jew hatred” and shows Labour is “institutionally anti-Semitic.”

In a letter to the party’s general secretary, the Jewish Labour Movement was also unhappy with Jennie Formby – despite “all the time you’ve given JLM over the past few months.”

The lobby group demanded she overturn the collective decision of the ruling executive and “abandon this definition, without haste, and make clear that [Labour] has already adopted and [is] actively using IHRA.”

As The Electronic Intifada revealed in April, the JLM has acted as a proxy for the Israeli embassy, with its director privately admitting to working closely “very well” with disgraced Israeli embassy spy Shai Masot.

Writing furiously in the New Statesman on Friday, two JLM officers called the code of conduct a “bastardized version” of the IHRA “that requires intent [of anti-Semitism] to be proven.”

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I don't see any of these 'pro-Zionist' groups speaking up for the right of Palestinians to a state of their own...if they believe that Jews have this right, but Palestinian Arabs do not, isn't there a word that describes that inconsistency?

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While I agree with Tony Greenstein's position, that the IHRA is wrongheaded and worthless, this document issued by the Labour Party begins the process of redress. It's by no means an ideal outcome- in fact it's not an outcome at all. But in dispensing with the canard that criticisms of Israel, of Zionist ideology and government policies do not constitute antisemitism, a step has finally been taken in the right direction by the party. A number of further measures must be adopted before it can be said that Labour has truly stood up against the Israel lobby which has for years been engaged in smearing the party, its activists and its leader. Tony's also right in objecting to paragraph 12 of the new code published by Labour. Language to the effect that "the Jewish people" have "a right to self-determination" does indeed project the view that Jews are a group apart from civil society in their home countries- a basic tenet of antisemitism. It also posits the equally mistaken idea that Jews are at the same time a people together- regardless of class, circumstance, political affiliation, nationality, etc. That's an antisemitic notion, too.

The unpleasant truth is that Zionism itself is a movement born not merely as a reaction to racism, but within the cauldron of those forces of European supremacy and colonialism. In many respects Zionism incorporates the antisemitic view of history, accepting the desirability of removing Jews from Europe, and transferring racial animus through colonialism onto the bodies and culture of an indigenous people in a foreign land. In that sense, it can be plausibly maintained that Zionism is antisemitism for Jews.

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Before anything can be determined to be anti- or pro-semitic, why don't people dwell on the actual meaning of the word "Semite?" The word includes various peoples including Arabs. So, if one is anti-Semitic, s/he is anti-Arab.
[Although Jews are often included in the Semite grouping, Judaism is a religion, not a race and, therefore, are not technically included as Semitic.] BTW, to say that Israel is a racist state is true and has nothing to do with being against Jews as Jews, but rather with the Israeli government hating Palestinians and forcing them to live in squalor, with poisoned water, murdering them regularly, denying them healthcare, limiting their caloric intake, withholding their wages and funds, means of livelihood, movement, passports, stealing their land, imprisoning them without just cause, and so on...the list is endless. What could Israel be called if not "racist?" God knows it's not a democracy with equality and justice for all.

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If you are happy with changing the meaning of words, like gay has transformed from happy, bright, cheerful to the meaning of homosexual then that is fine.

But worth remembering that the term antisemitic was coined in the 1870s by Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904) German radical, nationalist and race-agitator specifically and solely with reference to Jews. It seems he expressed no views one way or the other about Arabs.

I trust you agree that race is a social construct, so I'd caution against transferring the meaning solely or primarily to "anti-Arab". This means excluding all the other groups that are Semitic by language. A list of all the ethnicities your new definition will embraces can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

With one blow you can erase the long history of anti-Jewish sentiments, from antiquity to modern times, by appropriating them for all Semites.

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"Semite. a member of any of various ancient and modern peoples originating in southwestern Asia, including the Akkadians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs. a member of any of the peoples descended from Shem, the eldest son of Noah."
"The term came to include Arabs, Akkadians, Canaanites, some Ethiopians, and Aramaean tribes including Hebrews." Odd addng "Hebrews" since Hebrews, like Jews, isn't a race.
Do remember that the bible/torah is written by men who were (and still are) so afraid of women they wrote them to be submissive to men and made themselves in "the image of god," thus god's "chosen" people. Geez, how arrogant is that? These writings are myths, not laws.
Israel isn't even a state since the citizens who are not Jews are inferior and do not have equal rights. In fact, the Jews plan to and are exterminating the non-Jews.

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It's amazing that the Labour left will tolerate supporters of Israeli mass murder in the party while quibbling about how high to jump when those scum say "jump".

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This is a useful article and has elicited very good comments. One thing that still needs to be explicitly said is that you cannot call "Israel" a legitimate state without at the same time being racist towards the non-Jewish majority of Mandate Palestine. Anyone who regards "Israel" as a legitimate state, i.e. a state created and constituted in accordance with the UN Charter of 1945, must NECESSARILY be stating that the non-Jewish indigenous majority of the then population did not have the right to play its full role in determining the kind of state their country would become at the end of the Mandate. It was precisely to ensure that this majority of the population did NOT have a say in determining the nature of the state that would develop in their (i.e. the non-Jewish majority's) native land that the Jewish Agency and other violent Jewish groupings massacred and expelled most of them and have refused ever since to allow them back. The remaining non-Jews were "allowed" to vote, but only for choices determined by the Jews. That these events occurred and have not been rectified since means that the UN Charter - the embodiment of the highest morality in binding Law - has been crippled and baffled, and will remain so until this crime is brought to justice and rectified. Jews and Christian Zionists alone could not have perpetrated and prolonged this crime without the help of the Security Council. So it is important that absolutely everyone realises that he/she has an interest in somehow forcing their respective governments to adhere to and support International Law.

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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.