Will the Government’s proposed definition of antisemitism help or hinder?

David Plank

In response to a recommendation of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee in its Report, Antisemitism in the United Kingdom, the Government has agreed to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism “for the criminal justice agencies and other public bodies to use…”  [CM 9386]

David Plank
David Plank

I am concerned at the lack of clarity in the Prime Minister’s announcement of the Government’s decision and at the party political comment which accompanied it. I am also concerned that the Home Affairs Committee’s recommendation on which that decision relies is not well founded in evidence. My Critique of the Report noted that –
“… the Committee … omits to address the cause of much current and past dispute which concerns the definition of acts which are or are not antisemitic according to different sincerely held views which may or may not be mistaken or antisemitic. In this signal regard the Committee has failed to get to the root of the matter …” [Paragraph 8.13]

The single sentence that forms the IHRA’s working definition may be useful to some as just that – a working definition. The problem arises from the associated examples which the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has adopted to guide its work, some of which are the subject of the controversy and outright disagreement referred to in my Critique. [Paragraph 7.20]

For instance, the IHRA’s guidance  includes as an example of antisemitism in public life “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination …”  and gives as an example of this “…, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” But the first part of this statement is much broader than the instance in the second part. The first part can be read to mean that the assertion by Palestinian people of their comparable right of self-determination is antisemitic because it might be seen to deny or conflict with the Jewish right. And it will be read in this way by many people. The first part also runs the serious risk of suppressing expressions of the great anger felt by many Palestinians at what they see as the annexation of their country and its continuing “colonisation” through the establishment by Israel’s Government of Jewish settlements on land which, according to the United Nations, is unlawfully occupied by Israel. Surely, our basic right to free speech should allow such expressions of indignation without fear of prosecution for an alleged crime of antisemitism – and it should allow us to hear and be influenced by those expressions without fear of reproach or allegation. If the IHRA’s guidance is adopted as well as the single sentence definition, the right to free speech without fear of prosecution is put at risk.

Another example given in the IHRA’s guidance is “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” Is “Jewish citizens” intended to apply to an individual Jewish citizen or to Jewish citizens as a whole? Clearly, such an accusation against Jewish citizens as a whole is likely to be antisemitic as it appears to be based in a prejudiced stereotype of Jewish people, i.e. “a certain perception of Jews” as the IHRA’s working definition puts it. However, is it not possible that an individual Jewish citizen might be criticized in this way not because he or she is Jewish but because that is what he or she does? In this circumstance, whether or not the criticism was fair or accurate, it would not be racist. Do we want to encourage allegations of antisemitism for such a criticism of an individual? I think not. But this is the probable effect of adopting this example as part of the proposed definition. This could of course be down to poor drafting. If so, it is not the only example as there are a number in the IHRA’s guidance – which in itself makes it unsuitable for wider adoption in its current form, particularly adoption in the law or associated statutory guidance.

And then there is the preamble to the examples given in the IHRA’s guidance which states “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” But that is how many British and Israeli Jews do see Israel, which is likely to mean that the subsequent sentence in the guidance would in day to day practice be ignored: “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”  This qualification would probably be overlooked or forgotten by some with resultant allegations of antisemitism and reports to the police of an alleged crime. This does not seem likely to assist good community relations.

Another key aspect of the guidance is likely to be overlooked in practice. The “contemporary examples of antisemitism” listed by the IHRA are all prefaced by a key clause that they “… could, taking into account the overall context, include …” The crucial qualification of “taking into account the overall context” is almost certain to sink without trace in the practical application of the proposed definition to alleged criminal offences by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service – and in relation to their responsibilities by local authorities, universities and other public bodies – which are those likely to be obliged to apply the definition according to a BBC report. [Breaking news, 12.12.16] Given the huge difficulty the police and others have had with the guidance that they should “believe” persons alleging child sexual abuse, it seems probable that equal if not greater difficulty would occur with this more complex issue – with the consequent serious risk of oppression by the authorities and persecution by the media of relatively defenceless individuals being seen as guilty until their innocence is proved or proceedings are dropped.

One also has to ask why antisemitism? What is it that singles out antisemitism from other forms of racism which warrants this very specific and high profile attention as to its definition and pursuit over and above what the law already provides? The evidence of recorded antisemitic incidents does not appear wholly to support such special attention. The Home Affairs Committee at the top of its report cites as its first key fact an 11 per cent increase in such incidents over the first six months of 2016 as reported by the Community Security Trust (557 incidents compared with 500 in the first six months of 2015). However, the Committee omits to mention from the same source that 77 per cent of this increase is via social media which, though very real and vile, is a different phenomenon; primarily for the reason of anonymity as addressed in my Critique allowing unaccountable behind the hand and behind the curtain gossip which was not widely broadcast before to take visible public form now. Nor does the Committee reflect in its key fact that, according to the same source, there was a 13 per cent fall in violent antisemitic incidents over the same period. The omission of this very welcome development from the key fact further discredits the Home Affairs Committee’s report and weakens it as a basis for special government action.

Clearly, antisemitism is a significant problem requiring determined action by the authorities within the law. Clearly, the level of recorded antisemitic incidents has increased since the 2014 ground invasion of Gaza by Israeli forces and is remaining at a higher level unlike previous spikes. However, it remains lower than the spike in the first half of 2009 when 629 incidents were recorded and social media was not as prevalent as it is now. Therefore, it is not clear why antisemitism amongst the various forms of racism is thought to require the special and singular attention it appears to be being given now. Why is not similar attention being given by the Committee and the Government to the equally appalling scar of Islamophobia in our society? Arguably, the case for combating Islamophobia is as great if not greater than that for antisemitism. So, why is the government not devoting similar attention to both? Without a clear answer to these questions I am uneasy about the basis upon which the government is proceeding. [Community Security Trust, Antisemitic incidents, January – June 2016]

This unease becomes concern when account is taken of the highly politicized context of the Prime Minister’s announcement of 12 December. On the same day the BBC in its breaking news issued a report headed “Anti-Semitism: Theresa May attacks “twisted” Labour views”. In this the Prime Minister is quoted as having said at a lunch of the Conservative Friends of Israel in London, “It is disgusting that these twisted views are being found in British politics. Of course, I am talking mainly about the Labour Party and their hard-left allies.”  This was clearly timed to coincide with the Prime Minister’s announcement from 10 Downing Street. Given the highly dubious nature of the allegations against the Labour Party in general and Jeremy Corbyn in particular as evidenced in my Critique, this statement by the Conservative Prime Minister, which has not been denied by her office, looks like further evidence of highly regrettable party politicization of this most important, controversial and sensitive issue. The Prime Minister’s statement also reminds me of the Home Affairs Committee’s report’s denigratory tone where it refers to “hard-left” groups. The pejorative connotations of this are spelled out in my Critique. [Paragraphs 3.1 to 3.6]

The accuracy of the Prime Minister’s remarks is brought into question by the same account of antisemitic incidents issued by the Community Security Trust. This report shows that for the first six months of 2016, 24 per cent of all the 557 recorded incidents were “politically motivated” (135). Of these, 98 were classified as “Far Right”, 32 as “Anti-Zionist” and 5 as “Islamist”.

That the Labour Party is reported to have welcomed the introduction of a new definition does not improve this situation or make it more acceptable. In my view the Party has been scarred by its unjustified vilification and, understandably, may not want to be seen as obstructive at this time. After all, if the Party expressed well founded reservations, it would undoubtedly be portrayed as yet more evidence against it. Also, the Party may not take exception to the IHRA’s one sentence working definition which is consistent with the commonplace explanation of antisemitism Jeremy Corbyn gave in his evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. [Paragraph 11 of the Home Affairs Committee’s Report] But as I have said, it is the guidance which is the real problem not the one sentence. It is possible that the Labour Party will refine its position in due course.

It is regrettable that the Home Affairs Committee and now the Government appear to have overlooked the constructive work done in this very area for the Parliamentary Sub-Committee Against Antisemitism by Professor David Feldman in his January 2015 Sub-Report.  This report by the subsequent adviser to the Shami Chakrabarti Enquiry seems to provide a more fertile base for progress in this vexed and contentious area.
For all these reasons I am very concerned at this ill-judged and ill-omened initiative. Proper conduct in government is crucial to a civilized and civilizing society. Such conduct is not evident to me in this policy announcement. In my view this initiative may set back the honourable cause of combating antisemitism not advance it. It is certainly not likely to advance the equally honourable cause of free speech; indeed it is likely to have a chilling effect upon it.

3 February 2017
David’s interview on his Critique by Rosemary Bechler of Open Democracy
David’s further conclusion on the Home Affairs Committee’s Report following the recent Al Jazeera Investigates programmes, “Not worth the paper it is written on”,

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