Portsmouth PSC comments on Home Affairs Committee report

Home Affairs Select Committee Report Antisemitism in the UK
Tenth Report of Session 2016-17

Commentary by Portsmouth & South Downs PSC

The first section of these comments concerns the IHRA definition of antisemitism that the report recommends for general adoption and endorsement by the Government, a recommendation  that the Government has since accepted.    FSOI must challenge this definition which classifies some entirely legitimate and basic criticism of Israel and Zionism as antisemitic.   This is followed by comments on other sections of the report.

Sections 16, 17 and 24 on the definition of antisemitism.

The report makes great play of the fact that unlike the Chakrabarti Report, it gives a definition of antisemitism and recommends its general adoption.  But its definition adds next to nothing, other than confusion, to understanding what is meant by antisemitism.  It adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of May 2016:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews.  Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

with a couple of additional clarifications:

It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.

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.

The first sentence is the nub of the definition, but it really says nothing at all.   This undefined perception may, and therefore also may not be, expressed as hatred towards Jews.  So if someone does not hate Jews what does their antisemitism consist of?  We are none the wiser.

Now for the confusion.  In Section 17 the report says, “the IHRA goes on to list a number of contemporary examples of antisemitism”, and then gives all eleven of them.  There is a strong implication that the report is recommending these examples as clarifications of its definition, but it does not specifically say so.  Hence the confusion, a major and astonishing instance of sloppiness in a Select Committee report.

But it appears the intention is for these to be taken as valid examples of antisemitism and so we should take them seriously.  One in particular we need to take issue with:

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour.

The obvious valid reason for denying a people their right to self-determination is that exercising such a “right” can cause serious harm to people with prior rights.  If such a denial is antisemitic in the case of Israel then the Jewish peer Lord Sydenham was antisemitic when he said of the Balfour Declaration, “This national home must not be given if it cannot be given without entailing gross injustice on another people”.   The establishment of the State of Israel was clearly a racist endeavour in that Israel was established as a Jewish state by the ethnic cleansing of 75% of the non-Jewish population and is so maintained by the ongoing racist policy of not allowing the non-Jews that were expelled or fled to return.

We must make it abundantly clear that this so called example of antisemitism is entirely invalid and unacceptable.  The support given to it calls into question the validity of much in the rest of the report.  It demonstrates an inability to understand critics’ objection to Zionism and explains much of the report’s tendency to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism.  One could perhaps conceive of a form of Zionism that was not racist, one that had the intention and mode of implementation to be a blessing to the non-Jewish people, one that certainly would not have included the ethnic cleansing and ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people, but that has not been the Zionism actually adopted.

Download the FSOI leaflet on the IHRA definition

The remaining comments below refer to the report’s numbered sections.

  1. The Community Security Trust (CST) definition of antisemitism may result in its record of incidents including those that are merely anti-Zionist or likely to upset Jewish Zionists.
  1. Antisemitism can be directed to non-Jews mistaken for being Jews.
  1. Incidents reported as anti-Semitic should be recorded as alleged anti-Semitic incidents.
  1. It is important that everyone’s right to criticise any government should be upheld, whether or not they are considered to have knowledge or understanding of the region in which that government is situated. That is their basic democratic right.  The report seems to want to limit this right to those with knowledge and understanding and to exclude the ignorant.
  1. As already made clear, its definition of antisemitism manages to be erroneous and dangerous yet at the same time almost meaningless. It gives examples of antisemitism which are valid criticisms of Israel.  The recommendation that this definition is adopted by the British Government, law enforcement agencies and all political parties must be challenged vigorously.
  1. As the report says 59% of British Jewish people consider themselves Zionists. “Hence if people only mean to criticise the policies of the Government of Israel, and have no intention to offend Jewish people, they should criticise the ‘Israeli Government’ and not ‘Zionists’”.   If I dislike foreign policy actions being taken by the British Government, it is entirely reasonable that my criticism extends to those that support the actions and the general political philosophy underpinning it.  When Britain was a colonial power, if it was  dealing with British colonies in a way I thought wrong, it would have been perfectly reasonable for me to have criticised  “colonialists” for what was happening.  If 59% of the British public supported colonialism why should I worry if they were offended by such criticism?  Indeed I might intend to offend them to make them take notice of what I thought were objectionable policies and to get them to question their support for colonialism.  Whether that would be a sensible tactic for getting them to change their mind would be another matter, and the same applies to criticism of ‘Zionists’.

The report goes on to make the serious recommendation that for purposes of disciplinary or criminal investigation, use of the word Zionist in an accusatory fashion should be considered inflammatory and potentially anti-Semitic.  Would the report’s authors consider the word “Tory” to be inflammatory too when used in an accusatory fashion?  How can it be wrong to accuse someone to be what they profess to be, whether that is Zionist or Tory.  Or is it only anti-Semitic to accuse a Jewish person of being a Zionist when actually they are among the 41% of Jewish people who say they aren’t Zionists?

Zionist used in an abusive context is another matter as the examples quoted in the report show.  Abuse is to be condemned in any context.  It is also likely to be counterproductive and convince people that their views attacked are indeed correct.

  1. There were 558 incidents recorded by the CST in the first six months of 2016. With a Jewish population of 266740, this is one incident per 239 Jewish people in one year.  Assuming an average life span of 80 years, there will be 558 x2 x 80 incidents = 89,280 incidents in the average 80 year lifespan of the Jewish community if incidents continue at this rate.  This is consistent with 2 out of every 3 Jewish people never personally experiencing an antisemitic incident in their lifetime and the remaining third of Jewish people only experiencing one incident in their lifetime.
  1. There is rightly compulsory teaching of the Holocaust in British schools. There is a case for compulsory teaching of the Nakba too, on the grounds that it was a knock on effect of the Holocaust.
  1. Recommendation that Universities UK produce and distribute widely a resource that ensures that pro-Palestinian campaigns avoid drawing on antisemitic rhetoric. With the reports conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism we should be vigilant that the resource does not do the same thing.  PSC should make this point to Universities UK.  (See also comments below on Conclusion 18).

95-96.      Neither the report nor anyone else seems to have objected to the notion of setting up a Jewish state in the USA on the grounds that it would be a gross injustice for the Americans inhabiting the chosen location, most of whom would almost certainly object strongly to being forced into becoming a minority in a racially defined state, however sympathetic they were to the Jewish people before such a scheme was thrust upon them.

  1. Ken Livingstone is criticised on this page without any real justification being made for this. What he said was merely tactless & not incorrect. He said: “When Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism.” Mr Livingstone’s comments were described as offensive by numerous commentators and observers, but he refused to apologise. The report does not say why the authors think he should apologise for telling a truth people don’t want to hear.
  1. The characterisation of Unite Against Fascism, Stop the War, & PSC as ‘hard-left’ organisations is abusive, because
  2. a) the term is used in an abusive way to describe socialist organisations.
  3. b) PSC is not a socialist organisation anyway, containing as it does people from different political & religious groups.
  4. Corbyn is criticised for being associated with Seumas Milne. Milne is criticised for saying Hamas ‘will not be broken’ due to the ‘spirit of resistance of the Palestinian people’. The report does not mention that Hamas (whatever anybody thinks of them) were democratically elected & in any case they only exist because of the oppression of the Palestinian people.
  1. CST spokesman is quoted, unchallenged, as saying ‘it is now OK for Labour members to say that Jews were behind the slave trade’. This is a clear reference to Jackie Walker & misrepresents what she said. In exploring the paradoxes of her dual racial history she said that some Jews financed the slave trade. She did NOT say that the trade was dominated by Jews. She didn’t say that Africans & non-Jewish white people were also involved in the trade because she (naturally) assumed that people knew that.

    113.     Corbyn is criticised for ‘his reluctance to separate anti-semitism from other forms of racism’. But why should he? Racism is racism, whoever it’s directed against.

Corbyn is criticised for not dealing ‘effectively’ with Ken L. But Ken had done nothing wrong (apart from being tactless).

  1. The insinuations that Chakrabarti exonerated the Labour Party from antisemitism in return for a peerage show poor judgement of character and seem to take no account of the record of her public life.
  2. Ken L is misquoted. The report says, ‘Mr Livingstone has since admitted that it was “rubbish” to refer to Hitler as a Zionist.’ This is a misquotation of what the report itself said on P39 – ‘IF [our emphasis] I had said that Hitler was a Zionist I would apologise for that because it is rubbish.’ Of course, as P39 makes clear he ACTUALLY said that there was some collaboration between Hitler & the Zionists, which is of course correct.

Reading the transcript of Ken Livingstone’s remarks it’s clear there was nothing antisemitic in them.  He never said that Hitler was a Zionist.  Of course Hitler supported Jews migrating to Israel.  What would you expect? He wanted to get rid of them.  How long will the Labour Party take to investigate his case and decide whether to end his suspension?  The report is quite right to say that the Party should publish the reason for reinstating or terminating suspended member’s membership of the Labour Party.

  1. David Ward’s statement that if he lived in Gaza he might fire a rocket & Jenny Tonge’s that Israel will not last for ever are classed as anti-semitic. But clearly they are NOT anti-semitic but anti-Israel. People must be free to criticise Israel as they free to criticise any other country. Israel is not a special case.

Conclusion 5.      ‘Zionist must not be used as a term of abuse’. But who is to decide whether it’s abusive or not? If, for example, in a student debate A says to B, who has just maintained that Israel is not an apartheid state, ‘You’re only saying that because you’re a Zionist’ is that abusive?  That would be a very slippery slope.

Conclusion 18.     Welcomes the fact that Holocaust teaching in schools is compulsory. Of course it should be compulsory, but why is the Nakba not mentioned? The report says ‘Resources should be provided to ensure that students are well-informed about both sides, Israeli & Palestinian’ – yes, but why no mention of resources about the Nakba, when it has been implied that they should be provided to teach students about the Holocaust?

Conclusion  20.     Antisemitism is not the only racism that does not paint its victims as inferior objects of derision.  Islamophobia paints Muslims as dangerous and illiberal rather than inferior.

“Zionist” and “Zionism”.   We need to be careful, when using these words in campaigning, that whilst we may criticise the past establishment of the State of Israel we must not imply that removing the Jews from Israel should be part of the solution of the conflict.  Criticism of Israel’s policies and actions directly may often be more effective than criticising Zionists for being Zionists.  Many Israeli actions and policies are violations of international law, Zionism is not.  But showing how Zionism leads on to such injustice may in some contexts serve a useful purpose.  We need to employ just criticism but also to present it in ways that will convince Israel’s supporters that they must change their views and Israel that it must change its ways.  For the latter, unfortunately, good arguments are likely to be ineffective unless backed up by something stronger  –  hence BDS.

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One thought on “Portsmouth PSC comments on Home Affairs Committee report”

  1. A colleague opined: “Excellent piece of work by Southampton. How much better it would be to adopt this as a PSC response rather than a local Branch effort. And it would have vastly more impact if repackaged as the response of the entire alliance of the Pro-Palestine and Pro-Justice movement. I hope somebody puts this together – and quickly.” I couldn’t agree more.

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