This letter was sent to Iain McNicol, General Secretary of the Labour Party, on 25 November.
Dear Iain McNicol
Free Speech on Israel is a Jewish led group of mainly Labour Party members formed to contest restrictions on debate about Palestinian rights and Israeli Government actions and to contest antisemitic speech and actions as well as false allegations of antisemitism.
FSOI wishes to express its grave disquiet about the current operation of the Party’s disciplinary machinery and in particular in relation to the mishandling of the case against Tony Greenstein who has a long record of both challenging antisemitism and racism and campaigning for human rights. The dossier presented to Tony Greenstein contains many robust statements and vociferous criticism of Israel’s actins but nothing that can remotely be judged as being antisemitic or uttered with antisemitic intent. Continue reading “FSOI expresses grave disquiet about the handling of complaint against Tony Greenstein”
The claims revolve primarily around the Israel-Palestine conflict. Is there a constructive way forward?
A number of comment pieces appeared in the media, in the wake of the Labour Party’s conference of September 2017 – alleging that antisemitic incidents had occurred during the event; and that it represented the continuation of a wider problem within the party. It is not the first time that this has happened.
Jewish Voice for Labour must be greatly encouraged by the reception it received at Labour Party Conference.
As a brand new organisation with very limited resources and no paid staff, they did not anticipate the scale of its impact. Its launch meeting attracted over 300 people when JVL had been doubtful about filling a room that seats 180. As well as attracting many conference delegates, leaders of two trade unions, Unite and ASLEF, attended and pledged their support. In addition to stimulating speeches, brimming with, fact and ideas from leading Israeli academic Professor Avi Shlaim, retired Appeal Court judge Sir Stephen Sedley and respected Jewish socialist activist David Rosenberg, the audience heard from leading film maker Ken Loach who spoke from the floor.
The message from all the speakers was clear, consistent and enthusiastically welcomed by the audience. There are Jewish voices that the Labour party is wilfully ignoring. The party needs to listen attentively to the whole of its Jewish membership and not just those individuals and groups who defend Israel’s crimes against humanity; its occupation of Palestinian land; and its increasingly Apartheid-like regime. The message of the meeting was clear: that antisemitism is as unwelcome in the Labour Party, as it should be everywhere; but that criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights is not antisemitic. Rather, JVL continues the long tradition of Jewish defence of the oppressed and recognition of the humanity of all. As descendants of victims of oppression over centuries all Jews should join with JVL in denouncing injustice.
The impact of JVL was not only at the fringe of conference. Leading JVL members Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and Leah Levane roused conference to its feet with their calls for justice and peace in Palestine and for just procedures inside the Labour Party. Their reception paved the way for Jeremy Corbyn to pledge the Party to support Palestinian rights.
Why the rule change is inadequate and dangerous
JVL applauds the Labour Party’s renewed concern with combatting discrimination within the Party and in wider society. They recognise this has been central to Jeremy Corbyn’s entire political career. While the agreed measure on this topic avoids some of the worst features of other proposals circulated, JVL is concerned that the rule change adopted may not be effective in advancing that cause and fears its misuse. It can be seen that JVL’s anxieties are around four issues.
Firstly, the rule change does not spell out how to embody the recommendations of last year’s Chakrabarti report including that there should be no trawling of ancient social media postings in the hope of targeting specific individuals; and that all processes of investigation and discipline must be transparent and follow natural justice norms. Previous experience has been of selective vision; perverse textual interpretations; opaque procedures; and media vilification preceding hearings. The Party must determine to end such abusive ways of working.
Secondly the procedures for drawing up the code of conduct have not been specified. JVL expects that the NEC will consult with all groups that may experience discrimination and with all currents of opinion within these groups. A draft of the code must be circulated to all local parties. It is a lesson from all anti-discrimination initiatives that unless there is wide involvement from the start there is no ownership of the final process and failed implementation. There are particular issues with regard to the antisemitism aspect of the code. Over the last 18 months, criticism of Israel has, too often, been taken as evidence of antisemitism in Party disciplinary cases. The code must not include proposals that would brand anti-Zionism as antisemitism. We have seen too many examples where fear of being labelled antisemitic has silenced voices that, while critical of Israel, are in no way antisemitic. The code of conduct must not be used as a way to smuggle in a draconian reading of the IHRA (mis)definition of antisemitism.
Thirdly, it is alarming that the rule includes the notion that beliefs can be the subject of discipline. Objectionable beliefs may well give rise to statements and actions that are unacceptable. It is such statements and actions that are the appropriate object of sanction. Trying to punish belief is what Orwell derided as thought crime.
Fourthly, the new rule does not lead to a distinction that Chakrabarti clearly alluded to. Some unacceptable statements arise from ignorance and confusion and need to be addressed through education to lead the perpetrator to understand the negative consequences of their actions. Other statements and actions arise from malice and are the proper domain of disciplinary action. Neither type of hurtful action is acceptable but the way to deal with them, and to build a stronger, more inclusive party, vary.
JVL must look forward to building on its progress in Brighton and its boost in membership. It has committed itself to playing its role in strengthening the Labour Party and securing the Labour Government pledged to achieving the domestic and international justice that we desperately need.
Most Labour Party members, even including many MPs previously hostile to Jeremy Corbyn, have responded to the party’s revival during the general election campaign by setting aside divisive talk and looking forward to a more unified future. Not all however.
For Jeremy Newmark, chair of the pro-Israel Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), writing in the Jewish News, “the immediate agenda” is to re-investigate and expel Ken Livingstone, pursue outstanding cases such as Jackie Walker’s, “revisit” those Chakrabarti and Royall report recommendations “that fell short of expectations,” get the NEC to table the JLM’s rule change proposals at Labour Party conference and, “redouble our efforts to massively expand our training and education program at all levels across the party.”
The JLM’s rule change proposals, like their partisan training sessions, are based on the same principles as the “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition” which attempts to redefine the term “antisemitism” in order to include criticism of the State of Israel. The impact of this goes way beyond the Labour Party. John Mann MP, one of a number of ardent, right-wing non-Jewish Zionists in the Labour Party, has proposed an Early Day Motion in Parliament calling for its adoption by all public bodies in the UK.
It is significant that the Jewish Chronicle reacted angrily to Jeremy Corbyn’s race and faith manifesto issued during the election, complaining that “the manifesto only uses the section of the definition which makes reference to hatred of Jews. The rest of the definition – which refers to Israel – has been cut.” In other words, for the JC, the part of the IHRA document that seeks to define antisemitism as what it really is, is unacceptable unless widened to include examples which talk not about Jews but about the state of Israel.
Proponents of the IHRA document claim that it poses no threat to free speech because it permits criticism of the current government of Israel and allows opposition to settlement building in the Palestinian West Bank. It is perfectly acceptable, they say, to subject Israel to criticism similar to that which is made of other states.
They fail to take into account the many ways in which Israel is entirely different from other states. The IHRA document explicitly rules out, as potentially antisemitic, types of criticism that Palestinians and their supporters are entitled to make in order to highlight their specific history of dispossession and racist discrimination. The document is already being used in the UK to censor campaigns which call for an end to injustices Palestinians have faced since Zionist colonisation and settlement of their land began a century ago.
The recent European Parliament debate on this subject starkly demonstrated the point. Social Democrats argued that the IHRA document was nothing more than a harmless contribution to opposing racism against Jews. But they found themselves in the same camp as far-right Islamophobes who saw it as a weapon to be used in Israel’s defence and against its critics, particularly Muslims.
This is not the way to unite our diverse and fractured society. Nor is it conducive to unity within the Labour Party.
Film maker Jon Pullman interviewed Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and Mike Cushman to produce this video on the FSOI journey to playing a vital role in defending the space for action in support of Palestinian Rights.
Open Letter to Jeremy Corbyn MP, Leader of the Labour Party
We can’t add more names as the letter has been submitted to Corbyn, but do indicate your support in a comment
We are writing to you as members of the Labour Party. We are a predominantly Jewish group and are writing to ask you to review your behaviour on the question of Israel/Palestine. We understand that amongst reasons given by the Labour Party for claiming that Jackie Walker, the ex-Deputy Chair of Momentum, is antisemitic, the following are included:
Regularly posting on Israel
Describing Israel as a racist state
A pattern of behaviour that causes offence to some members
Claiming that there is an antisemitism witch-hunt
Claiming that there is Israeli involvement in British politics
Saying the Right of the party is using this witch-hunt for political purposes
Saying adoption of IHRA definition of antisemitism is an attempt to outlaw criticism of Israel and to silence pro-Palestinian voices
We have published a number of critiques of the Home Affairs Select Committee report on antisemitism. This is a summary of the main points made.
David Plank, former Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons Social Services Committee & former Local Authority Chief Executive slates the report for:
blatant political bias
bad statistical analysis and bad investigatory practice
pillorying leading personalities then them denying them the right of reply
exploitation of a discredited definition of antisemitism
distortion of the McPherson principle on investigation of racism
deliberate and hostile focus on the Labour party and its leader
summary dismissal of the Labour Party’s own report on antisemitism & exclusion of its Chair
the committee had no terms of reference – so they were free to follow their bias
Systemic weaknesses of the report
Composition of the Committee
5 Conservatives, 3 Labour, 1 SNP, Chair. All, including the Chair, openly hostile to Corbyn, his supporters and policies. Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s questioning of Corbyn was abusive and disrespectful. Umunna was a leader of the no confidence vote against Mr Corbyn and promoted Owen Smith against him for the leadership.
The Committee ignored the submissions from Jewish groups and other organisations which contradicted the views of the Jewish establishment.
All the witnesses chosen were hostile to Corbyn (barring Ken Livingston, also under criticism)
They use a self-selecting survey of Jews on Labour Party antisemitism. By definition such surveys are unreliable and are rejected by any self-respecting statistician.
Investigatory incompetence and bad practice
They dismissed the Chakrabarti report on the basis of innuendo and refused its author’s request to give evidence.
They gave overweening weight to the Board of Deputies of British Jews and The Jewish Leadership Council but ignored the views six UK Jewish groups with opposite points of view.
Despite identifying the vast majority of antisemitic abuse as being on social media – much from a US neo-fascist group – and not from the Labour party, they then studiously ignored this and devoted all their energies to attacking the Labour Party as the receptacle of antisemitism.
The Community Security Trust, the source of the figures justified ignoring the online abuse because it would “throw their statistics out of kilter” – in other words it would produce a different result to the one they wanted!
They observe police recorded antisemitic crime is almost non-existent, and conclude that the police should investigate this under-reporting, thereby inventing offences that do not exist.
Antisemitic hate crimes were just 1% of 52,000 police recorded hate the crimes for 2016
They label the Palestine Solidarity Campaign as hard left (which demonstratively is not true) and as anti-the Israeli government, they then quote Jonathan Akush, President of the BoD, as saying their marches have fascist banners, so as to conclude it is the left which is antisemitic. They studiously ignored submissions by Jewish groups that Arkush took a minuscule display of 3-4 fascist banners (which were quickly removed) – to inflate the marches into being neo-fascist. They failed to note the presence of English Defence Leagues banners at many Zionist demonstrations.
Guilt by association
They go on to state that Corbyn attended these demonstrations to imply he is antisemitic. These are the tactics of McCarthyism; appalling practice for a Parliamentary Committee.
Attacks on individuals who had no right of reply
NUS President, Malia Bouattia, elected on a platform of Palestinian human rights;
Jackie Walker, a black Jew who stated her ancestors were slave trade merchants.
The definition was drafted by the American Jewish Committee but was never adopted by the EU
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Thus criticising Jewish property (e.g. the settlements?) becomes antisemitic.
Criticising non-Jewish supporters of Israel (e.g. US Christian Zionists or Russian emigres) becomes antisemitic. This serves to insulate Israel’s unalloyed supporters from criticism.
They worsened the definition by incorporating into it the EUMC examples:
‘Criticism of Israel can be no harsher than of any other democracy’ – a card sharper’s slight of hand: there is not one person one vote for all those governed by Israel in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli Palestinian minority do not have civil rights equal to those of the majority, but to question Israel’s democratic status would be ‘delegitimisation’ and thus antisemitic.
‘Criticism of Israel as a racist enterprise is antisemitic’. Quoting Ben Gurion,’The cleansing of Palestine (is) the prime objective”,founding Zionist Weizmann “Not one village not one tribe shall be left” or the 50 laws which discriminate against israeli Palestinians become antisemitic.
c.Israel is the core of Jewish identity, so to act against it (e.g. Boycotts) is antisemitic. This gives Israel impunity in its extensive violations of human rights. But Israel is not core to the identity of many 100,000s of Jews. Stereotyping them in this way is, ironically, antisemitic.
Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel than to the interests of their own nations. Note the word ‘citizen’ not ‘people’: this means such accusations of any Jewish group or even individuals could be antisemitic. And those groups that do put Israel first cannot be criticised for doing so because such criticism would be antisemitic. This is nonsensical.
Drawing comparisons between Nazis Germany and Israel is antisemitic.
But recently Ehud Barak, former Israeli President and Yair Golan, IDF Major General, have done just that. The Committee demands less freedom of speech in the UK than in Israel!
Holding all Jews responsible for Israeli policies is seen as stereotyping and antisemitic – but it is the Jewish establishment itself which makes this very conflation of Jewish & Israeli identity. The Committee endorses this hypocrisy.
Distortion of Macpherson
The Macpherson principle has three components: (i) victims of racial abuse should be believed, (ii) their allegations investigated and (iii) if found credible to be referred to the CPS for legal action. The EUMC definition ignores (ii) & (iii) and guilt can be proved on the allegation alone.
There have been people that I admired and respected – people who I saw as generally forces for good, examples to emulate. And then, sometimes, I discovered that they were not the paragons I had built them up to be. The revelation of clay feet is always distressing.
I used to feel that way, sort of, about Parliamentary Select Committees. Well perhaps I was a sad case. But, in the context of the hollowing out of democratic institutions and the progressive centralisation of power, the step-by-step strengthening of the committee system seemed a possible way of holding the executive more effectively to account. The most recent reform, a few years ago, was that committee chairs are now elected by MPs rather than appointed by the party whips. This greater independence was supposed to give Select Committees the independence to set their own agendas, and report without fear or favour. And indeed that does happen. Quite recently a critique by members of the Health Select Committee demolished the government’s false claims about the additional funding they said they were providing to the NHS.
The set up
And then there came the Home Affairs Select Committee report allegedly on Antisemitism in the UK, published in October. Admittedly expectations were not of the highest. It’s chair Keith Vaz had turned the committee’s hearings into a version of performance art with himself as star; and he was still in that role in September (prior to his departure under a cloud) when the committee heard evidence in public. Another member Naz Shah had excluded herself for this item, following her abject apology in response to accusations of personal antisemitism. The result was that by the time the report was issued there were only two Labour MPs left standing – David Winnick and Chuka Umunna.
Umunna had already distinguished himself (in a highly competitive field) for the consistent venom of his verbal assaults on his elected party leader. His willingness to inflict collateral damage has evidently not been dented by Corbyn’s massive re-election victory just ahead of the Report’s publication in October. As we will see the report constitutes a partisan attack on the left of the Labour Party rather than a sober account of the state and significance of antisemitism in the country.
Concerns about the likely tenor of the Report were raised by the conduct of the Committee’s public hearings. They provided an opportunity for a further ritual humiliation for Ken Livingstone, and another failed attempt to rile or scare Jeremy Corbyn into saying something he would regret.
By comparison the representatives of Jewish community organisations (Jonathan Arkush of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and high-ups from the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust) were treated with all the respect due to beings from a higher plane. Sample question: “Is there anything your excellency would care to share with us?”. The contrast between browbeating and toadying is still available for viewing at the links in this paragraph, for those with strong stomachs.
Although several organisations (Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and Free Speech on Israel among them) had made written submissions around the distinction between Antisemitism and anti-Zionism none were called to give evidence. This despite the centrality of Israel/Palestine in the specific allegations of antisemitic discourse on the left. There was evidently no appetite to hear Independent Jewish Voices. What they wanted and got was Dependent Jewish Voices.
Taken in isolation this farrago might usefully stand as an object lesson for the future in how not to hold an Inquiry. (In this vein one of my academic colleagues used to give our masters students a really bad lecture, to demonstrate all possible mistakes in presentation.) But in the current fetid climate the critical faculties of many politicians and nearly all main stream media have been rigorously suppressed. With its claque of boosters (Howard Jacobson, Uncle Tom Cobley and all) in full cry, this document is in some danger of being treated as a serious study of the prevalence of Antisemitism in the UK.
There is a method in the Select Committee’s madness. It is composed in unequal parts of bias, denial, denigration, distortion, exclusion, innuendo, partisanship, pejoration, and willful credulity.
Does this seem overdone? Doubters can consult an excoriating analysis by a former specialist adviser to a Parliamentary select committee for the full substantiated horror story. For starters he pointed out that this inquiry, uniquely, had no Terms of Reference, thereby giving the committee carte blanche to wander at will. It seems to have operated, in a highly complex and contested area, without expert advisers. It excluded swathes of witnesses and evidence, cited statistics of dubious provenance evidence without caveats, refused to hear witnesses whom it subsequently criticized, and as far as we can tell failed to show the report in draft to those it traduced for them to offer rebuttals. Oh yes, and quite unusually it dis-embargoed the report on a Sunday in a manoeuvre seemingly aimed at getting onto the Andrew Marr show.
This whole exercise bears the hallmark of a scheme whose end was already known at its outset, and whose process consisted of selectively including, excluding and if necessary tendentiously interpreting evidence to fit the template.
A serious study of the issue of Antisemitism in the UK right now would array and carefully analyse the available statistics on type and prevalence of antisemitic incidents. It would put these in context – for example by comparative analysis with other countries, or other types of hate crime. It would discuss the range of potentially causative factors that could be driving the observed behaviour or indeed contaminating the data. This would permit judicious conclusions to be drawn about the seriousness of the problem, and how best to target it.
By contrast Antisemitism in the UK is almost a data- and analysis-free zone. Such data as is adduced it is not critically assessed. Here I will give just a few examples (with apologies to the non-numerate). Attitude surveys show that the UK is one of the least antisemitic countries in Europe, a somewhat inconvenient finding. The report counters this by saying that antisemitic incidents, as recorded by the Community Security Trust, are increasing. However, the case for this is shaky at best. The highest CST figures by far are for 2009 and 2014 – evidently related to Israel’s two most lethal attacks on Gaza. The report does manage to identify an increase in January to June 2016 (though still below those previous peaks); however, this coincides with the barrage of media publicity about alleged antisemitism in and around the Labour Party, whose effect on reporting rates can at least be imagined. But not by the Select Committee, who don’t even mention it as a possible factor.
The glitches continue, and all in one direction. The report cites a survey’s finding that an astronomical 87% of British Jews believe that the Labour Party is too tolerant of antisemitism. But this was a ‘self-selecting survey’; ie the respondents are the people who felt moved to write or click in, certainly unrepresentative of the whole. The sort of caveat that any statistician would expect (at this point I flaunt my masters degree in the subject) against taking this number as meaning anything at all is simply absent.
It goes on. If we stop talking relative increases and start to talk real numbers, the statistical manipulation stands out. The actual number of incidents reported by the Community Security Trust for January through June 2016 is 557. The number of antisemitic hate crimes reported by police in England and Wales for the whole of 2015 was 629. The total number of hate crimes (of all sorts) recorded by the police in 2014-5 was over 52,000. This moral panic is based on just 1%.
One of the more creative aspects of the report is its response to the fact that “police-recorded antisemitic crime is almost non-existent in some parts of England”. The conclusion is obvious – the National Police Chiefs Council should investigate the causes of this under-reporting, and “give support to police forces with less experience of investigating antisemitic incidents”.
Just one more. The Select Committee’s report reproduces figures from the CST indicating that 75% of politically motivated antisemitism comes from the far right. Yet its coverage of the political dimension of antisemitism, in pages, in paragraphs, in recommendations, is overwhelmingly about the Labour Party, and its leader. This focus dominates the later sections of the report, which doesn’t bother to disguise the fact that the preceding material is just there to set up an attack on Corbyn.
Some way back I offered various characteristics of the Select Committee report’s: bias, denial, denigration, distortion, exclusion, innuendo, partisanship, pejoration, and willful credulity. So far I have dealt only with bias, distortion, exclusion, partisanship and credulity. That leaves denial, denigration, innuendo and pejoration to go. The targets of this type of enfilading poison-tipped sniper fire were almost without exception Labour Party members and supporters who had made political criticisms of Israel, or those who had allegedly failed to stop them from doing so.
For fuller details on these transgressions against reasoned debate you will need to consult the detailed critique which I mentioned earlier. But a few examples will give a sense of the style and tone employed:
the allegations of antisemitism at the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) are treated as gospel, despite the expulsion of one of the complainants and the discrediting of the other
the Select Committee criticises Shami Chakrabarti’s report on antisemitism and other forms of racism for not taking account of the Royall report into OULC – but fails to mention that Baroness Royall was a Deputy Chair of her inquiry.
the report says that when Jeremy Corbyn was giving evidence to the Committee “he was supported by Ms Chakrabarti, who passed him notes throughout the session”. Shock! Outrage! But while we are on the subject, why did the Committee turn down Chakrabarti’s request to be called as a witness herself?
the report relates that ‘during one of the Gaza campaigns, there were “huge marches” in London at which people held placards that read “Hitler was right”’. And Jeremy Corbyn was there!
of the now infamous walkout by Ruth Smeeth MP from the press launch of the Chakrabarti Report (her claim to have experienced antisemitism there is refuted by the video evidence) the report says “We have received no confirmation from Mr Corbyn that he has subsequently met with Ms Smeeth to discuss this event.”
The report is littered with other examples of egregious bias either too small to be worth citing (one person ‘agrees’, another merely ‘claims’); or too long and complex (e.g. the innuendo over Chakrabarti’s peerage). This report needs a full-time partiality checker the way that Donald Trump’s campaign needed a fact checker. But we must move on.
In an honest investigative study, the recommendations, subject of course to some constraints, are derived substantially from the facts uncovered and their analysis. From a report as intellectually dishonest as this one is, one gets as recommendations for action exactly what the authors had decided in advance. The recommendations drive the shoddy analysis.
Some of the minor recommendations will do no harm if implemented, and may even do some good – ideas like having a dedicated single police officer in each force as point of contact for all allegations of hate crime. There is also some trenchant criticism of Twitter for its laid-back attitude to the monstering of all sorts which it facilitates on-line.
Going downhill from there we find impertinent lectures to various organisations on how they should conduct their internal affairs. The National Union of Students, for example, is told to let the Union of Jewish Students select the Jewish member of its Anti-Racism, Anti-Fascist (ARAF) Taskforce. Universities UK is told it should prepare briefing packs to, in effect, present the Israeli case on Israel/Palestine in order to balance the potentially baleful influence of Israel Apartheid Week. Note the blurring of the line between racism (antisemitism) and politics (anti-Zionism).
The Labour Party is told how to structure its disciplinary procedures, not to have a statute of limitations on offences, and that it should have specific internal antisemitism training, rather than general anti-racism education. All of this is in direct contradiction of the Chakrabarti recommendations, which were based on clear terms of reference and a rigorous approach.
The big one
Undoubtedly the great thudding motor powering this whole exercise is the recommendation to install an official definition of antisemitism. Not just any definition but a particular one.
The process leading here started off in 2004 when European and US Zionist organisations achieved control of a working group set up by the EU’s European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). The working group produced a celebrated definition of antisemitism that is known as the ‘EUMC working definition’ – because the EUMC itself never accepted it. Indeed, the EUMC’s successor body the Fundamental Rights Agency has deleted all reference to the definition from its website. However, the definition was promptly picked up and promoted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism under its chair (then MP, subsequently disgraced) Dennis MacShane.
The definition’s chief author was the American Jewish Committee’s specialist on antisemitism and extremism, attorney Kenneth Stern. Stern’s main concern is with what he calls “politically-based antisemitism, otherwise known in recent years as anti-Zionism, which treats Israel as the classic Jew. Whereas the Jew is disqualified by antisemitism from equal membership in the social compact, antisemites seek to disqualify Israel from equal membership in the community of nations.” In other words, according to Stern, if you are opposed to the Zionist political project, or indeed advocate a boycott of Israel, then you are an anti-Semite.
The EUMC working definition is the grand-daddy of the definition to which the Select Committee wishes to give legal force. But why, suddenly, do we need an elaborate definition at all? It is not too difficult to say what antisemitism is. Oxford’s Brian Klug managed it in 21 words: “Antisemitism is a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are”. The EUMC version takes 514, most of which are taken up with providing examples of what might constitute antisemitic acts, and most of these examples concern views that might be expressed, not about Jews, but about Israel. One might say, and it has been said, that the whole definitional exercise has had the aim of extending the meaning of a well-understood concept, antisemitism, to provide at least a partial shield against criticism for the state of Israel.
The india-rubber definition
The EUMC definition and its descendants has proved Hydra-like in their ability to survive what seem like mortal blows. More heads grow to replace those struck off. The EUMC version was first publicly attacked in the University and College Union, where it had been used to support a (failed) accusation of antisemitism against a member. As a result, the UCU resolved that the definition should henceforth have no role in its disciplinary processes. When in 2012 a UCU member sued his own union for subjecting him to antisemitic experiences, one of his 10 complaints was about the passing of that resolution. All of the complaints without exception were dismissed as without merit by the tribunal judge. And when the successor to Dennis MacShane’s Committee convened in 2015 (under John Mann) it ostentatiously did not repeat the call for the EUMC definition to become official. Instead it commissioned a report from Professor David Feldman (later a Deputy-Chair of the Chakrabarti Inquiry) – which critiqued that definition, and came down decisively for a definition based on Klug’s formulation.
And yet the heads keep growing back. The US State Department has more than once made positive reference to it. Last year it was discovered that the UK College of Policing includes a version of it in its guidance to police forces. And In May of this year the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted a version that is essentially the EUMC definition. And in turn it is the IHRA wording that the Select Committee urges the government to enact into law, though with a couple of minor wording tweaks.
The Select Committee report recommends that their definition “should be formally adopted by the UK Government, law enforcement agencies and all political parties, to assist them in determining whether or not an incident or discourse can be regarded as antisemitic”. That is, a law should be passed to change the meaning of a well-understood word, and to back it up by criminal sanctions.
How far are we down the slippery slope? Less than one month after the release of the Select Committee report, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education has ordered Sheffield Hallam University to pay compensation to a student for, among other things, failing to engage with the student’s suggestion about adopting the EUMC definition of antisemitism.
Antisemitism is serious
I am writing this soon after having taken a short break on either side of the French/Spanish border. At Collioure I saw an exhibition on the hardship inflicted there and thereabouts in 1939 on refugees from Franco’s Spain, including many thousands of Jews. In Gerona at the Jewish Museum in the heart of the old Jewish quarter I saw the evidence of the persecution of what had been a flourishing Jewish community, eventually faced by the Inquisition with the choice between forced conversion or sadistic execution. And on my return I went on a Dave Rosenberg walking tour in East London which took in the site of Cable Street’s massive resistance to Mosley’s fascist marchers.
To see the very real and historical thread of antisemitism, still as always a threat, demeaned by such a blatant calculation of political advantage is almost breath-taking.
This is a discreditable joke of a report. But the last laugh could be on those who value free speech.
A scathing critique written by a former specialist adviser to the House of Commons Social Services Committee, David Plank, has found that the HASC Report on antisemitism ‘is a partisan party political polemic which should not have been agreed and made public by a House of Commons select committee.’
He adds that the Report purporting to be the result of an inquiry into antisemitism in the United Kingdom, ‘is no such thing. The Inquiry has no terms of reference: as a result, it is ill-defined from the outset. Its evidence base is partial and excludes a swathe of evidence sources that would have been essential to such an inquiry. It is unbalanced in the coverage it gives to political discourse as against other aspects of antisemitism in the United Kingdom – and grossly imbalanced within the topic of political discourse in the entirely disproportionate attention it gives to the Labour Party and personally to its Leader.’
The former advisor’s recommendations:
The House of Commons Home affairs Committee should withdraw this Report and undertake a properly impartial, objective and sufficiently evidenced inquiry into antisemitism in the United Kingdom. Individuals and organizations should not be named or otherwise made identifiable in the report of this and other inquiries undertaken by the Committee without due process and proper verification of evidence.
The House of Commons Liaison Committee should examine the adequacy of the arrangements select committees of the House of Commons have in place to assure their inquiries and reports to ensure they achieve basic standards of impartiality, objectivity and adequacy of evidence – including strict adherence to the rule of no party politics.
The Labour Party should consider the comments made above in relation to: a definition of antisemitism and the areas of outright disagreement as to what falls within it in the assessment of allegations; and accountability.
On the committee’s method, he has this to say:
The fundamental weakness arising from the Inquiry’s lack of clarity about what it set out to do is aggravated by the method used in the inquiry, which is also not spelled out and appears partial and incomplete. For example, why was evidence obtained from some voices in the communities of British Jews and not others? The Board of Deputies of British Jews is one voice that was heard. A different voice – the voice of Independent Jewish Voices – was not heard. Independent Jewish Voices is a significant body which states:
“We believe that the broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole. We further believe that individuals and groups within all communities should feel free to express their views on any issue of public concern without incurring accusations of disloyalty.”
The Board of Deputies of British Jews is a body which claims authority to represent the Jewish community in this country as a whole – describing itself as:
“… the voice of British Jewry …” [Taken from website – my emphasis]
Why then did the Committee obtain evidence from one voice and give it much weight in its report and not obtain evidence from this other different voice – and indeed others such as the non-Orthodox communities which do not necessarily see their varied views represented by the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and its Chief Rabbi from whom evidence was obtained?Why did the then Chair of the Committee reject a request from Shami Chakrabarti to appear before the Committee and give evidence? Why is great weight given by the Committee to the evidence of bodies such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews when no weight appears to be given to that of other bodies with different views such as Free Speech on Israel? [Witnesses and Published written evidence on pages 63 & 64 respectively]
Some may not regard it as surprising that the Board of Deputies of British Jews has welcomed the Committee’s report given the weight the Committee appears to have attached to the Board’s views – and to those of other bodies from which evidence was obtained that some British Jews may see as like-minded bodies, i.e. the Jewish Leadership Council and the United Hebrew Congregations. Had the Committee obtained evidence from other known voices in the communities of British Jews – and given weight to the evidence it did have of different views – its account of Zionism, for instance, might well have been significantly different. The Committee gives the impression of not being sensitive to this crucial point. Had the Committee been as comprehensive in the evidence it took as the Chakrabarti Inquiry, its conclusions and recommendations might have carried greater weight than they do. [Compare the evidence listed on pages 63 & 64 of the Committee’s Report and the many more and more representative spread of organizations and individuals which contributed to the Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry following its call for evidence, pages 30 & 31 of the SC Report]
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”
The report discusses some criticisms of this definition including its unrecognised status and its attempts to extend the applicability of the term beyond the clearly limiting parameters of pure racism. If it be accepted that a racist statement is always necessarily general form of:
ALL ‘race’ ARE ‘pejorative’
We can see the IHRA definition of antisemitism attempts deviate this structure by claiming:
“ALL ‘Jews’ ARE ‘pejorative’ AND may be directed toward things of ‘Jewish nature’ = antisemitism”
The definitional extension applied here would seem to logically make proving an antisemitic claim more difficult to demonstrate. However, in the court of public opinion and the examples of antisemitism given by the IHRA, the crucial importance of the first clause of this definition and the ambiguity introduced by ‘may’ seems to completely ignored. This renders the effective definition to be perceived as:
“’pejorative’ directed toward things felt to be of ‘Jewish nature’ = antisemitism”
The HACSC recognises that allowing for subjective perception of antisemitism is not a tenable position when it says:
“for a perpetrator to be prosecuted for a criminal offence that was motivated or aggravated by antisemitism, requires more than just the victim’s perception that it was antisemitic.”
The need for objectivity is stress in the statement:
“It also requires evidence, and it requires that someone other than the victim makes an objective interpretation of that evidence.”
The report again goes on to justify its need for a clear definition:
“The difficulty of making such a determination in the face of conflicting interpretations underlines the importance of establishing an agreed definition of antisemitism.”
This can be seen as an additional problem to the ambiguity introduced into the IHRA working definition by the use of the word ‘may’.
Rather than deal with the structural problems with this definition and the examples that are provided the HACSC proposes the following particular exceptions:
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 methodology of providing a loose ‘working definition’ and then seeking to restrict that definition by listing exceptions is fundamentally flawed. In this instance the HACSC is doubly flawed because it attempts to define antisemitism circularly in terms of antisemitism. The suggested modifications in no way bear on the general issue of subjectivity in interpreting antisemitic statements.
This is subsequent borne out by the way the HACSC report completely acknowledges the term ‘Zionism’ as a political concept worthy of discussion and yet goes on to be completely persuaded by personal testimonies alone that the word ‘Zionist’, and by extension its contraction ‘Zio’, has such “toxicity” that it can automatically be assumed to antisemitic. The report avoids explicitly falling into this fallacy, but by subsequently siding with the aggrieved John Mann MP at the hostility and “vilification” he received, the conclusion can be in no doubt.
The report singularly fails to remain objective by making this arbitrary determination. The report fails to take account of the fundamental right to freedom of speech. This right cannot be arbitrarily interfered with. Thus the HACSC is legally duty bound to provide a suitable and necessary principle that would differentiate the term of abuse, of say, “Trot”, as directed toward left wing members of the labour party with that of ‘Zio’ for the political backing of Israeli policy.
The Select Committee report highlights the angry tweets received by John Mann MP and seems to imply the obviousness of their antisemitic guilt. At least half of those many texts have no discernible racist element by lack of generality. No effort is made to show how any of the tweets are in fact antisemitic in terms of the proposed definition. Merely presenting them in their hostility is hoped to bring your nodding acquiescence along, under an already prejudiced definition. The reader is not reminded of the context of these written messages in which Mr Mann himself appeared to be on the verge of physically assaulting Ken Livingstone in the most insane political moment I can think of in recent times.
The Chair of the HACSC report, the conservative’s Mr Loughton MP, attempts to mock Baroness Chakrabarti’s report for describing some antisemitic complaints as “unhappy incidents” and yet his report cites Mr Mann as a victim of vilification “after his attempts to challenge Ken Livingstone’s comments”. Comments which have not been found to be antisemitic at the time of writing and not likely to in this author’s opinion. On the contrary it would seem a likely justice if Mr Livingstone was to prosecute Mr Mann for his gross inappropriate actions and false accusations. The Baroness was quite right to defend her own report’s impartiality in not delving into ongoing investigations and taking sides. Words Mr Loughton ought to let sink in. The report is an abuse of process and should bring professional sanction because of its clear lack of impartiality. This would go some way to safeguarding future parliamentary Select Committee reports.
To make my point concrete I adduce the first of the example tweets cited in the report regarding the John Mann incident:
“@johnmannmp why don’t you admit you’re a Zionist wh*re then ??”
Angry, hostile and offensive? Certainly. Racist? Absolutely not, and by extension not antisemitic. I don’t admire or even like the person who sent this message, I don’t know him or her, it might be a small piece of evidence that he or she might be a despicable person. But equally it might not be such evidence. When you try to arbitrarily restrict human freedoms, many will take those liberties even more, as a ‘screw you’ if you like, in essence echoing the sentiments of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said:
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”
It seems a convenience for this MP and to other vested interests to show the political language of so many in such a tainted ‘working’ definition.