Parliamentary Selective Committee Report

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.

The hearings

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.

Jeremy Corbyn under questioning by the Select Committee
Jeremy Corbyn under questioning by the Select Committee

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.

Method

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.

Seriously

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.

Adjectives

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.

The recommendations

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 threat

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.

Jonathan Rosenhead

Crying wolf?

Republished from Open Democracy

A cavalier use of evidence in the UK’s latest Home Affairs Select Committee report is feeding a moral panic about antisemitism, rather than dealing with an increasingly racist, intolerant society.

Jeremy Corbyn Speaks On Labours Anti Semitism Inquiry Findings

The latest report by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (HAC) Antisemitism in the UK Tenth Report of Session 2016–17 , was released to great fanfare on Sunday 16 October. Its accompanying embargoed press release, headed “All Parties – And Media Giants – Must Address ‘Pernicious’ Antisemitic Hate”, led with the following note: “[T]he failure of the Labour Party consistently and effectively to deal with antisemitic incidents in recent years risks lending force to allegations that elements of the Labour movement are institutionally antisemitic.”

Against a background of rising criticism of the Israeli state and its actions, attempts have been made in recent decades to redefine our understanding of antisemitism to include much of this criticism under the rubric of what is labelled “left antisemitism”. Genuine antisemitism and criticism of Israel which “oversteps the bounds” are rolled up into one and the same thing. In recent months the British Labour party has become the focus of attention as the exemplar, par excellence, of this “left antisemitism”.

In this respect the publication of the Chakrabarti report at the end of June was an important moment not just for the Labour party. It was a model of careful language, civility and empathy. Chakrabarti didn’t accuse anyone of bad faith, and strove to engage with the real pain that has been caused to people involved on all sides in this issue so far. It seemed to herald the possibility of moving beyond the fractious and divisive use of antisemitism as a political football which has so dogged debate in recent years. That is why I am dismayed to see the direction and trend of the latest Home Affairs Committee report (hereinafter called “the Report” and its author referred to as “the Committee”; all references to “paras” are to paragraphs in the report).

I want to comment particularly on the following areas of the Report:

a) its obsessive focusing on Labour

b) its shameful rubbishing of Chakrabarti

c) its confusions over “Zionism”

d) its attempt to (re)define antisemitism (including a misrepresentation of a definition it says it is endorsing)

e) its insistence that antisemitism is special, not like other racisms.

Demonising the Labour party

“It should be emphasised that the majority of antisemitic abuse and crime has historically been, and continues to be, committed by individuals associated with (or motivated by) far-right wing parties and political activity. Although there is little reliable or representative data on contemporary sources of antisemitism, CST [Community Security Trust] figures suggest that around three-quarters of all politically-motivated antisemitic incidents come from far-right sources.” (para 7)

Since obsessive focusing on Israel is taken by many as an indication of antisemitism, what do we make of the Committee’s obsessive focusing on the UK Labour Party, on Shami Chakrabarti, and on the world of student politics?

We might expect that three-quarters of the report would focus on the “antisemitic incidents com[ing] from far-right sources”. But that paragraph is about the only attention paid to the right in its 66 pages. Only 6 paragraphs (paras 121-126) look at antisemitism in relation to any political parties, other than Labour.

Further, there is no reference to the rampaging resurgence of all forms of racism in British political life, an openly racist Tory campaign for the London mayoralty, a Prime Minister referring to refugees in Europe as “a swarm” and accusing Labour of encouraging “a bunch of migrants” at Calais to come to Britain, and of course the post-Brexit referendum surge of hate crimes. Why is there no reference to this context?

Instead the report aims to “differentiate explicitly between racism and antisemitism (Report, para 114)” arguing that they are two different kinds of animal. Why?

As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out, in a mastery of understatement: “The report’s political framing and disproportionate emphasis on Labour risks undermining the positive and welcome recommendations made in it.”

One area that does receive attention, the scale of verbal abuse on social media, Twitter in particular, is clearly disturbing, and the Report does well to draw attention to it. But again, the antisemitism which is found there cannot be an isolated concern. Other forms of racism, Islamophobia in particular, and a generalised culture of anti-immigrant hate speech, sexual harassment and bullying is passed over as of no particular consequence. Rather, the Committee simply seems to have assumed that a) abuse in this sphere all comes from the left and b) that it is somehow licensed by what it claims to be Corbyn’s light-hearted attitude to antisemitism.

Nowhere is this clearer than with regard to Ruth Smeeth MP who is said to have experienced “more than 25,000 incidents of abuse, including being called a “yid c**t” and a “CIA/Mossad informant”, and who has said that she has “never seen antisemitism in Labour on this scale”. What percentage of the 25,000 were antisemitic we are not told, though Ms Smeeth’s own statement on television is reported: “It’s vile, it’s disgusting and it’s done in the name of the Leader of the Labour party, which makes it even worse” (Report, para 104). But was it done in Corbyn’s name? What’s the evidence for that assertion? How many of these tweeters were left-wing Labour? Did the Committee bother to ask? There is no evidence it did so. It seems to have operated on the generalised, taken-for-granted assumption that as antisemitism is rampant in the Labour party that’s where it must have come from. And it simply ignores the fact that Corbyn “contacted Ruth Smeeth to express his outrage at the abuse and threats directed against her” (or that the Sun chose to headline this action as “Jeremy Corbyn grovels to race-hate row MP Ruth Smeeth”!).

How can this explain what happened to Rhea Wolfson, a Jewish member of the party who stood for the NEC only to be (temporarily) blackballed on the grounds that she was supported by Momentum, allegedly “an antisemitic organisation”. Tweets sent to her in early October included: “1 way ticket to Auschwitz for you” and “Dirty kike she ready for the ovens” (Rhea Wolfson press release, 16 Oct 2016). It beggars belief that these tweets were sent to her by left-wing Labour supporters.

This does not appear to be a mere a lack of curiosity in the Report. On the contrary. Its authors seem positively to want to lend support to the idea of Labour’s “institutional antisemitism”, mentioned in the very first paragraph of its press release. The ‘Macpherson definition’ of a racist incident is cited in para 13 – as though the Metropolitan police’s unwillingness to recognise racism in the past is equivalent to Labour’s relationship to antisemitism today. You wouldn’t guess from the Report that every allegation of antisemitism in the Labour party has resulted in the suspension of the Labour party member concerned within a matter of days and that its leader has repeatedly and unreservedly condemned antisemitism. Given this absence, which was compounded by the way the Report was presented to the media, it is no surprise that all outlets duly led with its attack on Labour and focused on Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged “lack of leadership” and “weakness” in dealing with the assumed scourge of antisemitism in his movement.

Corbyn’s immediate response was a cautious, even gracious, welcome (“I welcome some recommendations in the report, such as strengthening anti-hate crime systems, demanding Twitter take stronger action against antisemitic trolling and allow users to block keywords, and support for Jewish communal security”), together with a clear recognition of what he politely calls “important opportunities lost” in the report.

Corbyn also pointed out that: “Under my leadership, Labour has taken greater action against anti-Semitism than any other party, and will implement the measures recommended by the Chakrabarti report to ensure Labour is a welcoming environment for members of all our communities.”

Critique of Chakrabarti

The Home Affairs Committee seems to have been almost equally obsessed by a desire to discredit the Chakrabarti Report and some effort is made to discredit Shami Chakrabarti personally in circumstances in which she has no right of reply.

She is, for example, shamelessly taken to task for having joined the Labour party and also for subsequently having accepted a peerage (which she should long ago have had for her public service if peerages mean anything at all). The Community Security Trust (CST) is quoted as saying it was “a shameless kick in the teeth for all who put hope in her now wholly compromised inquiry into Labour antisemitism” (para 108). “Wholly compromised” is strong condemnation indeed – but nothing in the Report suggests or even hints at how or in what way anything in her inquiry was compromised. The CST were not asked what had changed to undermine their guarded welcome for the Report at the time it appeared, which including saying, “Many of our recommendations are echoed in the final report’s language concerning Zionism, the term ‘Zio’ and Holocaust analogies”; and also made the point that “The final verdict on the Chakrabarti Report will depend upon its implementation.”

The Committee’s report goes on to claim that the Chakrabarti inquiry was “ultimately compromised by its failure to deliver a comprehensive set of recommendations, to provide a definition of antisemitism, or to suggest effective ways of dealing with antisemitism (para 118).

I’ll come to the separate issue of a definition of antisemitism below, including in the Chakrabarti Report. But Chakrabarti did, of course, provide a comprehensive set of recommendations and suggested ways of dealing with antisemitism. They need to be implemented and only then can their effectiveness at dealing with antisemitism over time by judged. How can it be anything other than partisan bias for the Committee to dismiss them at this stage?

In particular, Chakrabarti was very explicit about the need for clear and transparent disciplinary procedures in the Labour party in order to deal with allegations – this in a context where there was widespread feeling that allegations of antisemitism were being used as weapons in a campaign to get Corbyn. A significant part of her report –as yet unimplemented – relates to issues of due process and natural justice. None of this is given more than a hint of recognition by the Home Affairs Committee (para 114).

Yet this really does matter. A number of accusations of antisemitism, of varying degrees of severity, have been made against members of the Labour party who have been suspended as a consequence – without due process, without knowing sometimes what they are accused of, who by or why. The Report fails to take note of the strong evidence produced that at least some of the accusations of Labour party antisemitism were malicious and their timing, beyond a shadow of doubt, politically motivated. All these accusations against Labour party members are assumed by the Report and the media to be clearly established instances of the extreme antisemitism that Labour is riddled by. But some we know to have been false and some exaggerated.

In the end, this selectivity of narrative and treatment does a disservice to any genuine fight-back against antisemitism. Here it is particularly concerning that the report was signed off by two members of the Labour party (who, by the way, have a clear anti-Corbyn agenda) without appearing to express any concern about the need to investigate and clear up the accusations of antisemitism in their own party as a matter of urgency. But that can only be done when proper procedures are in place – as Chakrabarti’s maligned report insisted. As Tony Klug pointed out writing in the Jewish Chronicle on 5 May in The problem is real but exaggerated: “While antisemitism is monstrous – and, like all forms of racism, should be vigorously dealt with – false accusations of antisemitism are monstrous too.”

On a different note, it is undoubtedly true that while a few of the reported instances of antisemitism in and around the Labour party relate to classic antisemitism, most would appear to be connected with Israel and/or the ongoing war over Gaza. This is something the Committee seems to have failed to look into at all – though its obsession with a definition of antisemitism (see below) suggests that it is happy to allow these key distinctions to be elided.

Here the need to be able to have an open, wide-ranging and honest discussion about Israel and Palestine is clearly crucial. And here the Committee’s intervention is not at all helpful, asserting without evidence of widespread “unwitting” antisemitism on campus “and within left-leaning student political organisations in particular” (Report, para 93). I won’t comment on this alleged campus antisemitism section except to draw attention to the Open Letter to Home Affairs Select Committee sent within hours of publication of the report, signed by over 300 students, which claimed: “[W]e believe this report’s selective and partisan approach attempts to delegitimise NUS, and discredit Malia Bouattia as its president [by suggesting she does not take the issue of campus antisemitism seriously]. An attack on NUS is an attack on the student and union movements. This is completely unacceptable and we cannot allow these claims against us to go unchallenged.”

Compare Chakrabarti’s lucid contribution in her report with that of the Home Affairs Committee: “This is not to shut down debate about what has been one of the most intractable and far-reaching geopolitical problems of the post-war world, but actively to facilitate it. Labour members should be free and positively encouraged to criticise injustice and abuse wherever they find it, including in the Middle East. But surely it is better to use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation or persecution and to leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it? This has been the common sense advice which I have received from many Labour members of different ethnicity and opinion including many in Jewish communities and respected institutions, who further point to particular Labour MPs with a long interest in the cause of the Palestinian people with whom they have discussed and debated difficult issues and differences, in an atmosphere of civility and a discourse of mutual respect.” (Chakrabarti p. 12)

Opposing Zionism

Curiously, the Committee report echoes much of Chakrabarti in relation to discourse, but while Chakrabarti is forward-looking and educational (see quote above), the Committee’s approach is punitive.

Chakrabarti’s condemnation of the use of certain language inveighed, rightly, against any “bitter incivility of discourse”, including her insistence that there was no place for the use of the word “Zio” ever, nor for “Zionist” as a term of abuse (recommendations accepted by the Labour party’s NEC in September). These are snidely dismissed by the Report (para 102) as “little more than statements of the obvious”. And yet lo, in para 32 of the Report we have this: “The word ‘Zionist’ (or worse, ‘Zio’) as a term of abuse, however, has no place in a civilised society… [Their use] should be considered inflammatory and potentially antisemitic.” It is hard to tell the Committee’s and Chakrabarti’s formulations apart, as the words are transmogrified into no longer being “little more than statements of the obvious”.

The Committee seems clear that “’Zionism’ as a concept remains a valid topic for academic and political debate, both within and outside Israel” (para 32). But not really. Rabbi Mirvis’s opinion is given that “Zionism has been an integral part of Judaism from the dawn of our faith”. Mick Davis of the Jewish Leadership Council is quoted as saying that criticising Zionism is the same as antisemitism for “if you attack Zionism, you attack the very fundamentals of how the Jews believe in themselves” (paras 26 & 27).

The report is insistent that in a recent survey, 59% of Jews saw themselves as Zionist. Assuming this is the case, it still does not make Zionism a protected characteristic of Jewish identity. What if opinion among these people changed? Would their becoming anti- or non-Zionist now become a heretical position which the Jewish community could use to exclude members from it as no longer adhering to “the very fundamentals of how the Jews believe in themselves”? What indeed to make of the current 41% of the Jewish population who don’t identify as Zionist? Are they not real Jews as far as the Chief Rabbi or Mick Davis are concerned? The Report just leaves these contradictory strands hanging – giving the overwhelming impression that these are too complicated for ordinary mortals. Better leave them as no-go areas.

Surely it is self-evident that Jews see themselves in multiple and contradictory ways? So any attempt to let Jews self-define what is or is not antisemitic soon runs into an impossible impasse – which Jews are accorded the franchise to define where other Jews may tread (especially when some sections of that community find almost any criticism of Israel likely to cause offence)?

At every stage, the Committee buys into the view that criticism of Israel is a dangerous place to go. “It is clear, “says the Report that where criticism of the Israeli Government is concerned, context is vital.” And how does the Report contextualize it? “Israel is an ally of the UK Government and is generally regarded as a liberal democracy, in which the actions of the Government are openly debated and critiqued by its citizens.” (Conclusions, para 2). Does it follow that any criticism by outsiders is likely to be offensive? Whatever happened to treatment of minorities as a benchmark of a healthy democracy?

Indeed the Report cautions not simply against using Zionism as a term of abuse (as did Chakrabarti) but against using the term at all. Criticise “the Israeli government” not Zionists”, it says (para 32). And sometimes, indeed, this might be good advice. After all, the right to give offence does not translate into a duty to do so. But sometimes the use of terms like Zionism is coolly analytical and can’t just be done away with.

Palestinians – some 750,000 of them – were dispossessed by a movement calling itself Zionist. How can they, and by extension those who support Palestinian rights today, explain this history by criticising “the Israeli government”? How can they be expected simply to regard Zionism as the timeless essence of a Jewish right to self-determination, above and beyond critique? Can anything be done in the name of Zionism without those who oppose it being allowed to name it?

Leaving aside the debate of what Zionism might or might not have been historically, ask what it has become. Only one strand of Zionism has any political purchase today, and it is not a pleasant one. Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank continues unabated. Green-line Israel’s discrimination against its increasingly second-class Palestinian citizens, and their physical displacement in the Negev, rolls on. What Israel now needs is to be judged by what it is doing. It is Israel’s actions that delegitimise it, not any antisemitism of the left. And these actions, carried out by and on behalf of the Israeli government, are called – by that government – actions on behalf of Zionism.

Of course the word “Zionist” can be a surrogate for “Jew” (just as the same danger, only a much more extreme variant, arises when Muslims are expected to distance themselves from acts of violent political Islam). Of course it can be used in an antisemitic manner. But it needs to shown to be the case, not simply assumed to be likely or, worse, read off from the very use of the term.

Of course holding all Jews responsible for what the government of Israel does is wrong – indeed antisemitic. But who makes the elision between Jews, Israel and Zionism more enthusiastically than the representatives of the Jewish Community when they stand by Israel, right or wrong and claim to support it in the name of all Jews?

This is the minefield that discourse on Israel-Palestine now has to negotiate on a daily basis but unfortunately the Home Affairs Committee has very little to say on how this can take place productively. Yet surely this is essential, not just in the democratic socialist party Labour aspires to be, but in our wider society where the parameters of debate can no longer be defined by a narrow elite. Again, Chakrabarti seems to have got this right: “We can facilitate free speech, whilst acknowledging the evidence that we have received that there have been some instances of undoubtedly antisemitic and otherwise racist language and discourse in the past and at the same time encouraging a civility of discourse which is respectful of each other’s diversity and sensitivities.” (Chakrabarti p.7)

This is simply good advice both to avoid giving unnecessary offence and to move forward. Incivility of discourse is to be deplored in its own right and because it is a counter-productive way of doing debate (and democracy), allowing discussion of the important issues to be sidetracked – and thus avoided. In this case it can feed a moral panic about antisemitism, rather than dealing with the real instances of antisemitism (in our increasingly racist and intolerant society), in a politically effective, open and productive way.

Redefining antisemitism

As already mentioned, one of the severe criticisms that the Report has now made of Chakrabarti is that she failed to define antisemitism (e.g. para 118). Leaving aside the fact that for most of the twentieth century what constituted antisemitism was not in doubt, the politicisation of the debate in recent decades has not helped and Chakrabarti might well have felt this minefield was better avoided.

Not the Committee, which insisted on jumping straight in, continuing a more than decade-long debate about how and to what extent criticism of Israel must be incorporated into a definition of antisemitism.

There has been a consistent attempt since around 2005, to get what was a draft of a “working definition of antisemitism” published on the website of the European Union Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia – one never endorsed by that body or its successor the Fundamental Rights Agency – adopted as the definition of antisemitism. I dealt with the history of this disputed definition at length some years ago in openDemocracy, and refer readers to the argument developed there.

In summary, suffice it to say here this document produced a “working definition”:

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.(emphasis in the original)

For clarification, this was illustrated with eleven examples of what “could, taking into account the overall context” be antisemitic. About half of the examples cited were concerned not simply with Jews but with how Israel was referred to.

The trouble is that the definition is so vague as to be useless as the practical operational tool that was being sought at the time by the EUMC. The eleven examples provided of what “could, taking into account the overall context” be antisemitic, don’t resolve the problem. If they could be antisemitic, equally they might not be… No EU member state adopted the document and the Fundamental Rights Agency quietly laid it to rest, removing it from its website.

The All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Antisemitism which in 2006 had pressed for the government to adopt the definition had, by 2015 decided otherwise (Report, Feb 2015, paras 9-11). It looked as though this highly controversial definition was recognised as simply unhelpful in the wider discussion of combatting antisemitism.

But the draft EUMC “working definition” took on a life of its own – as an ideological weapon to beat those who criticise Israel “too harshly”. Although it included the qualifier “could, taking into account the overall context” be antisemitic, there is in it nonetheless an underlying presumption that criticism of Israel is likely to be antisemitic unless proved otherwise.

Now the Home Affairs Committee has resurrected this draft working definition (in the form adopted almost verbatim by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and referred to as the IHRA definition). It notes the objections but simply says “We broadly accept the IHRA definition, (para 24. and recommend (Conclusion, para 4) that it “should be formally adopted by the UK Government, law enforcement agencies and all political parties” with two caveats – see below).

But the Committee distorts the document in a crucial way. It claims (para 17) that the list of illustrative examples are antisemitic. It simply drops the all-important qualification, that they might, “taking into account the overall context”, be antisemitic.

Was this done deliberately? One hesitates to suggest it as it would then be utterly dishonest. Or was it simply incompetence? If so it is of a high order. In any event it is astonishing that no-one on the Committee, or commentators to date, have remarked on it.

In deference to representations made by “the Friends of Palestine” (para 21, a vague identification not clarified further in the Report) the Committee proposes to add two caveats to its (misrepresented) account of the IHRA definition, and says:

[T]o ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine, without allowing antisemitism to permeate any debate, the definition should include the following statements:

  • 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. 
(para 24)

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really help. To take the second statement, for example, in what sense can it ever be antisemitic “to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies”? What kind of caveat is this? The first caveat is in principle more helpful, a clear recognition that there is a problem with the strictures of the EUMC working definition. But it is contradicted by the Committee’s obvious eagerness to define a broad range of statements as antisemitic when it comes to Israel (para 17 again), giving encouragement to those who think like it, to find antisemitic intent. The presumption throughout, that criticism of Israel is dangerous ground to enter, is if anything strengthened – as, I submit, those who favour the EUMC-now-IHRA definition have always intended. If nothing else, it chills the atmosphere for the serious debate about Israel and Palestine that is so urgently needed. Although it can’t be quantified, anecdotal evidence from a number of Labour party branches suggest that many members now find this whole issue too difficult to discuss. Similarly on a number of university campuses there is pressure not to raise issues around Israel-Palestine on the grounds that these make some students feel “uncomfortable”.

It is clear, however, that the debate about Israel-Palestine won’t go away. If the Home Office Committee had recognised this and tried more carefully to elaborate ways in which it could be developed constructively, it might have contributed to defusing less constructive reactions – particularly on campus – when the realities of Israeli politics are raised. While the occupation continues, while Palestinians within Israel are subject to increasingly discriminatory laws, attempts to understand the reality by employing concepts like “apartheid”, “settler-colonialism” or simply “Israeli racism” are bound to flourish. So too will non-violent campaigns to oppose oppression on the ground by exerting pressure on the Israeli government – and on the British to act more decisively – by means of grass-roots boycott and divestment campaigns and calls for sanctions. Diverting attention back into a recycled version of a tired, politicised definition of antisemitism will not help. By rolling up so much of what is intended as political criticism into what is purportedly antisemitic it is far more likely to debase the currency.

The outlines of a genuinely workable definition of antisemitism is easily to be found, and indeed Chakrabarti should perhaps have ventured here. Professor David Feldman (later co-vice-chair of the Chakrabarti Inquiry) provides a good foundation in his Sub-Report for the Parliamentary Committee against Antisemitism for its investigation into Antisemitism in Public Debate during and after Operation Protective Edge (Jul-Aug 2014). He writes:

Specifically, I propose two distinct but complementary definitions of antisemitism. One definition focuses on discourse, the other focuses on discrimination.

1. When we consider discourse we focus on the ways in which Jews are represented. Here we can say, following the philosopher Brian Klug, that antisemitism is ‘a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.’ Accordingly, antisemitism is to be found in representations of Jews as stereotyped and malign figures. One such stereotype is the notion that Jews constitute a cohesive community, dedicated to the pursuit of its own selfish ends. It will be important to ask whether this or other malign stereotypes figured in public debate on Operation Protective Edge.

2. In addition to antisemitism which arises within the process of representation there is also 
antisemitism which stems from social and institutional practices. Discriminatory practices which disadvantage Jews are antisemitic. Taking a historical view, we can say that British society and the British state became less antisemitic in past centuries as Jews were allowed to live in the country, to pray together, to work, to vote and to associate with others in clubs and societies to the same degrees as their Christian fellow-subjects. Discrimination against Jews need not be accompanied by discursive antisemitism, even though in many cases it has been. If we apply this definition of antisemitism to public debate on Jews and Israel last summer and autumn we will need to ask whether any aspect of this debate threatened to discriminate against Jews.

It is a practical definition and operational in its approach. It can easily be reformulated to be independent of and to go beyond its roots around Operation Protective Edge. For reasons still not clear, the Home Affairs Committee sidestepped engaging with it in favour of a reversion to a definition in which criticism of Israel returns as a central feature in talking about antisemitism.

Antisemitism is special

Chakrabarti was very clear that antisemitism had to be investigated in the wider context of racism in general:

[My] clear view is that there is not, and cannot be, any hierarchy of racism. This must stand regardless of perceptions, realities or stereotypes about which racial groups may, or may not, be more established or more or less discriminated against at any given moment. (p.4)

Of course antisemitism has its own specificities but for the Committee’s Report to suggest that the distinct nature of post-Second World War antisemitism (which it claims is unappreciated by Jeremy Corbyn) is that “unlike other forms of racism, antisemitic abuse often paints the victim as a malign and controlling force rather than as an inferior object of derision, making it perfectly possible for an ‘anti-racist campaigner’ to express antisemitic views”. (para 113). What about the accusations of hoarding wealth and goods, deployed against Ugandan Asians in the sixties, that drove so many of them to seek asylum in Britain? What about the Hutu view of Rwandan Tutsis as an exploitative and controlling minority? And as for this being a distinctly post-Second World War trope the Protocols of the Elder of Zion and Nazi antisemitism clearly saw Jews as “a malign and controlling force”.

The Committee goes further: “The Chakrabarti report… is clearly lacking in many areas; particularly in its failure to differentiate explicitly between racism and antisemitism” (para 114).

I have to admit to being one of those who cannot see how (or why) to differentiate explicitly between racism and antisemitism; nor how to oppose one without opposing the other. Or to put it differently, I understand antisemitism as a specific form of racism directed towards Jewish people. Like all racisms it has its own specificities and these need to be clearly taken into account in any strategy to combat this particular form of racism. But equally, as David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialists’ Group put it in the JSG response to this Report: “There is no separate solution for the problems that Jews face in Britain today. A society that regards Jews positively and treats them properly will be a society that treats all minorities properly.”

It is hard to see what the Committee believes follows from its rigid separation of antisemitism from racism, but coupled with its insistence on trying to define out of court certain criticisms of Israel, this is bound to be counter-productive.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has, for good or ill, become one of the moral touchstones of our age. The British government and indeed the Labour party may well support a two-state solution. But is it credible any longer to maintain that the status quo is provisional and that the Palestinians will soon be exercising their national, political and civil rights in their own state? Not in any future that Israel is currently offering. So the question increasingly posed on campuses, in the Jewish community and elsewhere – in short, wherever this is debated – is whether or not to be complicit in the indefinite denial of fundamental human rights to millions of people? This is a denial of rights being carried out by Israel, with occasional criticism but no effective action to stop it by western democracies. As Tony Klug and Sam Bahour suggested a few years ago, western democracies should stop letting Israel off the hook: “The laws of occupation either apply or do not apply. If it is an occupation, it is beyond time for Israel’s custodianship – supposedly provisional – to be brought to an end. If it is not an occupation, there is no justification for denying equal rights to everyone who is subject to Israeli rule, whether Israeli or Palestinian.”

To repeat the Committee’s words: “Israel is an ally of the UK Government and is generally regarded as a liberal democracy, in which the actions of the Government are openly debated and critiqued by its citizens.” (Conclusions, para 2). It is precisely Israel’s claim to be a defender of liberal democratic values while carrying out its policies of oppression, expansion, suppression of the Palestinians that causes so much offence. Other countries may indeed be far worse oppressors, but which other country at the same time tries to elicit our complicity by claiming to act in defence of our liberal-democratic values? Of course those who take these values seriously are likely to be very critical of Israel. Trying to police the borders of this criticism in the name of fighting antisemitism smacks of a cynical political motivation. It is a poor substitute for dealing with any of the issues, whether it is defending Palestinian human rights or tackling antisemitism at its roots in Britain.

A final note on the style of the report

It’s impossible to read the report without being struck by its all-too-often snide and judgmental tone, its cavalier use of evidence, its cherry-picking of statements made by witnesses to it, its failure to challenge and test the assertions made, and indeed its failure to call or cite witnesses who might have been more challenging of some of the statements made by Rabbi Mirvis and Jonathan Arkush speaking on behalf of an allegedly united Jewish community. The feeling that this reader is left with is that this failure must be because the Report’s authors agree with the opinions expressed. But all too often, that’s all they are. Opinions. Not facts.

Richard Kuper