Free Speech on Israel submitted this response to the consultation on the NEC Code of Conduct on Antisemitism on 29 August 2018
Free Speech on Israel is a predominantly Jewish Group most of whose members are members of the Labour Party. It was formed in 2016— following a series of false allegations of antisemitism made against individuals and groups campaigning for Palestinian rights—under the slogan ‘It is not Antisemitic to Oppose Zionism’.
FSOI has always recognised the existence of antisemitism both within the Labour Party and in wider society but have always argued that its prevalence inside the Labour Party has been much exaggerated: to both distract attention from Israel’s repeated breaches of international law and to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Party.
FSOI accepts the political necessity for the Party to codify its procedures on challenging any antisemitism that is present in the Party to convince public opinion of the truth of the reality that the Party has never been a haven for antisemites. Processes also need to be improved to end the situation where individuals accused of antisemitism have been subjected to abusive processes and left in a limbo of suspension for months or even years.
However, FSOI is concerned that there are greater challenges facing the Party in areas of discrimination and racism and believes the Party has been forced into an over-concentration on a relatively small problem and is thus discriminating against members from BAME communities whose worse situation is being overlooked. One of the strengths of the Chakrabarti Report was that it placed antisemitism in the context of racism, where it belongs, rather than in the context of Israel where the IHRA document inaccurately and provocatively places it. Indeed, it was this aspect of the Report that appeared to spark the hostile reception it received from certain members of the Jewish communities and Labour Friends of Israel at its launch.
We believe that the Code of Conduct agreed by the NEC represents a serious attempt to balance freedom of speech with a robust approach to challenging antisemitism.
We are painfully aware of the ferocious attacks on the Labour Party for ‘not adopting the IHRA examples in full’. What we are less aware of are any examples of antisemitic statements or comments that those launching the attacks believe would be condemned by the IHRA examples and exonerated by the Code. We believe it is incumbent on those who reject the code to provide any such examples of antisemitism the Code will fail to deal with that they can envisage. We cannot identify any such examples and believe the attacks can have only one of two drivers. The purpose may be to extend to the definition of antisemitism to so that it can be used to deter legitimate criticism of israeli actions and defence of Palestinian rights. Alternatively, they are motivated by hostility to the prospect of a radical Labour Government and employed by those who will use any weapon to undermine the Party.
We would wish to see the code should make a clearer distinction between a person making an antisemitic statement and someone being an antisemite. Any antisemitic statement must of course be challenged and corrected; and, depending on the severity, the member given a reprimand, or training, or, in egregious cases, sanction. This is not the same as someone being an antisemite – driven by hatred of Jews.
The two are clearly distinct but are frequently being treated as one. This distinction must always be made if the object is to reduce and eliminate antisemitic statements rather than a witch hunt.
We reject the notion that an unwise, or even unacceptable, comment in a speech or on social media, maybe some years in the past, means that a member is necessarily unworthy to remain in the Party. We strongly believe that, in the vast majority of cases, a process of reflection and education will lead to a member understanding their errors and will not repeat them. Indeed, as a result, they will become more attuned to challenging not only antisemitism but all forms of discriminatory speech and action. There are not, as claimed by the joint Jewish press editorials hundreds or even thousands of members who should be driven out of the Party.
We are concerned that the Code incorporates the first example appended to the IHRA definition without amendment: “Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.” Are we to understand that ‘Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews’ for any other reason is excusable, surely not. So, why are the limiting words included?
Each time the examples have been seriously interrogated, they have been found to be highly problematic. The Home Affairs Select Committee, of which several leading Labour MPs who have been vocal in attacking the Code were members, recommended caveats in their report on antisemitism in the UK. These caveats, translated into an operational form are what inform the Party’s Code of Conduct. However, the simple addition of the caveats would be insufficient to make the IHRA document a suitable basis for Labour Party procedures.
Leading Human Rights lawyers have explained the legal difficulties with the eleven examples; and that any bodies that acted on those examples as they stand would be placing themselves in jeopardy.
Eminent Jewish academics who lead the field on antisemitism studies, Brian Klug and Anthony Lerman, have explained the merits of the Party code. David Feldman, who advised the Select Committee warned strongly about the misinterpretation of the Macpherson Principle.
Even Kenneth Stern who drew up the definition and the examples has publicly stated that it is not a fit basis for legislation and was intended as a monitoring tool and not a disciplinary code. He goes into detail about how advocates of the use of the definition have had the explicit and illegitimate purpose of chilling necessary free speech and debate.
A recent essay by Nathan Thrall in the Guardian describes how the definition was produced as a propaganda weapon in the Israeli campaign against BDS and the identification of Israel as an Apartheid state.
Paradoxically, if the Party accedes to the demands to adopt the eleven examples in their original form, it will find itself less well placed to confront antisemitism. The NEC Code will allow decisive and defensible action against any antisemitism in the Party which adopting the flawed IHRA examples will not.
Jews in Britain do not face an existential threat from a future Labour Government. Like all citizens, they stand to benefit from living under a government committed to creating a fair and just society, both here and globally; and, as part of that, a government committed to supporting the development of a fair and just society in Palestine/Israel where all current residents and those exiled can lead fulfilling lives.
We urge the NEC to maintain its commitment to the current Code and to supplement it with procedures that will allow speedy resolution of cases; leading to outcomes that will be trusted by both complainants and those complained about, whether the complaint is upheld or rejected.