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The interparliamentary coalition for combatting antisemitism (ICCA) /1

lermanAntony Lerman, Guardian, Comment is Free, 16 Feb 2009

An open letter on antisemitism

Thoughts for Lord Malloch-Brown when he addresses the interparliamentary coalition for combatting antisemitism

Dear Lord Malloch-Brown

You face an important challenge tomorrow when you address the second day of the inaugural conference of the interparliamentary coalition for combatting antisemitism (ICCA), which the FCO is hosting in London. Everyone who condemns the scourge of racism and the recent rise in antisemitic incidents will applaud the British government for kick-starting this body, which was set up last year “to share knowledge, experiences, best practice, and recommendations among … key parliamentarians and encourage their dissemination”. I want to draw your attention to some vital issues which have probably been overlooked.

The interparliamentary council against antisemitism, set up in 1985 by Greville Janner MP (now Lord Janner) had precisely the same aim – or at least it said it did. When the policy thinktank I ran in the 1990s was producing the first ever yearly, world report on antisemitism, we repeatedly offered to develop policy proposals for the IPCAA to consider, but it wasn’t interested. It seemed more preoccupied with holding high level receptions. Now defunct, it never amounted to much. I do hope the ICAA doesn’t meet the same fate, although the two receptions, the House of Commons lunch, the Banqueting House dinner, the 16 keynote speeches and the press conference leave little room for serious work. So how can you avoid it?

The tone of your address to the conference will be crucial. But if a lecture last year by Jim Murphy MP, then minister for Europe, is anything to go by, you’ve got problems. Not that he showed any lack of government commitment. Rather, he seemed to have great difficulty in keeping any sense of perspective. In his address, titled Antisemitism: A Hate that Outlives All Others, he said: “What is different about antisemitism is that it has both predated and outlived many, if not all, other reactionary instincts.” Perhaps he got carried away in his enthusiasm to show solidarity with his mostly Jewish audience, but to say that antisemitism outlives all other forms of hate is nonsensical.

Good policymaking requires precise, accurate assessment of the threat, not exaggeration. The UK government should warn parliamentarians against this all too common hyperbole and help inculcate international standards of expertise.

The involvement of Jewish bodies is vital, but you should not make the mistake of the 2006 All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism of misinterpreting the MacPherson report‘s recommendation that a racial attack be defined by its victim to mean that only Jews should define what constitutes antisemitism. This appears to be what Jewish establishment and defence bodies here want and it’s wrong. The lesson for your conference is: seek alternative, informed views to make a balanced judgment on suitable policy.

Exaggeration and the unwillingness to listen to alternative informed views go hand in hand. Take the much-stressed issue of campus antisemitism. Professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University, who spent part of the last two years on sabbatical at Bristol and London Universities and was appointed by the International Academic Board for Academic Freedom, representing Israel’s seven universities to combat the campaign to boycott the Israeli academy, knows more than a thing or two about the issue of antisemitism at UK universities. His name was put forward to attend the conference, but some unnamed “experts” were not interested. He was then placed on the observer list, but was told the conference was full and that he couldn’t come at all.

It just so happens that Professor Newman is critical of the manipulation of what’s been happening on campuses with the boycott and other emotive issues relating to Israel-Palestine for the purposes of causing greater alarm about antisemitism. He wonders whether his exclusion is because the establishment Jewish community and the Israel embassy have been very unhappy when he has challenged their discourse that all university activity critical of Israel is by definition antisemitism in disguise. If true, it doesn’t reflect well on the UK government as convenors that this has been allowed to happen.

It’s disappointing that the conference agenda appears to fudge the vexed question of the link between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. You should be discussing the implications of the growing acceptance of the European Union monitoring centre’s working definition of antisemitism (pdf), which contains highly contentious examples of when critical discourse on Israel is antisemitic. This is one of the unfortunate consequences of the mistaken but commonly-held notion that anti-Zionism is the “new antisemitism”. Some such discourse is indeed antisemitic, but the EUMC definition goes much too far, unfairly legitimising the vilification of some Jews and non-Jews as self-hating and antisemitic. You would strike a blow for clarity and sense if you urged your parliamentary colleagues to think again.

And why will the conference merely “note” that the Israel-Palestine conflict acts as a “trigger” for antisemitism? The most obvious policy conclusion to be drawn from this is: make international efforts to achieve a just Israel-Palestine peace the top priority. This is probably the most constructive policy recommendation the parliamentarians could make.

You and your colleagues do not have an easy task. The world economic crisis is bound to aggravate resentment against minorities as people lean on entrenched stereotypes in the search for someone to blame. So your efforts to combat antisemitism must be set in the context of the broad fight against racism, not pursued in isolation. Antisemitism is a serious problem today, but you should remember that the impact of racism on the daily lives of members of other groups is far worse and also deserves the serious attention of international groups of parliamentarians.

Yours sincerely

Antony Lerman

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