Labour party consultation on adopting the IHRA “definition” of antisemitism and the Labour Party code of conduct on antisemitism
Submission from Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JJP)
(1) The Labour Party is under considerable pressure from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Jewish Labour Movement and some other Jewish organisations to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) document on anti-Semitism – in its entirety. It is no coincidence that those organisations also unreservedly support Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.
(2) JJP believes that the IHRA document should not be adopted. It is written in such a way that serious criticism of Israel can be automatically seen as antisemitic, the intention of its proponents being to discourage open debate on Israel-Palestine.
(3) There is a considerable body of legal opinion on how the document inhibits free speech on Israel, undermines the fight against genuine antisemitism by conflating it with criticism of Israel, and poses risks to public bodies that try to use it. We cite Leading Counsel Hugh Tomlinson’s opinion, an article written by former Lord Justice of Appeal Stephen Sedley, and resolution no. 3 at Liberty’s 2018 AGM. At the end of this submission there are URLs to all three documents. In this submission, we will concentrate on the linguistic confusions in the document, their effects and what lies behind them.
(4) The document has already been used to restrict freedom of speech in universities. The contents of academic talks have been vetted, an academic was forced to step down from chairing an event in her specialist field, a title of one talk had to be changed, speakers had to give written adherence to the IHRA document beforehand, and students’ Israel apartheid weeks have been cancelled.
(5) The document would create massive uncertainty as to what criticism of Israel would be legitimate and what would be antisemitic, thereby significantly undermining people’s confidence in criticising Israel. The effect on freedom of speech on Israel-Palestine would be chilling.
(5a) These are the two key sentences causing the uncertainty:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” (in the definition) and “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” (in the preamble to the examples)
The first sentence does not clearly define what it purports to define. What does “certain perception” mean? Also, it seems to be creating the fear that an innocent remark could be seen as hatred of Jews.
The second sentence is even more problematic. It is impossibly ambiguous.
Does it mean that anyone criticising Israel can be regarded as antisemitic unless he or she has also criticized other countries in the same way? Even worse, does it mean that the person can be regarded as antisemitic unless he or she criticises other countries in the same way at the same time? Either way, it would discourage people from exercising their right to criticise Israel.
What does “similar” mean in this context? What other countries have been belligerently occupying another people’s land, illegally settling it and taking its natural resources, creating an apartheid-like system of unequal rights, and using violent and sometimes lethal means to repress resistance, for 50+ years?
There are of course many other countries that abuse the human rights of their own citizens, and they are regularly criticised. However, no one is required to choose between concerning himself with all cases of abuse or none. That would be a limitation on freedom of speech
(5b) The “examples” attached to the definition
The “examples” of antisemitic statements are a mixture of remarks (most of the examples) that would clearly be antisemitic, two (underlined & italicised) that normally would not be antisemitic, but might be, depending on the context and precisely what was said, and a third (italicised) that might or might not be, depending on what comparisons were made. They do not, however, reduce the ambiguity and uncertainty of the definition, but rather accentuate it by setting up straw men of extremely antisemitic remarks but not balancing them with examples of legitimate criticism of Israel.
(5c) We believe this underlined & italicised example
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
requires specific reference. One of the possible interpretations of this sentence is that describing Israel as a racist state, or as being racist, would be antisemitic. That would be an unjust denial of freedom of speech because aspects of Israel’s founding and subsequent development lend themselves to that argument. It would be particularly unjust to members of the Labour Party of Palestinian origin because they have the right to tell their history as they see it.
(6) The document was written, years before the IHRA took it up, as a tool for gathering data on potentially antisemitic incidents on a consistent basis. It is being misused by the established pro-Israel Jewish leadership as a means of deciding whether any particular comment is antisemitic. The main drafter, Kenneth Stern, testified last year to the US Congress that it is not suitable for that purpose (URL below). The intended purpose of the document is indicated by the conditional wording relating to the examples, i.e. “may serve as illustrations” and “could, taking into account the overall context…”
(7) The essence of the issue of antisemitism vs. criticism of Israel is that criticism of Israel isn’t antisemitic provided it is worded specifically about Israel or the Israeli government, and not about Jews. Some criticisms might be factually mistaken, but still not antisemitic.
(8) Some of the proponents of the IHRA document equate questioning the nature of Zionism with antisemitism, on the basis that Zionism has become part of Judaism. That is problematic on two grounds. Firstly, the word Zionism is now used in several ways, from the concept of creating a Jewish state, to the decision to create it in Palestine, to the creation of the actual state of Israel in Palestine, to expanding Israel into all of Palestine, or merely the continued existence of present-day Israel. All have different connotations.
(9) Secondly and more important, whichever meaning one has in mind, Zionism is a political philosophy justifying the acquisition of territory in the real, physical world. All people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are entitled to express views about it. The creation of Israel in Palestine has adversely affected the rights of the Palestinians, who lived there, and have a claim on that territory. It cannot be right for people to disallow questioning the nature of Zionism, no matter how fervently they believe it has become part of Judaism.
(10) That is recognised in law. While being Jewish is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, belief in Zionism is not. That was confirmed by an Employment Tribunal in Fraser vs. University & College Union in 2013, which ruled that neither belief in Zionism nor an attachment to Israel are protected characteristics.
(11) We understand that Labour may be considering adopting the IHRA document in its entirety, but also having its own Code of Conduct on antisemitism. For all the reasons given above, we believe that adopting the IHRA document at all will be mistaken, but if there are to be two documents, then we believe it will be essential to differentiate between their purposes clearly and logically. Otherwise, the Labour Party will have opened itself up to justified criticism for inconsistency and confusion.
(12) One method of differentiation, which is consistent with the drafters’ intention and the conditional wording of the IHRA document, would be to say that the IHRA document would be used for data gathering on alleged incidents and identifying allegations requiring investigation. The Code of Conduct would be used for making judgements about whether there is a case to answer, and, if so, for making judgements by a subsequent disciplinary panel. Those judgements would take into account the context of an incident, the precise language used and the intention of the person.
(13) Finally, we think the adoption of the IHRA definition, without clearly limiting its application, will prove to be a most unfortunate signal for local authorities, trade unions, colleges and other institutions to similarly adopt this pernicious document. The effect on freedom of speech on Israel would be far reaching.
Jews for Justice for Palestinians
1 September 2018
attached: IHRA document