The release of a new definition of anti-Semitism by Jewish Voice for Labour which claims that comparing Israel’s actions to that of the Nazis should not automatically be seen as anti-Semitic, has been condemned as a “stunt” by the Community Security Trust.
JVL, a fringe network of Jewish members of the Labour Party which formed last year, was founded in part to “oppose attempts to widen the definition of anti-Semitism beyond its meaning of hostility towards or discrimination against Jews as Jews”.
However the group was widely criticised over a counter-protest to the mainstream Enough is Enough demonstration against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party at Parliament Square in March. JVL suggested at the main gathering, attended by thousands, had more to do with the upcoming local elections than the fight against racism.
In a statement this week, JVL said: “We have long argued that the IHRA 39-word definition is simply unhelpful and that the guidance notes often circulated with it are highly political in motivation, confuse criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and create a presumption that any criticism of Israel is likely to be anti-Semitic.”
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They said the “effect of this is to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion about having any discussion of Israel at all,” adding: “It seriously undermines our support for the rights of the Palestinian people.”
The JVL-FSoI define anti-Semitism as “a form of racism: hatred, hostility, discrimination or prejudice against Jews because they are Jews. It may be manifested in violence; denial of rights; direct, indirect or institutional discrimination; prejudice-based behaviour; or verbal or written statements. Such manifestations draw on stereotypes – characteristics which all Jews are presumed to share”.
In subsequent notes, posted on the JVL website, the group explains that comparing Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis should not automatically be seen as anti-Semitic.
Drawing such parallels can undoubtedly cause offence, but potent historical events and experiences are always key reference points in political debate,” they say.
“Whether such comparisons are anti-Semitic must be judged on their substantive content, and on the inferences that can reasonably be drawn about the motivation for making them, rather than on the likely degree of offence caused.”
Likewise, the JVL-FSoI definition states that advocating for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign “could only be anti-Semitic if accompanied by evidence that it is motivated by racially-based hostility towards Jews”.
Mark Gardner of the Community Security Trust criticised JVL’s proposal, saying the group’s “contempt for our community is disgusting and this latest stunt changes nothing. JVL define chutzpah, not anti-Semitism. For example, JVL say anti-Semitism concerns “must be taken seriously”, but they lead the false claims that our community’s deeply held fears about anti-Semitism are fakery, lies and smears. The definition kindly concedes that Holocaust denial is anti-Semitic, but is less concerned with comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and of course says nothing about modern anti-Semitism in which the word Zionist now operates as the word Jew used to.”
JVL, together with those behind the website Free Speech on Israel (FSoI), last year teamed up with Palestine Solidarity Campaign to seek expert legal opinion on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which was adopted by Theresa May in December 2016.
Among the working examples in the guidance notes of the IHRA definition are some that prohibit criticism of Israel as “a racist state,” which campaigners say has “a chilling effect” on free speech.
The IHRA definition, adopted by the intergovernmental body in May 2016, was considered by the Home Affairs Select Committee later that year, its MPs suggesting amendments stating that it is “not anti-Semitic to criticise the government of Israel or to take a particular interest in the actions or policies of the government of Israel”.