Anti-Semitism campaigners urge Labour rethink on adoption of modified definition

Anti-Semitism campaigners urge Labour rethink on adoption of modified definition

Pressure mounting on the party and MPs and Jewish community figures urge the opposition to fully adopt the widely-accepted IHRA definition

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn laughs next to Jennie Formby at last year's conference in Brighton.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn laughs next to Jennie Formby at last year's conference in Brighton.

Pressure was mounting on Labour this morning as countless MPs demanded it adopt the widely-accepted international anti-Semitism definition in full

Campaigners against anti-Semitism urged Labour to think again about a new code of conduct designed to root anti-Jewish prejudice out of the party.

The code, drawn up in the wake of protests by Jewish groups outside Parliament earlier this year, states explicitly that “anti-Semitism is racism. It is unacceptable in our party and in wider society”.

But it stops short of signing up in full to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism.

And it insists that criticism of the state of Israel and its policies should not automatically be regarded as anti-Semitic, and makes clear that even “contentious” comments on this issue “will not be treated as anti-Semitism unless accompanied by specific anti-Semitic content… or by other evidence of anti-Semitic intent”.

In a joint statement, the chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, Jonathan Goldstein, and the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, said it was “impossible to understand” why Labour had stopped short of joining the UK Jewish community, the British, Welsh and Scottish governments and numerous local councils in adopting the IHRA definition in full.

Goldstein and van der Zyl said it was “for Jews to determine for themselves what anti-Semitism is”.

And they added: “It is impossible to understand why Labour refuses to align itself with this universal definition.

“Its actions only dilute the definition and further erode the existing lack of confidence that British Jews have in their sincerity to tackle anti-Semitism within the Labour movement.”

Labour’s code, approved by a sub-committee of its ruling National Executive Committee, was drawn up in response to a key recommendation of the 2016 Chakrabarti report into anti-Semitism.

It explicitly endorses the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism and includes a list of behaviours likely to be regarded as anti-Semitic copied word-for-word from the international organisation’s own document.

But it omits four examples from the IHRA list:

  • Accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country;
  • Claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour;
  • Requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations; and
  • Comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.

A Labour spokesman played down the significance of the differences between the two lists, pointing out that some of these issues are covered elsewhere in the Labour document.

“These are the most detailed and comprehensive guidelines on anti-Semitism adopted by any political party in this country,” said the Labour spokesman.

“They draw on the IHRA examples and other sources to provide practical examples of anti-Semitism which can be applied to complaints cases and used in political education programmes to foster deeper understanding of anti-Semitism among members.”

Following the decision, the Jewish Labour Movement wrote to General Secretary of the Labour Party, Jennie Formby, urging her to reconsider the move.

The letter says the community “believe that the best working definition of antisemitism is the full IHRA definition, including its examples”, and that “it doesn’t need changing, and it’s unclear for whose benefit these changes have been made.”

“The perception from the new definition will be that the Labour Party are seeking to overturn the longheld view and definition of the Jewish community. The Party should abandon this definition, without haste, and make clear that it has already adopted and actively using IHRA.

The Labour Against Anti-Semitism (LAAS) campaign said that the omissions left “a toothless document that will only encourage Jew-hate in the Labour Party to flourish further, unchallenged and unpunished”.

Dismissing the code as “a racists’ charter that will actively hinder the campaign to remove anti-Semitism from the Labour Party”, LAAS said in a statement: “The Labour Party already has very little credibility left as the anti-racist body it has always claimed to be.

“The formal adoption of this document would see any remaining credibility lost, perhaps permanently. We urge the Labour leadership to think again.”

And Labour MP Ian Austin said: “The leadership of the Labour Party seems to believe it knows more about anti-Semitism than the Jewish community. So much for all the promises to rid our party of this poison.”

Anna Turley MP tweeted she was “sincerely sorry to Jewish people in this country. Labour are getting this all terribly wrong. Not in my name”, while Wes Streeting MP said he had written to the General Secretary “about our apparent failure to adopt the IHRA definition in full. It is not too late for the Party to avoid making this catastrophic mistake.”

Other Labour MPs, including John Mann  criticised the party’s decision, while Jewish journalist Joanthan Freedland criticised the move, saying it means “only Jews aren’t allowed to define the racism they face”, unlike other minorities.

“Labour have rejected a definition of antisemitism accepted by UK, Scottish and Welsh govts, 124 local authorities, gov’ts around the world and most Jews. It seems Labour found that definition too stringent – it prohibited anti-Jewish expression that Labour wants to allow”, he tweeted.

The Labour document states that it is not always obvious whether particular words or actions are anti-Semitic, with “particular difficulty” surrounding the relationship between anti-Semitism and criticism of the state of Israel.

While noting that the principle of freedom of expression includes views which may “offend, shock or disturb”, the code stresses that Labour will not tolerate comments made with the intention to upset or offend.

“The party will encourage considered and respectful debate on these difficult topics, but will not tolerate name-calling and abuse,” it states.

The Labour document says that the party “is clear that the Jewish people have the same right to self-determination as any other people” and that to deny that right is a form of anti-Semitism.

But it says that debate on the circumstances of the foundation of the Israeli state and its impact on the Palestinian people “forms a legitimate part of modern political discourse”.

However, it stresses that “care must be taken when dealing with these topics”, insisting it is wrong to hold Jewish people generally responsible for the actions of the Israeli state or to demand that they are more vociferous than others in condemning its acts.

The document states that it is not anti-Semitic to refer to Zionism or Zionists in debate about the situation in the Middle East, but warns that it is “not permissible” to use Zionist or “zio” as “a code word for Jew”.

Although the list of banned anti-Semitic behaviours does not include the act of accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel and to worldwide Jewish interests than their home states, the code states that it is “wrong” to do so.

And it advises Labour members that the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors and comparisons in discussion about Israel and the Palestinians “carries a strong risk of being regarded as prejudicial or grossly detrimental to the party”.

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