Labour and the IHRA: Listening does not mean submitting

A front page from the Jewish News, with a headline that reads "You are an anti-Semite: Furious Jewish MP confronts Corbyn amid hate code outrage".This past week, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee adopted a modified version of a definition of anti-Semitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, modified in the sense that four ‘specific’ examples of anti-Semitism were excluded, including calling Israel a racist state, comparing its policies to those of the Nazis and “requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations”. This has led to condemnation from a whole lot of the usual suspects (i.e. right-wing Labour MPs who hate Jeremy Corbyn), including Margaret Hodge who called Corbyn a “f**king racist and an anti-Semite” in the Commons, about which Labour says it will “take action”, as well as a letter published in the Guardian earlier this week by a group of rabbis who accused the Labour party of having “chosen to act in the most insulting and arrogant way” and claiming that it was “not the Labour party’s place” to amend the IHRA’s definition when it was accepted by many other public bodies and other large organisations as well as “the vast majority of Jewish people in Britain and globally”. I wrote a letter to the Observer following a whinge from Nick Cohen, printed 8th July, and (needless to say) it wasn’t printed. I will expand on that letter here, in sha Allah.

There is a big difference between listening to the Jewish community and accepting the word of representatives of mainstream religious Jewry without question. Jews are both an ethnicity and a religious group; not everyone who is of Jewish origin is Jewish by faith. So, anyone who is saying that (ethnic) Jewish groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians are not Jewish enough, not representative or whatever is deploying the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, because the fact is that not everyone of Jewish origin agrees with what rabbis have to say on this matter or any other. Much as some people will assume that anyone with a Muslim name is a supporter of terrorism, whether or not he is even a believer or indeed whether his name actually is a Muslim name or, say, a Hindu one, if you have a Jewish name or Jewish grandparents, you are Jewish enough for some racists so your view on what anti-Semitism is or isn’t cannot be lightly dismissed. Many people who are this Jewish have no connection to or sympathy with Israel and are appalled at the idea that calls to boycott Israel because of the stranglehold of settlements and the wall on native Palestinian communities is in any way equivalent to what they understand as anti-Semitism, which is hatred of Jews because they are Jews. (There are more letters published in Thursday’s edition, including one questioning the use of the “Macpherson principle” by the Jewish Labour Movement and one criticising the IHRA defintion itself as a “clumsily drafted and ambiguous effort” which is being treated “with the reverence more usually accorded a religious text”.)

If a group of imams published or endorsed a definition of Islamophobia and a quick Google search for the imams’ names revealed that many of them had links to the Muslim Brotherhood or Jama’at-e-Islami, or that one of them had ever made disparaging remarks about white people, non-Muslims or any other group or shared a platform with anyone deemed “linked to terrorism” or branded an “unindicted co-conspirator” by the FBI, the definition would not be taken the least bit seriously. A definition of anti-Semitism endorsed by supporters of Israel which includes the rather subjective and unspecific demand that Israel not be held to a higher standard than other nations should not be adopted lock, stock and barrel either: when Israel’s closest ally and biggest donor of military aid signed a treaty with a native people that allowed them their land as long as the buffalo roam, then dealt with that inconvenience by slaughtering all the buffalo, and expelled twelve other nations from their lands in direct defiance of its own supreme court, pretty much any condemnation of Israeli policy could be deemed anti-Semitic by that standard.

The fact is that Israel’s actions — monopolising Palestine’s water supply, destroying natives’ farmlands, settling its own population in their lands, imposing curfews on natives to ‘protect’ settlers as in Hebron, building walls to obstruct natives’ passage across their own lands, throwing children into prison for months for throwing stones, among numerous other abuses — inspire hatred; oppression does that, not only against the perpetrators but also against their supporters and those who blame victims. It’s only natural. No other minority demands a definition of racism that includes condemning violence and oppression abroad that they have sympathy with. Many of us want to see a comprehensive solution to the situation in Palestine, one which gives Palestinians a voice in the government of the country which dominates their lives, which is Israel and will, for the foreseeable future (permanently if the likes of Trump and Netanyahu have their way), remain Israel.

Screenshot of a Facebook status posted by Naz Shah on 5th August 2014, showing a map of the United States with the state of Israel superimposed in the middle, with the words "Solution for Israel-Palestine conflict: relocate Israel into United States". Underneath are 'highlights' such as that Israelis are well-loved by Americans, that America has enough land to accommodate it, that "Israel can have a safe Jewish state surrounded by friendly states".Israel and its apologists prefer the status quo; their response is to cite historical details such as the 1967 war (two of whose participants have since signed peace treaties with Israel and others have shown no hostilities for years) which become less and less relevant as the occupation continues for decade after decade, to blame Palestinians, other Arab states or anyone but Israel and their ‘solution’ involves total surrender by the natives to permanent Israeli domination. For many years I have seen western Palestinian sympathisers bend over backwards to avoid implicating Jews in general in Israeli abuses while the right-wing Zionist blogosphere (which includes some columnists published in the mainstream media both here and in the US) has for years included some of the worst racism in the whole of the western media. The (private) Facebook status that led to the Bradford Labour MP Naz Shah being suspended and then expected to make a grovelling apology (the one with the graphic that suggested that Israel be relocated to Missouri) echoes something Zionists have been saying for decades: that “the Arabs” have all this land from Morocco to Muscat; why can’t the Palestinians just go and live somewhere else in that land?

To accept a definition of anti-Semitism which includes such vague ‘examples’ as “holding Israel to a higher standard” risks establishing a test for party activists and aspiring MPs that they have to accept the right of Israel to do what they deem necessary in the name of ‘security’, and such a test would be put to any party entrant from certain minorities and particularly, of course, Muslims; anything they had previously said in public would be scrutinised for breaches of this rule. This would mean Muslims are frozen out of the party which has been the main political representative of visible minorities for most of the post-Windrush era. The Labour party does not exist purely — or indeed at all — to represent fashionable white middle-class opinion. And one must ask why the Labour party are under pressure to accept a definition of anti-Semitism now when they did not do so before, including during the 13 years they were in power; there have always been stirrings of anti-Semitism within the small factions of the far left (usually in the form of conspiracy theories about Jewish or Zionist power or control of the media), though they have never approached the violent intensity of the anti-Semitism of the far right.

Some of the people professing to be disgusted by Labour’s failure to accept the dictates of Israel’s supporters on the definition of anti-Semitism clearly display tolerance towards other prejudices. Yesterday, the Times columnist Jane Merrick published a column saying she was broken-heartedly leaving the Labour party because she could not tolerate the anti-Semitism. A quick look through her Twitter back pages revealed that she had in fact only joined in 2016 so as to support Angela Eagle’s leadership bid; when these things were revealed, she accused the people who revealed them of … being men (she has since made her account private). More incriminating, though, is the fact that she did not let the malicious story the Times published about a Muslim foster carer refusing to let a child eat pork under her roof (something an observant Jew would also have done), a story containing several other claims subsequently debunked in a court ruling, motivate her to seek another publisher for her writings. Obviously you pay for Labour membership while you get paid for writing for the Times, but it’s very clear that some middle-class white people think some people are more deserving of racist treatment than others — so when you hear people complain that Jeremy Corbyn will not condemn anti-Semitism without mentioning other prejudices, this is why.

If you think some ethnic or religious groups are more or less worthy of racist or prejudiced treatment than others, this does not mean you are not racist, much less anti-racist; it just makes you a different kind of racist. Similarly, if you think one nation should have to suffer so that another (that it has not harmed) does not have to, you are also a racist. Generally Labour is expected to rise above racism and not pander to racist sentiment in places like Stoke-on-Trent or Barking; it should not do so when the racism is found among white middle-class people in Barnet (or their sympathisers in the media) either. Of course, the Labour leadership should listen to the Jewish religious community’s representatives, but it should listen to all the groups traditionally represented by the party and this does not mean accepting pro-Israel religious leaders’ demands in their entirety.

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