The British Labour Party’s New Definition of Anti-Semitism

It was clear that the Chakrabarti inquiry, described by the head of a parliamentary committee as a “whitewash”, had ignored a vast swathe of submissions, chiefly from Jewish leaders, writers, and activists.

Clearly, Jeremy Corbyn is betting that in the Britain today, anti-Semitism is quite literally the winning ticket.

The caveat is clearly designed to let anyone accused of such biased criticism (a central feature of Labour anti-Semitism in the past) wriggle out of demands for their removal and allow Labour to dismiss all but the most unspeakable forms of anti-Semitism.

Jeremy Corbyn (center) is questioned by a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee on the Labour party’s anti-Semitism inquiry, while the inquiry’s author, Shami Chakrabarti (left) scribbles a note to him, July 4, 2016. (Image source: UK Parliament)

Britain’s Labour Party, which remains the chief opposition to the current Conservative government, has struggled to throw off a reputation for condoning anti-Semitism and harbouring large numbers of anti-Semites in its ranks. Revelation after revelation of anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist, and anti-Israel utterances, resolutions, and internal investigations have brought the party into serious disrepute and given the media and their political opponents endless opportunities justifiably to label the party with charges of racism. Anti-racism is, quite rightly, a value presumably respected by most people. Writing in British Future in April, Sunder Katwala says he spoke to an anti-racism rally for his local Labour group:

“I told the audience that Labour has been a trailblazer on race. That if you looked around the world, it might be difficult to find any other political party that has taken so much pride in having been a pioneer in fighting racism.”

So far, so good. Katwala, however, immediately continued:

“But I also spoke of my sadness that a party with that tradition and that history still has so much work to do today when it comes to tackling antisemitism in the Labour party itself.”

Now, this is really curious: the most anti-racist party standing accused by many of its own members and MPs of being anti-Semitic. How has that happened and how has it recently been reinforced by a decision made this July by the party’s National Executive Committee?

Before that, it might be helpful to quote part of a recent speech made in the House of Commons on April 16 by Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish Labour MP. She spoke during a lengthy parliamentary session devoted to anti-Semitism, when many fine speeches were made, and at the end she received a standing ovation. Her words shocked everyone in the chamber:

Over the past two years, however, I have experienced something genuinely painful: attacks on my identity from within my own Labour family. I have been the target of a campaign of abuse, attempted bullying and intimidation from people who would dare to tell me that people like me have no place in the party of which I have been a member for over 20 years, and which I am proud to represent on these Benches. My mum was a senior trade union official; my grandad was a blacklisted steelworker who became a miner. I was born into our movement as surely as I was born into my faith. It is a movement that I have worked for, campaigned for and fought for during my entire adult life, so it was truly heart-breaking to find myself in Parliament Square just over three weeks ago, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community against the poison of anti-Semitism that is engulfing parts of my own party and wider political discourse.

If the House will indulge me, I would like to read out a small sample of what I have received on social media…

“Hang yourself you vile treacherous Zionist Tory filth. You are a cancer of humanity.”

“Ruth Smeeth is a Zionist—she has no shame—and trades on the murder of Jews by Hitler—whom the Zionists betrayed.”

“Ruth Smeeth must surely be travelling 1st class to Tel Aviv with all that slush. After all, she’s complicit in trying to bring Corbyn down.”

“First job for Jeremy Corbyn tomorrow—expel the Zionist BICOM smear hag bitch Ruth Smeeth from the Party.”

“This Ruth Smeeth bitch is Britainophobic, we need to cleanse our nation of these types.”

“#JC4PM Deselect Ruth Smeeth ASAP. Poke the pig—get all Zionist child killer scum out of Labour.”

“You are a spy! You are evil, satanic! Leave! #Labour #Corbyn.”

“Ruth you are a Zionist plant, I’m ashamed you are in Labour. Better suited to the murderous Knesset! #I Support Ken.”

“Your fellow traitor Tony Blair abolished hanging for treason. Your kind need to leave before we bring it back #Smeeth Is Filth.”

In just the last three years, since September 2015, a long-standing but little-known Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, unexpectedly entered a leadership election and to everyone’s amazement emerged as Labour Party leader. Within a short time, Labour lurched far to the left. Within a month of Corbyn’s election, a far-left movement, Momentum, was founded as the principal support group for the new leader. Its founder and chairman, Jon Lansman, was a wealthy Communist-inspired activist from an Orthodox Jewish family but strongly pro-Palestinian. He has called for Labour to stop using the words “Zionist” or “Zionism”, and recommended instead a range of euphemisms such as “Israeli fundamentalists” or, ideally, “Netanyahu’s regime”. Lady Valerie Cocks, who had for many years chaired Labour Friends of Israel, wrote in a letter to Jewish News:

“I always clashed with Lansman, who I considered our worst enemy during all that time. Although we now have other enemies like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, in my opinion Lansman is even worse.”

Momentum’s vice-chair was for a time Jackie Walker, a woman whose Russian Jewish father was a member of the Communist Party USA. Walker has been referred to as a noted anti-Semite who had to be dismissed from the chair on account of her repeated and extreme anti-Semitic remarks and activities. Nevertheless, she remained in the steering committee and went on to be a founding member of Jewish Voice for Labour, one of a number of pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist organizations that have recently tried to become the recognized models of supposed Jewishness within the party.

On one occasion, Walker said, “I was looking for information and I still haven’t heard a definition of antisemitism that I can work with.” This rejection of definitions of anti-Semitism was, as we shall see, highly relevant to a crisis for the party in the summer of 2018.

As Labour, effectively led by Momentum and a gathering cult of Corbynite extremists, shifted farther and farther to the left, using entryism to take over local constituency groups, it plunged deeper than ever into a widening body of accusations of anti-Semitism. These accusations entered a national debate and were widely distributed by the media, including the left-wing press. Given Labour’s reputation as an actively anti-racist party and its claim to lead endeavours to end racism nationally, the growing clamour about anti-Semitism could not have been more embarrassing. Jackie Walker had, after all, built much of her activist career as an anti-racist.

In response to this politically damaging response, on April 29, 2016, Corbyn himself called for an inquiry into how far anti-Semitism was present in the party. Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of Liberty, a prestigious civil liberties and human rights organization, was appointed to lead what became known as the Chakrabarti Inquiry. The report was published by Labour on June 30, a mere two months after the inquiry began. It was short (41pp), bland, and often dealt with technical matters for the Labour rule book, including a ten-page appendix of recommendations for rule changes. Chakrabarti was controversially elevated to the House of Lords as a reward.

The report quickly came in for criticism from the Jewish community and elsewhere. That July, 2016, a parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee held an investigative session on the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain; Corbyn and Chakrabarti were called to attend it. The head of the committee, Keith Vaz, described Chakrabarti’s report as a “whitewash“. Other MPs, notably Labour’s moderate Chuka Umunna, subjected Corbyn and Chakrabarti to hard sceptical questioning. Notably, it was clear that the Chakrabarti inquiry had ignored a vast swathe of submissions, chiefly from Jewish leaders, writers, and activists. Many of these submissions were later collected into a short volume edited by Judith Ornstein: Whitewashed: Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

Clearly, the inquiry had been a failure, and its recommendations fell on stony ground, above all because it refused to tackle head-on the use of anti-Semitic diatribes focussed on the state of Israel, a form of anti-Semitism that was prominent in several earlier definitions of the prejudice. Instead of coming back from this fiasco  which would have meant a much more rigorous inquiry that prioritized Jewish responses — the party ploughed on, still denying the extent and character of its increasingly obvious anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist leanings. David Hirsh, an eminent Jewish sociologist and longstanding Labour party member from Goldsmiths College in the University of London, recently published a detailed study of the whole affair down to early 2018: Contemporary Left Antisemitism. Chapter 3 is devoted to “The crescendo of antisemitism in Corbyn’s Labour Party and the Chakrabarti Inquiry”.

Here, we need to take a deep breath. In July this year, the National Executive Committee of Labour, the large governing body of the party, enacted a new 16-point code of conduct on anti-Semitism; as we shall see, the code has only served to bring down even greater condemnation from the Jewish leadership because it eviscerates the full definition of anti-Semitism and allows several types of antisemitism to slip past censure.

Mainstream, moderate political parties are normally sensitive to accusations in the media or from the public that threaten to put citizens off voting for them. Labour’s anti-Semitic reputation has been on the front pages of newspapers, has led to a plethora of articles in leading magazines, and has been a deep cause of concern for some two years now. The current British government is in a state of crisis — a crisis that could result before long in a fresh general election in which Labour might hope to win or further increase its vote, as it did in 2017. One might have thought that they might do anything to win voters back by abandoning any policies that might make the public think them too extreme to take on the responsibilities of government in a country facing confusion over its plan to exit the European Union. But this July, they did the opposite by turning their backs on moderation, presumably in the hope that this is where the voters are.

On July 16, 2018, the Labour Party’s 41-member National Executive Committee (NEC) adopted part of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, after a proposal not many days earlier by a sub-committee. There had already been vocal disagreement about the sub-committee’s proposed reformulation from Jewish Members of Parliament and party members, as well as the Jewish community in general, but the NEC went ahead anyway and made Labour’s problem — or advantage — even greater than it had been before. It turned out that Labour had only adopted the introductory passage of the IHRA’s definition, not the full thing, with its several examples of speech and behaviour that are anti-Semitic.

Jewish Voice for Labour vehemently denied that the NEC had truncated the definition in any way, and insisted that the full form was a mere 38-word statement:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

This “definition” is disingenuous in the extreme. In the full document of the definition, one can read that “To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations”, followed by another two pages of examples, including several referring to comments about Israel. [1]

More than one supporter of the shortened version has argued that the full package blocks them from criticizing Israel. This accusation is inaccurate. In fact, the definition is perfectly clear on this matter: “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic”. Knowing this, the NEC has deliberately removed four clauses that encapsulate anti-Semitic criticism:

1. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the State of Israel is a racist endeavour

2. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis

3. Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

4. Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

If anything, the outrage from Jewish organizations, MPs, and others was greater now than it had been back in March during the rally against anti-Semitism which took place in Parliament Square. Labour had been warned repeatedly about the massive anti-Semitism in its ranks, the party’s report on the problem had been a whitewash, the rally had generated massive publicity, Corbyn had met with Jewish community leaders in the following month, leaving them “disappointed”, and now the party had given a chilling sign that they had not listened.

The central importance of the full IHRA definition was stressed in a joint statement by the new president of the Jewish Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyl, and the chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, Jonathan Goldstein:

It is for Jews to determine for themselves what antisemitism is. The UK Jewish community has adopted in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Antisemitism, as have the British Government, Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, 124 local authorities across the country and numerous governments around the world. 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 antisemitism within the Labour movement.

The centrality of the IHRA definition was expanded on by Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger. In a letter to Labour’s General Secretary, Jennie Formby, she wrote:

“The Jewish community, and JLM, believe that the best working definition of anti-Semitism is the full IHRA definition, including its examples.

“If the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is good enough for the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service], College of Policing, Jewish community, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, National Union of Students, and Labour Councils across the country, then it should be good enough for the Labour Party.

“It doesn’t need changing, and it’s unclear for whose benefit these changes have been made. We cannot give anti-Semites a get out of jail free card.”

Here we have a political party that believes in political correctness in all other areas of racist speech and action, and which adheres to the McPherson principle that victims have the right to define racism, but instead chooses to select its own definition contrary to the majority Jewish opinion. On the day the party accepted the watered-down version, the Jewish Labour Movement issued advice which “suggests that because Labour has ignored the so-called Macpherson principle… when it comes to antisemitism, Jews are being treated less favourably than other groups.”

In the UK, the Conservative Party has no truck with fascists, neo-Nazis or white supremacists. The Labour Party, when well managed and with a moderate membership, avoids conflation with the far left, with Communists, Stalinists, or Trotskyites. Today, it has been taken over by extremists, people for whom hatred of Israel seems to be the core value of their existence.

In a poll just carried out by Jewish News and the Jewish Leadership Council, however, it was shown that “A third of Britons believe Margaret Hodge was right to label Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite and nearly one in three Labour voters say the Labour leader is letting the party down in his handling of anti-Semitism”. That is a lot of voters to be turned off the country’s second-largest political party.

At the weekly meeting of all Labour MPs on July 23, an emergency motion by Jewish parliamentarians was issued for the adoption of the full IHRA definition. Ironically, Jeremy Corbyn fudged the issue by insisting that a debate on the motion be postponed until September. Clearly, he prefers to dig in his heels. That alone tells us all we need to know. Clearly, Corbyn is betting that in the UK today, antisemitism is quite literally the winning ticket. Parliament was suspended on the following day for its summer recess. Plenty of time for Corbyn and Momentum to dream up more ways to avoid the issue.

After the British parliament returned from its summer recess, the Labour Party convened its National Executive Committee, first to hold elections to the committee itself, and secondly to debate whether or not to accept the IHRA definition in full. This followed weeks in which more and more revelations of Corbyn’s associations with terrorist organizations and individuals had been published in the mainstream press, bringing widespread condemnation from both left and right. Those connections were not just with people abroad, as in his laying a wreath

in Tunisia next to the graves of the group who massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, but also at home in the United Kingdom, where his ties to the Irish Republican Army (the IRA) were investigated by Britain’s international intelligence and security service, MI5.

Clearly, this negative news about its leader and the ongoing (and closely related) anti-Semitism crisis threatened to split the party in two. On August 30, MP Frank Field, the longest serving Labour Member of Parliament resigned the Labour Whip to stand as an independent, driven out by the anti-Semitism issue. This must have frightened many in the party as a sign that things were going in a direction that would guarantee their defeat should there be another General Election.

They therefore accepted the full IHRA despite an attempt by Corbyn to undermine it. And they were praised for doing so. But it is not that simple. In addition to the full definition, they have added a statement of their own. Sky News’s chief political correspondent Jon Craig comments:

… predictably, the outcome of the NEC meeting was a messy fudge rather than a clear-cut decision.

That’s because Labour has added what it calls a “clarification” on criticising Israel. Others have described it as a “proviso”, a “caveat”, or a “free-speech clause”.

This clarification is as simple as it is unnecessary: “this does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians.”

As we already know, the IHRA definition does nothing to restrict either of these things. It only says that criticism of Israel must be carried out as one might criticize any other democracy. The caveat is already in the definition, so why has the NEC inserted this redundant statement, knowing full well that it implies that the IHRA definition somehow suppresses such criticism or support?

Meanwhile, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, said the decision “is very long overdue and regrettable that Labour has wasted a whole summer trying to dictate to Jews what constitutes offense against us.”

The answer should be clear. Having accept the full version of the IHRA definition, it would now form part of the party’s Code of Conduct, and that means that large numbers of members who criticized Israel unfairly (by calling it a “racist” or “Nazi” or “apartheid” state) could be suspended or expelled from the party. The caveat is clearly designed to let anyone accused of such biased criticism (a central feature of Labour anti-Semitism in the past) wriggle out of demands for their removal and allow Labour’s National Executive Committee to dismiss all but the most unspeakable forms of anti-Semitism. How this will turn out remains to be seen.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Gatestone Institute



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