Having come under sustained pressure over several months, Labour has officially adopted the full IHRA definition of anti-semitism despite concerns from leading pro-Palestine campaigners. Kishore Lennon assesses what impact these concession will have on the pro-Palestine movement on both sides of the border…
The decision by Labour’s “Left” NEC to adopt the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism marks the latest in a number of concessions to those seeking to weaponise anti-Semitism in the Labour party. These concessions have indicated to the Labour right that smear tactics are effective, and we can now reasonably deduce that the supposed crisis within the party hasn’t been negated but spurred on as a result. Figures on the Labour right are right to say the issue hasn’t been resolved – the truth is it won’t be until forces on the left fight back against their smear tactics head on.
The immediate question which arises from the decision to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in full centres round the policing of conversations on Israel and Palestine within the party. This hasn’t kicked off all of a sudden: a number of activists have been expelled from Labour over many years for making perfectly valid criticisms of the state of Israel; they’ve been sullied as anti-Semites by a Blairite faction quite happy to make concessions to racists under other circumstances. Even under Ed Miliband’s ‘soft left’ leadership, the party was happy to parrot UKIP’s narrative around immigration as evidenced by the production of infamous ‘controls on immigration’ mugs.
The Labour right clearly haven’t acted in good faith on this issue and it’s telling that Jewish left wing campaigners against anti-Semitism in the party, such as NEC member Rhea Wolfson, have voiced concerns about the tone of the debate. Why is this discussion so heated? In truth, we’re yet to see exactly how the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism will actually be implemented in the Labour party, but we do know the definition adopted explicitly conflates anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. The definition insists any description of Israel as a “racist endeavour” is to be understood as an example of anti-Semitism, making criticism of Israel’s ideological advocates’ point of view impossible.
Corbyn did make clear in an addendum to the IHRA definition that: “It should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact”. This is key because it would be ahistorical to suggest the Nakba and the ethnic cleansing carried out against Arabs in the region in 1948 was anything other than racist. Similarly, under the IHRA guidelines, the UN report which last year accused Israel of operating an apartheid regime is anti-Semitic. Essentially, the definition’s wording would render all the pro-Palestine left’s criticisms as anti-Semitic and only permit criticism of that doesn’t touch upon Israel’s right to exist as an exclusively Jewish state.
There aren’t a litany of positions on this question: to support Palestine is to oppose Zionism as defined by war criminal Benjamin Netanyahu et al; to oppose them is to support the complete dismantlement of the Israeli state. The definition states that “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” is anti-Semitic. But if we’re told we must ascribe Israel with the same form of criticism we do to genuine democracies, we’re required to accept the myth Israel’s current racist policies are simply the product of a temporary extreme government and that the existence of an exclusively Jewish state isn’t inherently racist.
To maintain its Jewish exclusivity, Israel must ensure Palestinians are excluded from every sphere of Israeli society. The Labour party should be a space where the basics of the Israel/Palestine situation can be discussed and the understanding that Israel is a settler colonial project advanced. It remains to be seen whether the party’s adoption of the definition leads to a significant escalation in expulsions from the party on the grounds set out, but the question of Free Speech is not the only factor.
Corbyn was recently forced to apologise for sharing a platform with a Holocaust survivor who compared the actions of the Israeli state to that of the Nazis. Two points emerge from this event: one, under current IHRA guidelines, a Holocaust survivor is anti-Semitic if he compares the Israeli state’s atrocities to those committed by the Nazis in WW2. This of course goes against much of what youngsters are taught from an early age in Britain: the Holocaust is framed in schools as a lesson from history about the urgency of opposing racism. Placards carrying the message ‘Never Again’ are prominent at almost every anti-fascist demonstration.
Given these lessons have been so firmly and rightly embedded in our collective consciousness, it’s entirely legitimate we would now conclude that the Israeli state’s indiscriminate actions against innocent Palestinian people could be compared to the evils of the Nazis. As Norman Finkelstein (above), a prominent pro-Palestine academic who lost family in the Holocaust, famously put it: “It is precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silenced when Israel commits it’s crimes against the Palestinians.” Rather than defend this legitimate position, Corbyn was forced on the defensive (ironically on the same day Tommy Robinson, a prolific racist far-right figure, was being released from prison and his Islamophobic followers were on the march).
The broader worry that emerges from those events is the fact the most prominent left wing political institution in Britain, involved in the most serious confrontation with Britain’s political establishment, was made impotent by the right’s weaponisation of an issue of racism. The fact Corbyn may well be the next Prime Minister should boost the left, but seeing him forced into this corner and refusing to fight back reaffirms an already existing fear in sections of the anti-racist movement that the leadership can’t challenge the right’s weaponisation of these issues. Such reticence risks the place of pro-Palestinian activism within the wider anti-racist movement and allows it to be framed as something separate, which is beyond contempt.
In a Scottish context, these dangers were most visible in the run up to this year’s march on UN anti-racism day organised by Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) in Glasgow. The organising group chose not to oppose the participation of a group called Friends of Israel, essentially denigrating pro-Palestinian activism’s place in wider anti-racist campaigning. It isn’t a “broad front tactic” to include an organisation that openly supports an apartheid state on an anti-racist march. Marchers were even expected to carry Palestinian flags while marching with a pro-Israel group – that’s not opposition but normalisation. Glasgow Friends of Israel have seized on this very tactic, using both Israel and Palestine flags to claim support for both entities.
When Labour fails to defend the pro-Palestine movement as part of the broader anti-racist struggle, this lack of confidence enforces a wider culture within the movement. In the context of a rising far-right, this movement can’t avoid questions around the Zionist project. This is particularly important given the far-right’s attempts to shield its own anti-Semitism behind a geo-political stance. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the vehement anti-semite supported by the Conservatives in the European Parliament this week, has expressed support for Israel. Nick Griffin, former BNP leader, expressed similar sentiments on BBC Question Time back in 2009, long before the rise of the alt-right.
On both sides of the border, we’ve even seen ‘Friends of Israel’ groups marching alongside the EDL. Here in Scotland, the organised pro-Israel opposition here is heavily composed of right-wing Christian fundamentalists, reminiscent of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. There’s little to no attempt on their part to build support for Israel, but Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign members will verify that they have attempted to stop pro-Palestine meetings from going ahead.
As the battle in the Labour party continues, it’s clear further smears of this nature will continue to be used to discredit Corbyn and the wider left. It’s possible for the Labour left to turn this tide, but it requires them to place Corbyn as an active participant in the building of the anti-racist movement. In that context, he can outline the simple but powerful argument that the battle against racism exists in this space, not purely within Labour and certainly not within the Parliamentary Labour Party. It’s only in this space he can articulate a strident and serious pro-Palestine message, restore confidence in the British left and make clear that to be anti-racist is to be pro-Palestine.
The alternative will mean further concessions to racists who want to redefine anti-Semitism and justify the brutalisation of an indigenous population. This will only inform the realms of debate within the anti-racist movement and weaken our confidence in articulating coherent opposition to Israeli state violence. The opposition intends to suppress any discussion and undermine genuine fights against anti-Semitism by tying the issue to the Israeli ‘homeland’. The terms of the left are the opposite: the anti-racist movement is the place to build confidence in the possibility of defeating racists; a place were we’re able call and campaign for the end of Israeli apartheid. The role of the Labour left is to be part of that battle, not to allow our opponents to decide the limits of our discussion.