Labour’s decision to adopt the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism will backfire. Corbyn’s enemies will only sense weakness and move in to strike another blow.
The truth is that the full definition was already adopted. The National Executive Committee (NEC) merely capitulated to the demands that it take on four examples, which it had originally excluded for fear of what it might mean for freedom of expression. But it eventually accepted three of these definitions.
That’s right. The NEC adopted the full definition of anti-Semitism and ten out of eleven examples. Yet it was condemned for racism because it did not take on those four cases. That’s how this saga began, or rather the most recent version of this scandal.
Incidentally, the IHRA definition is often described as ‘internationally recognised’, but it is only recognised in the UK, Israel, Austria, Romania, Germany, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Macedonia. It is not recognised by the European Union, the United Nations or any other major country. But this is a side issue.
A Semantic Victory
Let’s get down to brass tacks. The most controversial of the definition’s examples claims that it would be anti-Semitic to argue that Israel’s existence is a racist endeavour. Of course, if you take each case in context it would be anti-Semitic if you think Jews are behind a global conspiracy to control the world.
In such a worldview, ‘Zionism’ would certainly be a stand-in for a wide array of pathologies. But if you decontextualise, then the case could easily apply to many legitimate criticisms of Israeli government policy.
If Israel’s existence as a Jewish state depends on its demographic majority, the state has to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity to maintain itself. There’s no getting around this reality. An ethnostate cannot be inclusive or multicultural by definition. Whether Israel could ever exist as an inclusive state is another matter.
It’s possible to imagine a state called Israel that doesn’t require a demographic majority to serve as the homeland of Jews and Palestinians. But is this really Netanyahu’s Israel? There’s no place for a Palestinian homeland, no time to recognise the national rights of the Palestinian people and no patience for a right of return for the Palestinian refugees.
This is why the NEC’s concessions to the right might just embolden Corbyn’s enemies. We’re already seeing Labour being condemned for not adopting the definition’s four examples ‘fully enough’. Richard Angell has called the decision a “disgrace” and claimed it includes a get-out clause for racists.
On the other hand, the inclusion of the four examples is a minor victory for the Blairites – who don’t do politics anymore, they just do spectacles – and it should remind us just how much they’ve lost to the left. No longer do the Blairites control the NEC, the disciplinary processes or the media strategy. This is a semantic victory.
Even still, the danger is that this decision will just give the right a means of shutting down debate and expelling legitimate critics of Israel from the Labour Party. So it could become a serious challenge to free speech in the UK if the NEC doesn’t take necessary precautions.
There are ways to avoid this definition being used as a stick to beat Israel’s critics. For starters, Labour’s NEC must insist on a new compliance process and bring in an independent body of lawyers to run it. If the left can insist on a strict legal process, we might be able to avoid this being used as a political weapon.
I wouldn’t bet on it though. The pro-Israel right will see this capitulation as a sign of weakness, and there’s some truth in that. The trade unions and the NEC flinched and decided to try to concede for short-term gains. It’s not even clear that these gains will be significant in the short-term. The right will not stop until it has defeated the Labour left.
The scandal will go on and on. I expect that the mainstream media will start fixating on Corbyn’s intervention in the process, and his defence of Palestinian rights and the claim that Israel is a racist state. That’s why this won’t stop with a redefinition. It’s a fundamentally irreconcilable political difference.
Yet it wasn’t long ago that it was possible to be harshly critical of Israeli policy in the UK. It’s not just that the media hates Corbyn and wants to destroy him. Since 9/11 we’ve seen a shift in British political life, where Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has become unquestionable in certain circles. The War on Terror brought with it a new fervour.
So British society is increasingly uncritical of Israel, even as the Israeli government adopts far-right legislation to define itself and blocks Palestinian self-determination at every turn. Ironically, Israel was established in defiance of British colonial rule. Yet the country is a perfect example of the settler state, Britain’s most successful form of colonialism.
This may explain why a section of the establishment has moved to re-centre British attitudes towards Israel. The idea may be to re-privilege Israel in British politics, as one of the untouchable causes of the world. It’s not just that Israel is an important ally, or even that it’s the state of the Jewish people.
It’s about what Israel represents to those nostalgic for the era of colonialism: keeping indigenous people in their place. As long as Israel can keep its boot on the necks of Palestinians, its government will have an unquestioned place in the hearts and minds of the British right.
Lest it be forgotten, this is entirely in sync with the philo-Semitism of European far-right movements. It’s just that the British version is particularly odious given this country’s responsibility for incubating the Arab-Israeli conflict during the Mandate period.
Might as well stick it to Corbyn to make it all go away.
— Financial Times (@FinancialTimes) September 5, 2018
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.