Who’s guilty of antisemitism? Questioning Labour's Definition Bind

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Peter Hallward is a political philosopher best known for his work on Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze. He has also published works on post-colonialism and contemporary Haiti. Hallward is a member of the editorial collective of Radical Philosophy and a contributing editor to Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities.

Jeremy Corbyn is being urged on all sides to adopt the ‘internationally accepted’ definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Just accept the definition in full, he’s told, and the whole ugly row about Labour being a ‘class enemy’ of the Jewish people will go away. What could be simpler?

So what does this IHRA definition involve? Would its adoption actually help make it easier to identify and condemn expressions of antisemitism? Or are key parts of it worded in such a way as to invite further confusion, and to make it harder to criticise some ongoing and far-reaching injustices?

In order to clarify the meaning and implications of its proposed definition, an IHRA Plenary in Budapest issued a press release dated 26 May 2016. The document merits some attention. First, the definition itself: ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.’ That’s a little vague, you might think, as it seems to leave the door open to many other sorts of expression too. Never mind that though, as the document then gives a list of possible forms that this perception might take, most of which are indeed obvious and uncontroversial forms of hateful bigotry.

Perhaps the most important and most debatable assertion of the document, however, is the claim that ‘manifestations [of antisemitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.’ This is the point worth pondering.

It’s not entirely clear what ‘targeting’ involves, as the term is again vague enough to evoke anything from hostile criticism to mere designation or reference. Targeting can’t simply be reducible to criticism, though, since the document adds an immediate caveat to that effect: ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’ That means, I assume, that it wouldn’t be antisemitic to grumble about the fact that in Israel, as in some other places, taxes might be too high, or the delivery of public services too poor. It would only be antisemitic to target, criticise or refer to Israel as a state acting specifically like a Jewish collectivity.

Now it’s no secret that the Israeli state regularly pursues policies that favour Jewish over non-Jewish members of the population it controls. Jewish people, for instance, enjoy a ‘right of return’ that is denied to Palestinian refugees whose homes were destroyed when Israel was created. Israel’s long-running colonisation of West Bank lands would also be quite hard to describe, let alone criticise, without making some reference to the way its settlements distinguish between Jewish and Arab collectivities.

This puts would-be critics of Israeli colonialism in a bit of a bind. Presumably it’s ok to object to colonial projects in general, projects of the sort that might be undertaken by ‘any other country’. But it isn’t easy to criticise settlement programmes specifically designed to replace Palestinian inhabitants with Jewish ones without referring to the state promoting them as a ‘Jewish collectivity’. Is criticism of Israeli settlements thus antisemitic by definition? If not why not, according to the IHRA’s formulation?

The same difficulty confronts the many critics who might object to the recent law passed on 19 July to ensure that ‘the Jewish people have an exclusive right to national self-determination’ in Israel. And depending on how you interpret the word ‘target’, if it’s antisemitic simply to conceive of Israel in general as a Jewish collectivity, then presumably the architects of this new law, and of the many measures that anticipated it, are themselves antisemitic by IHRA criteria -- but mercifully that’s a problem for the Knesset and the Israeli government, and not Jeremy Corbyn.

The IHRA document doesn’t help matters, though, when it anticipates precisely this problem by listing, as a ‘contemporary example of antisemitism’, ‘denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.’

If targeting or referring to Israel ‘conceived as a Jewish collectivity’ is antisemitic, then to affirm the right of the Jewish people to self-determination obviously cannot be based on their special status as a Jewish collectivity. Presumably the right to self-determination can only be affirmed as a broader right belonging to a people in general, and many peoples would surely embrace this as an elementary and universal political right. To affirm the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, in a non-antisemitic way, thus also seems to imply affirmation of the right of other people to self-determination.

But what then should we call a government that might deny just this right to a neighbouring or overlapping people? The Palestinians have long insisted loud and clear on their status as a distinct and indigenous people, and on their own right to self-determination. They have not done this on the basis of religion or race but as an acknowledgement of long-standing residence in their ancestral lands, in favour of a state that might represent all of its inhabitants as equal citizens enjoying equal rights and equal opportunities. (Like other population groups who speak Semitic languages like Arabic, Amharic and Hebrew, Palestinian people are also, of course, regularly classified as Semites).

How then, on the basis of the IHRA definition we are urged to accept, should we describe politicians who might refuse or downplay the right of Palestinian people to self-determination? Or who, in a prolonged attempt to undermine the most emphatically anti-racist and anti-colonial leadership that any mainstream British political party has ever had, also seek to make it ever more difficult to criticise Israel’s ongoing occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands?

Before Labour adopts its definition perhaps the IHRA could clarify this, in a future press release.