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Labour should ditch the IHRA working definition of antisemitism altogether

Antony Lerman on the need to understand the history of the current attempt to define antisemitism.

Antony Lerman 6 September 2018

Labour should ditch the IHRA working definition of antisemitism altogether

This article first appeared in OpenDemocracy.

In politics, neutralising a toxic controversy and moving on by taking a strategic decision to retreat, withdraw or compromise, may be a prudent course of action. But if this is what members of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) are planning to do today by ditching the amendments it made to some examples of antisemitism in the guidance notes of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) ‘working definition’ of antisemitism, and embracing the entire text lock, stock and barrel, they would be party to a travesty of justice. The more the definition is held up to the light and subject to public scrutiny, the more we see holes and cracks in its flimsy fabric. Not only is there now overwhelming evidence that it’s not fit for purpose, but it also has the effect of making Jews more vulnerable to antisemitism, not less, and exacerbating the bitter arguments Jews have been having over the nature of contemporary antisemitism for the last 20 to 25 years. Arguments that are inextricably linked to the Israel-Palestine conflict and generated by two questions: Are there forms of criticism of Israel which equate to antisemitism? If so, where is the line between ‘legitimate’ criticism and criticism that spills over into antisemitic hate speech?

We should no longer be quibbling over the dodgy nature of some of the examples in the counterproductive explanatory text that follows the IHRA definition, in a futile attempt to reconcile adoption of the definition with protecting the last vestiges of freedom of speech about Israel-Palestine. We should rather be telling the unvarnished truth: no definition ever saved a Jew from experiencing antisemitism. It’s time to abandon this tainted and deeply flawed text and instead seek to codify and implement far more widely, commensurate with the danger racism poses today, the tried and tested methods of combatting racism developed by anti-racist groups on the front lines of this struggle. 

And yet, a misguided or misapplied prudence looks certain to hold sway. Relentless pressure from inside and outside the party to get the NEC to abandon its amendments to the examples, coupled with a constant stream of attacks on Jeremy Corbyn for allegedly associating with antisemites and even allegedly being an antisemite himself, are now paying off. It’s widely expected, that today, the NEC will reverse its decision, making the entire, un-amended IHRA definition and examples an integral part of its code of conduct on antisemitism.

A barrage of criticism

A barrage of criticism greeted the NEC’s announcement on 5 July that it had agreed on those amendments. It stood accused of legitimising antisemitic hate-speech within the party and not allowing Jews to determine for themselves what antisemitism is. No matter that the code formally embraced the 38-word IHRA ‘working definition’ of antisemitism as well as all but 4 of the 11 examples of discourse that ‘could’ be considered antisemitic, added 2 more and, in discussing the 4 that were omitted, endorsed their content and strengthened their language with the aim of protecting freedom of speech on Israel-Palestine and simplifying the process for Labour officials conducting disciplinary hearings reaching judgements as to whether or not the code had been breached. This was convincingly argued by Dr Brian Klug on oD on 17 July. Klug remarked in his article: ‘I have not yet come across a critic of the NEC Code – I mean a critic who places a premium on combating antisemitism – who acknowledges [the points that significantly enhance the IHRA text], let alone welcomes them as the enhancements that they are. They are passed over in silence, as if the IHRA document were a sacred text whose words may not be tampered with – not even if the text can be improved.’ Having followed a very great deal of the subsequent comment on IHRA, the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn, I would say that Klug’s observation still applies. 

Since then, the regular doses of ‘revelations’ about Corbyn have intensified, further entrenching the notion that, at the very least, Corbyn has a tin ear when it comes to recognizing antisemites and antisemitic discourse, and at the very worst repeats antisemitic tropes when talking about Israel’s human rights abuses, Zionism and the nature of the Jewish state. It is understandable therefore that some of Corbyn’s key supporters who reject these accusations nevertheless see adoption of the full IHRA text and the dropping of any changes to the examples as the playing of their ‘get out of jail’ card. The party can then no longer be accused of rejecting the ‘working definition’ and examples, critics will be assuaged, the matter will be history and laid to rest.

Politicising antisemitism within an inch of its life

This is wishful thinking. The fact is that the damage has already been done. The default mode of almost all the mainstream media is to take as given that the party is institutionally antisemitic. And that its leader is either incapable or unwilling to do anything about it, except make pious statements that are ignored. These are certainly not propitious circumstances for putting the issue to rest. Too many people and organizations have a vested interest in not letting Corbyn or the party off the hook. (See, for example, Jonathan Cook). And the attacks, given spurious legitimacy by flying the IHRA working definition like a flag, as if it represented a holy and untouchable text, are ongoing and relentless. In a column in the Jewish Chronicle on 21 August, titled ‘Jeremy Corbyn appals me – and his behaviour will get no better’, Joan Ryan MP, Chair of Labour Friends of Israel, wrote this: ‘Nor should we pretend that even full acceptance of IHRA ends this battle against antisemitism in the Labour party.’ 

At the Jewish Labour Movement conference on 2 September Margaret Hodge, now brazenly exploiting fears about antisemitism to bring about a leadership change, made it clear that it would no longer be enough for the NEC to adopt in full the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism at its meeting on the 4th. ‘It might have been enough three months ago, ‘she said, ‘it might have just enabled us all to start talking to each other and bring trust again, but I think that moment has passed.’ She wants Corbyn to go. And although Gordon Brown didn’t mention Corbyn by name in his emotionally charged speech at the same event calling for the adoption of the IHRA definition and describing antisemitism as ‘a problem of the conspiracy-theory left’, his words will surely be taken as a plea for a new leader.

These highly charged interventions were taking place even as the vile comments the former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, Jonathan Sacks, made about Jeremy Corbyn, in an interview he gave to the New Statesman published on 29 August, were still making waves. Just when you might have thought that the vilification couldn’t be ratcheted up even further, the media’s most cuddly rabbi sent Corbyn-baiting off the graph when he told George Eaton that Corbyn ‘is an antisemite’ who has ‘given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate’ and that his reported 2013 remarks about ‘Zionists’ as ‘the most offensive statement by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech.’ 

It would be naïve in the extreme to think that the kind of politicisation of antisemitism now engulfing Labour and looking like an orgy of self-destruction was a new phenomenon. I first started writing about the use and abuse of antisemitism in Jewish communal politics back in 1985 and was, to say the least, not thanked for doing so. But even after almost 40 years engagement in studying contemporary antisemitism, I have never seen anything like what we are now experiencing.

The curious birth of the IHRA ‘working definition’ of antisemitism

One of the central unique elements of this current controversy is the role being played by the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, politicisation mostly expressed itself in the form of differences in the organized Jewish community over how to deal with the problem of antisemitism on the political level and whether it should be given minimum publicity or openly discussed, and no efforts made to suppress news about desecration of cemeteries and other antisemitic attacks – the default position of the Board of Deputies for many years who feared that publicising such incidents would make matters worse.

There was hardly any political controversy over how antisemitism should be defined. A broad consensus understanding of what it was prevailed – in the organized Jewish community, among mainstream political parties, across countries in the West. Once that consensus had clearly broken down by the first years of the twenty-first century, almost entirely over the issue of Israel-Palestine and how far anti-Israel rhetoric can be defined as antisemitism – and dubbed the ‘new antisemitism’ –  the politicisation of antisemitism was taken to another level. Until that time, Israeli governments had not always made engagement with the problem of antisemitism for diaspora Jews a top priority. Zionism and the establishment of the state were all about overcoming antisemitism. To become too involved, certainly publicly, in this diaspora problem would have meant admitting that in one of its key aims, Zionism failed. But when Israel was placed at the centre of the antisemitism issue, Israeli state policy changed. Leading the Jewish fight against antisemitism, under the banner of promoting the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, became a core strategic task of government.

And this is where the story of the IHRA definition begins.

Fast forward and, irrespective of the decisions that will be taken at today’s NEC meeting, the task of drawing together, in summary form, the very substantial body of evidence which should consign the IHRA working definition to the dustbin of history, is urgent. I understand that to expect the NEC to take a step in that direction is unrealistic. But this is only one stage on which the provocations associated with the IHRA definition action are being felt. Now is an opportunity to establish the fundamental principle that IHRA is so flawed it should be abandoned, not tinkered with.

Rather than proceed with the metaphor of the IHRA text as tantamount to an untouchable holy scripture, I suggest we think about it as if it were a balloon kept aloft not with helium, but rather with the heat of righteous indignation, the constant ratcheting up of fears and accusations, the ever wilder doubling-down on painting Corbyn an antisemite and the increasingly desperate attempts to oust him from the leadership using hatred of Jews as a weapon with which to achieve this.

In any public space where proper discussion and serious engagement can take place, the weighty critique of IHRA being produced by a diverse group of people with expertise, who don’t necessarily agree with each other on all aspects and are not working together in any conspiratorial or pre-planned fashion, would successfully puncture that balloon.

But there is no such space today. Those keeping the balloon in the air use a discourse that has deeply uncomfortable echoes of the post-truth populism, the ‘we don’t trust experts’ narrative, coursing through the political and social veins in so many countries today.

Those applying their knowledge of law, political history, race and ethnic studies, experience in monitoring, studying and analysing contemporary antisemitism and so on, are largely ignored or subject to ad hominem attacks, character assassination and vilification. But it’s due to their work that the case against IHRA is so strong.

Origins I: A deeply flawed rehash of an abandoned and discredited forerunner

The IHRA text is not new. It’s a marginally rehashed version of the ‘working definition’ of antisemitism produced under the auspices of the now defunct European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) and published on its website on 28 January 2005. The American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) international affairs director, Rabbi Andrew Baker, persuaded the EUMC director Beate Winkler to call a meeting of Jewish representatives to discuss framing a new antisemitism definition as a way of extricating the EUMC from a damaging controversy over a suppressed, and then leaked, antisemitism report purporting to show young Muslims as principally responsible for rising attacks on Jews in Europe. The AJC’s antisemitism research head, Kenneth Stern, had already drafted such a new definition and it was this, subject to some small amendments made by a group comprising only Jewish representatives sympathetic to the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, that surfaced as the EUMC working definition.

The draft definition was never subjected to proper scrutiny. On Stern’s own admission, only five people signed off on the final text: Winkler, Stern, Baker, Mike Whine (from the UK Community Security Trust, the defence body of the Jewish community) and Deidre Berger (head of the AJC’s Berlin office).

However, it undoubtedly made an impact. For example, the US state department, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (2006), either used, cited or recommended adoption of the working definition. Many referred to it erroneously as the EU definition. From the start, the definition and examples were deliberately conflated. The conditionality of the examples were described by Professor Dina Porat of Tel Aviv University, a key figure in the initial discussions about the draft, as ‘a list of acts and statements that are anti-Semitic’ (emphasis added).

But reception was patchy and as inappropriate attempts to use it to suppress freedom of speech became public, criticisms mounted. The EUMC began to make it clear that the working definition had ‘no legal basis’, ‘did not necessarily reflect the official position of the EUMC’ and was not adopted by it. It should be viewed as ‘a work in progress’, Winkler said, ‘with a view to redrafting’

When the Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) replaced the EUMC, it dropped the working definition, did not display it on its website, said that no public authority in the EU applied the document in any way and that the FRA had ‘no legal competence to develop itself any such definitions.’

Among those who have contributed to the explication of the origins and the decline and temporary fall of the EUMC working definition are Richard SilversteinBen WhiteAsa WinstanleyJonathan Cook and Richard Kuper

Origins II: Creating a tool to fight the ‘new antisemitism’ by redefining Jew-hatred

Stern’s aim was to create a definition that provided the basis for determining when criticism of Israel manifests itself as antisemitism. In effect, the task was to produce a codification of the nature of the ‘new antisemitism’ and how it could be recognised. One of the earliest figures conceptualising ‘new antisemitism’, publicising the notion and promoting it internationally, was Irwin Cotler, a Canadian human rights law professor who was justice minister in the 2003-6 Liberal government. He summed it up in 2010 in these words: ‘In a word [sic], classical anti-Semitism is the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the rights of Jews to live as equal members of whatever society they inhabit. The new anti-Semitism involves the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations, with Israel as the targeted “collective Jew among the nations.”’

From the outset, this notion was disputed, contested and criticised, but also found support among many, including individual academics, some antisemitism monitoring and research bodies and antisemitism research institutes (some of which were specifically created to develop research and analysis grounded in the ‘new antisemitism’ idea). But it brought most solace to Israel advocacy groups, Israel lobbying organizations and an Israel government that was now convinced of the usefulness of using antisemitism as a defensive shield against external criticism of its actions. As Neve Gordon writes: ‘The Israeli government needs the “new anti-Semitism” to justify its actions and to protect it from international and domestic condemnation. Anti-Semitism is effectively weaponised, not only to stifle speech . . . but also to suppress a politics of liberation.’ And although the demise of the EUMC working definition of antisemitism was a blow to those who had worked to develop it and promote it, the effort to promote the notion or theory of the ‘new antisemitism’ continued apace – and successfully.

However, one crucial consequence was to turn discussion and reasoned argument about the idea, which was just about still discernible in the first years of the twenty-first century, into an all-out verbal and rhetorical war over the nature of contemporary antisemitism. As I wrote in the Nation: It ‘diluted the allegation of antisemitism. To warrant the charge, it is sufficient for someone to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government to denial that Israel has the right to exist, without having to subscribe to any of the beliefs historians have traditionally regarded as constituting an anti-Semitic worldview. This is a fundamental redefinition of the term “anti-Semitism” for political purposes, one consequence of which is that if almost everything is antisemitic, then nothing is. The word is rendered useless.’ Or as Brian Klug puts it: ‘when anti-Semitism is everywhere, it is nowhere. And when every anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite, we no longer know how to recognize the real thing – the concept of anti-Semitism loses its significance’ . 

IHRA adoption of the working definition: a deeply suspect process, mired in confusion

The IHRA is not so international, not so exclusively focused on Holocaust remembrance and not at all above responding positively to political pressure. It began life in as the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research (ITF), which was created by the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust (SIF) in 2000. It was institutionalised permanently as the IHRA in 2012. Of its 31 member countries only 4 are not European. Two of the remaining 27 are not full members.

My understanding is that the AJC and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (SWC) in Los Angeles worked assiduously behind the scenes to get the ITF institutionalised, with the express idea of using it as a vehicle to revive international promotion of the EUMC working definition. Acting for the AJC, once again, was Rabbi Baker. Acting for the SWC was its director of government affairs, Mark Weizman, who, conveniently, also chaired the Antisemitism and Holocaust Committee of the IHRA. And it was through that committee that Weizman drove adoption by the IHRA of an amended version of the EUMC working definition. Some reports suggest that this was the work of two years of hard drafting. The Experts of the UK Delegation to the IHRA on the Working Definition of Antisemitism called the result ‘a clear “gold-standard” definition of what contemporary antisemitism consists of.’ Yet the IHRA text is so similar to the EUMC one as to be, on first glance, virtually indistinguishable – especially the actual 38-word definition which is indeed identical. Someone is not telling the truth here.

I’ve been informed that members of some country delegations felt that adoption of the working definition on 26 May 2016 was ‘railroaded through’. The head of one of the state delegations to the IHRA participating in the Plenary stated the following:

‘The discussions, as I remember them, were quite intense and lengthy, both in the couloirs and in the plenary hall, until a decisive step was taken by the presidency, on the demand by some member states. Namely, the original draft text was cut into two, and only the first two-sentence part was to be the working-definition to be adopted, while the other part, the examples, remained what they were: examples to serve as illustrations, to guide the IHRA in its work. From then on, the plenary was able to move quickly on, and the non-legally binding working definition was unanimously adopted. The relevant press release of 26 May 2016... states it very clearly... This is why I really do not quite understand the reason of the ongoing and apparently heated debate in the UK on adopting the definition (actually, rather, the illustrative examples) in full, without caveats nor amendments’ (emphases added).

As for what adoption meant: Only 6 of 31 governments whose countries are members of IHRA have  formally endorsed/adopted the definition, and it’s not clear whether they adopted the examples or not.

However, we do know that:

  • the UK Government adopted the definition but not the list of examples; 

  • the LSE adopted the IHRA definition but clarified that it ‘does not accept . . . all the examples’; 

  • the European Parliament adopted the definition without the examples in June 2017 

Deliberate obfuscation of what is and what is not the IHRA definition

Even in its first EUMC incarnation, promoters engaged in deliberate obfuscation as to what did or did not constitute the ‘working definition’. When accused of encouraging the chilling of free speech and endorsing the notion that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are one and the same – by including statements such as the ‘state of Israel is a racist endeavour’, ‘denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination’ and ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ as examples that could be antisemitic – protagonists would insist that the examples were not part of the definition and were a work in progress. But when Zionist and Israel-advocacy groups, and ‘new antisemitism’ theorists treated the entire text as the definition, very little was done to disabuse them of this error. So as with the EUMC version, the same process has applied to the IHRA text – only more so.

One of the differences between EUMC and IHRA is the way the definitions are set out. In the former, the 38-word working definition is distinguished from the rest of the text by being set in bold type. The same text in the IHRA definition is not only also in bold type, it’s enclosed in a box which contains the longer part of a prefatory sentence that begins outside the box: ‘On May 2106, the Plenary in Bucharest decided to: [in the box] Adopt the following non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism’. As we see from the Corbyn-Labour antisemitism affair, critics like John Mann MP, Louise Ellman MP, Dame Margaret Hodge, Gordon Brown, Chuka Umunna MP and more, aggressively demand that Labour adopt the entire text and often claim that it is indeed the entire text that is the working definition. And when they proclaim that definition has universal acceptance, they further imply that the examples are an integral part of what is universally accepted. But given that there is no evidence of ‘universal acceptance’, there can hardly be evidence that the examples are folded into that.

Moreover, the administration of the IHRA itself confirmed unequivocally that the definition and the examples were separate things. Its permanent office in Berlin issued the following statement on 12 September 2017: ‘The working definition, like all IHRA decisions, is non-legally binding. The working definition is the text in the box’. This statement makes a nonsense of the statement issued by Experts of the UK Delegation to the IHRA on 7 August 2018 that ‘Any “modified” version of the IHRA definition that does not include all of its 11 examples is no longer the IHRA definition.’. How were they induced to make this untrue statement? 

Analysis of the full text: deeply flawed and by definition, not a definition

The 38-word definition is vague and tells us very little. (See the text here.) It’s so obviously a linguistic mess, I find it hard to believe that its promoters have read it. If antisemitism is a ‘certain perception’, what is that perception? If it’s a ‘certain’ one, why not spell it out? We’re barely five words into the definition and instead of clarity we get opacity. This antisemitism ‘may be expressed as hatred towards Jews’, which means it also may not. So if it may not be expressed as hatred, how else might it be expressed? Shouldn’t we be told? If the next sentence is designed to do this, it’s surely incomplete and inadequate. ‘Rhetorical’ seems to imply that it’s just for effect, for show, to make an impression. Surely it’s an inappropriate word. Then to say that antisemitism is ‘directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals’, you might as well just say ‘everyone’, but that doesn’t seem to tell us anything of any use at all.

Four prominent and respected lawyers who have written opinions on the definition are also unimpressed. Hugh Tomlinson QC described it as ‘unclear and confusing’ and said it ‘should be used with caution’. In Sir Stephen Sedley’s view, it ‘fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite’. Sir Geoffrey Bindman wrote: ‘Unfortunately, the definition and the examples are poorly drafted [and] misleading’. And Geoffrey Robertson concluded: ‘It is imprecise, confusing and open to misinterpretation and even manipulation’.

At first glance, the sentence introducing the examples is reassuring, since it establishes their conditionality: they ‘could be’ manifestations of antisemitism, ‘taking into account the overall context’. Moreover, the list is not limited. 

However, if they ‘could be’ antisemitic, they also ‘could not’. But you could say that about any number of statements and sentiments. For example, why not include ‘support for the existence of the state of Israel’, since there have always been antisemitic advocates of Zionism. Yet, if we look at these examples in the light of the intentions of the drafters, we see sleight of hand at play. In the same way as we are not discouraged to see the entire text as the working definition, we are invited to entertain only one possibility – that ‘could be’ means ‘are’.

The whole idea of adding examples to a definition of antisemitism is suspect. If a definition needs clarification using such simplistically formulated examples, it’s not a definition worth its salt. Certainly, the recording, analysis and interpretation of incidents, events, social media posts, statements by politicians, news programmes – of human activity in short – that is suspected of being antisemitic needs to be done, but that is the work of experts and not pre-prepared crib cards. Sometimes that work might involve legal examination, sometimes the writing of political essays, sometimes extended historical research and so on.

When there was a general consensus about what constituted antisemitism, there was never a need for a handy list of examples.  

Legal dangers: chilling free speech and silencing Palestinian voices

Although the document categorically states that it is non-legally binding, the urge to make it so is very strong. In the US, where the equivalent of the IHRA working definition is the US state department definition – which, being partially based on the EUMC working definition, bears more than a passing resemblance to the IHRA text – a determined effort to give it legal force is underway at both state and federal level. The House judiciary committee has held hearings on the Antisemitism Awareness Act where witnesses presenting testimony have clashed with congressmen and with each other. At one of those hearings, the original author of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, who in recent years has become a prominent critic of how the definition is being applied, warned against making it legally-binding because he feared it would restrict freedom of speech.

Here in the UK, Dr Rebecca Gould, who has written the first thorough legal study of the adoption and implementation of the IHRA working definition, has argued  that it has come to function as what she calls a ‘quasi-law, in which capacity it exercises the de facto authority of the law, without having acquired legal legitimacy’. ‘Adoption’ of the IHRA document occurred in the form of a governmental press release, not through a process of democratic deliberation. Had the government sought ‘legal ratification of adoption within a regulatory regime that would formally sanction Israel critical speech’, this would have been a troubling development among scholars and activists concerned with safeguarding freedom of speech. This would surely have amounted to the establishment of an adjudicative standard, something Geoffrey Robertson refers to when he concludes that: ‘The IHRA definition of antisemitism is not fit for any purpose that seeks to use it as an adjudicative standard.’

All of the legal experts quoted above either referred directly or indirectly to the government’s obligation, and the obligation of all institutions, including universities and colleges, to abide by article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of speech. But, writes Robertson, ‘a particular problem with the IHRA definition is that it is likely in practice to chill free speech, by raising expectations of pro-Israeli groups that they can successfully object to legitimate criticism of their country and correspondingly arouse fears in NGOs and student bodies that they will have events banned or else have to incur considerable expense to protect themselves by legal action.

Article 10 ‘does not permit the prohibition or sanctioning of speech unless it can be seen as a direct or indirect call for or justification of violence, hatred or intolerance. The fact that speech is offensive to a particular group is not, of itself, a proper ground for prohibition or sanction. The IHRA Definition should not be adopted without careful additional guidance on these issues’, says Hugh Tomlinson. Geoffrey Bindman argues that the definition and examples ‘in practice have [already] led to the suppression of legitimate debate and freedom of expression.’

And Gould provides evidence that the IHRA definition played a role in successfully getting Israeli Apartheid Week events at Manchester University and the University of Central Lancashire re-titled and cancelled, and an ultimately unsuccessful role in a complaint of antisemitism against the author herself in connection with an article she had written. Sedley describes an event in 2013, when a replica of Israel’s separation wall was erected in the churchyard of St James, Piccadilly. The Spectator denounced it as an ‘anti-Israeli hate-festival’, ‘a description’, Sedley suggests, ‘now capable of coming within the IHRA’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism. In such ways the official adoption of the definition, while not a source of law, gives respectability and encouragement to forms of intolerance which are themselves contrary to law’.

Especially troubling is the impact NEC adoption of the full IHRA working definition and examples is very likely to have on Palestinian members of the Labour party and on Palestinian voices more widely. There is clear danger that adopting IHRA will further marginalise public discussion of the Palestinian experience of Zionism and the discriminatory policies of the Israeli state, and suppress Palestinian voices even more than they are now. This may not be a result of Palestinians in the party, or non-members invited to be on platforms at local meetings and conferences, directly contravening IHRA guidelines by claiming, for example, that Israel is a racist state – even though they should be fully entitled to describe their personal experiences of dispossession in this manner – but rather a result of self-censorship.

This problem is starkly highlighted in a statement from Palestinian unions, NGOs and movement organisations, calling on Labour to reject the ‘biased IHRA definition that stifles advocacy for Palestinian rights’, released on 28 August and published on openDemocracy. Its second paragraph reads as follows: ‘This non-legally binding definition attempts to erase Palestinian history, demonise solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality, suppress freedom of expression, and shield Israel’s far-right regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid from effective measures of accountability in accordance to international law.’ These words could easily have their authors condemned as antisemites according to the IHRA working definition.

No refuge

The IHRA working definition offers Jews no credible refuge from antisemitism. It deepens intra-Jewish conflict over Israel’s current trajectory and how to extend all the rights Jews have in Israel-Palestine to the Palestinians in what is now a de facto single state. It institutionalises the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, thereby further degrading both Jewish and public understanding of the nature of contemporary antisemitism. If Israel is the collective Jew among the nations, right-wing populist and Christian evangelical ‘love’ of Israel makes their underlying antisemitism something the self-proclaimed leader of the Jewish people, Bibi Netanyahu is happy to live with. 

The IHRA working definition offers no protection, just provocation. As Robert Cohen argues, it will alienate Jews from the very groups with which we should be working to combat racism.

If the Corbyn Labour party were not caught in this maelstrom, it would be able to calm the fears of Jewish members and Jews more generally by lancing the boil at the heart of this controversy: the festering sore of the Israel-Palestine conflict. With the two-state solution dead in the water, Labour’s policy on bringing peace with justice to Israelis and Palestinians is not fit for purpose. Start a managed but open debate in the party on how to achieve equal rights for all with no state paradigm-based preconditions and draw opposing voices into dialogue with each other – a dialogue they could not have if the IHRA working definition governed internal party discourse on Israel-Palestine. The answer to hate speech is more speech. Not suppression of offensive views. I can only see full NEC adoption of the entire, deeply flawed IHRA definition achieving the latter, not encouraging the former.


I have not been able to acknowledge in the text of my article all those whose work on this issue I have drawn on and greatly benefitted from. I encourage you to read them: David FeldmanNorman FinkelsteinJamie Stern-WeinerAli AbunimahDavid RosenbergJonathan RosenheadBarnaby Raine and others.

Antony Lerman is an Honorary Fellow at the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, Southampton University. He is also a member of the Black-Jewish Forum, a member of the Advisory Committee of the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum and a founding member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights and the Independent Jewish Voices steering group. He is the author of The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey (Pluto Press 2012). He tweets @tonylerman.

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Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s seven-week bombing campaign and ground invasion of Gaza in the summer of 2014, resulted in half a million displaced Gazans, tens of thousands of destroyed home...
The Returns of Zionism
In this original and wide-ranging study, Gabriel Piterberg examines theideology and literature behind the colonization of Palestine, from the latenineteenth century to the present. Exploring Zionis...
The Punishment of Gaza
Israel’s 2009 invasion of Gaza was an act of aggression that killed over a thousand Palestinians and devastated the infrastructure of an already impoverished enclave. The Punishment of Gaza shows h...
Blaming the Victims

Blaming the Victims

Since the 1948 war which drove them from their heartland, the Palestinian people have consistently been denied the most basic democratic rights. Blaming the Victims shows how the historical fate of...