Defining Oppression

photo: supplied by the author

JVL Introduction

An article in New Socialist, Joanna Phillips argues that: “Antisemitism is too complex to be reduced to a static list of examples.

“The personal experiences of Jewish members,” she continues, “can be a grounding force for defining antisemitism, but they cannot be the definition of antisemitism. The left must formulate its own analysis of antisemitism from a left-wing perspective if it wishes to tackle it effectively, taking into account its history and contemporary manifestations.”

This article was originally published by New Socialist on Sun 1 Mar 2020. Read the original here.

Defining Oppression

“Let Jews, like every other minority group, define their own oppression,” wrote Jewish Labour Movement Chair Mike Katz in July 2018, at the height of the controversy over whether Labour should adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The idea that minorities should define their own oppression is a popular idea across some sections of the left, in what others consider a distortion of the Macpherson principle. The ways in which relationships between the Labour Party and sections of the Jewish community have unfolded illustrate the difficulties of this concept.

These difficulties were on prominent display at the Jewish Labour Movement Labour leadership contest hustings, chaired by Robert Peston. In a follow up question to Rebecca Long-Bailey, Peston asked if all the candidates would regard the statement “Israel, its policies, and the circumstances surrounding its creation are racist” as antisemitic. All answered yes.

I don’t think Rebecca Long-Bailey really believes that calling Israel’s policies racist is an act of antisemitism. I highly doubt any of the candidates believe that. The Labour Party’s 2019 Race and Faith Manifesto acknowledged the structural racism of the British economy against Black and Asian people. It would be absurd to suggest this same structural analysis could not be applied to the State of Israel, particularly given laws such as the 2018 Nation State Bill which promote the rights of Jews over non-Jews within the state. Even Israeli President Reuven Rivlin criticised the bill for permitting discrimination on racial and religious grounds.

In this case, why did Long-Bailey and the other candidates answer yes to Peston’s question? Primarily, they were seeking to avoid one of the chief criticisms levelled against the previous Labour leadership: that as non-Jews, they refused to allow Jews to define their own oppression.

When the Jewish Labour Movement says that Jews must define their own oppression, it is clear that they have limits in mind in terms of who they mean by Jews . Robert Peston is afforded the power to demand candidates accept his definition of antisemitism because he has been declared kosher by the Jewish Labour Movement, and so he is given a platform and a microphone. Yet when Jeremy Corbyn attended a Seder hosted by radical Jewish group Jewdas, other Jewish groups, including the Jewish Labour Movement, lost little time in declaring that these were not the Jews they had in mind.

The Jewish Labour Movement claims unparalleled legitimacy to represent Jewish people in the Labour party. There are compelling arguments for this claim. The Jewish Labour Movement is the only official Jewish affiliate to the Labour Party, one of its oldest affiliates and boasts 3,000 members. To become a member, however, requires signing up to their aims, including the promotion of Zionism and the centrality of Israel to British Jewish life. As a committed diasporist and anti-Zionist Jew, the Jewish Labour Movement is neither a group I can join nor a group which can claim to represent me. They also have not released data showing how many of their 3,000 members are actually Jewish. The Jewish Labour Movement deserves to be taken seriously as a major Jewish force within the Labour party, but not a hegemonic one.

The Jewish Labour Movement’s call to be the singularly recognised Jewish voice on Labour Party issues is in part a reaction to a tokenism which is widespread in some left-wing circles, where people will refuse to hear any critique that their actions may be antisemitic because some Jews agree with them. The Jewish community is famous for its internal schisms; it’s therefore not difficult to find a Jew who will agree with any opinion you espouse, up to and including Holocaust denial. Having fringe or even antisemitic opinions does not, however, disqualify Jews from being Jewish. The litmus test of whether something is antisemitic cannot be whether a singular Jew thinks it is.

The Jewish Labour Movement would argue that if a minority of fringe Jews think something is not antisemitic and the majority of Jews disagree, we should rule with the majority. The decision about who is allowed to claim to speak on behalf of this majority is fraught to say the least. Yet even if every Jew could somehow be polled on what constitutes Jew-hatred, to do so would diminish the severity of antisemitism. The catastrophic impact of antisemitism means it is an ideology that merits serious discussion and analysis, without being reduced down to a popular vote.

Another deeply uncomfortable truth is that Jewish groups alone cannot decide what constitutes antisemitism, because it is not just Jews who are affected by how it is defined. Discussions on antisemitism have become so entangled with questions around Zionism and criticism of Israel, as demonstrated in the Jewish Labour Movement hustings, that we cannot talk about defining antisemitism without considering the impact of this on the cause of Palestinian human rights. Certainly, the fight for Palestinian rights can only be strengthened by fighting antisemitism. Yet there have been numerous examples of events at British universities being shut down on the grounds of antisemitism purely for promoting the peaceful BDS movement. Several US states have outlawed any boycott of Israel, citing antisemitism. The way antisemitism is defined has real impacts for the Palestinian people.

Edward Said’s 1979 article Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims was prescient in its discussion of how Palestinians are erased from the conversation about the meaning of Zionism. Under the definition of antisemitism to which Rebecca Long-Bailey and the other candidates agreed, a Palestinian could be labelled antisemitic for stating the basic facts of their life: that they lost their home, their family members and their freedom of movement simply because they were a non-Jewish person living in the land of Israel. This cannot be a basis for anti-racist politics.

“This is a moral issue,” bellowed Peston during the hustings. The definition of antisemitism is moral, but it is also political. The way antisemitism is defined is ideological, and results in material consequences for Jews, Palestinians, and wider society. To pretend otherwise only obscures how power operates in these discussions.

Pictured: everybody at the hustings who understood what antisemitism is.

Antisemitism is too complex to be reduced to a static list of examples. If Labour wishes to become a Party truly robust enough to tackle the structural issue of antisemitism, every member will need to take part in a process which requires unlearning and painful conversations. Jewish voices undoubtedly should take centre stage in these discussions, as we are experts in antisemitism through experience. There has also been real harm to Jewish members which needs to be addressed and reckoned with.

The personal experiences of Jewish members can be a grounding force for defining antisemitism, but they cannot be the definition of antisemitism. The left must formulate its own analysis of antisemitism from a left-wing perspective if it wishes to tackle it effectively, taking into account its history and contemporary manifestations. This leaflet produced by the Labour Party could be a fantastic starting point for this more thorough analysis, as could the writings of Moishe Postone and the American group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Of course, antisemitism is not the only oppression which needs to be analysed by the left; Labour Party members still have a lot of learning and unlearning to do around anti-Black racism, transphobia, sexism, ableism, colonialism and a raft of other issues. The interconnected struggles against all types of oppression should be central to our movement.

After years of seeing antisemitism used as a political football, it feels odd to be calling for further politicisation of antisemitism. Yet the politicisation of antisemitism could be a positive thing. It would be an opportunity to fully integrate fighting hatred against Jews with the Labour Party’s mission to eradicate all forms of injustice, truly embedding the fight against antisemitism as a Labour value.


Comments (13)

  • Philip Ward says:

    The last three paragraphs are repeated. [Thanks – corrected JVL ed] I don’t think I agree with the approach of this article: it gives too much credence to the JLM and its views. Also, not only are many members of the JLM not Jews, quite a few are not members of the Labour Party either and it did not support the Party in the last election. They need to be disaffiliated from the LP.

    The argument given in the article, however, as it is based on numbers, does not get at the core of the problem. The corollary of the numbers argument is that if, hypothetically, all Jews were Zionists then we would have to support their definition.

    The argument about Palestine is stronger, but doesn’t deal with the first point. You could even say that the statement “the oppressed must define their down oppression” (note: most Jews are not oppressed) doesn’t hold water. Would someone be racist if they did not agree with Rastas’ allegiance to Haile Selassi?

    Oppression, prejudice and discrimination are objective facts, irrespective of how the people affected interpret them. In contradistinction to the Zionists’ argument that it is racist to challenge them for their political views (and presumably, therefore, hurt their feelings) there are also many examples of people suffering racist abuse and attacks and deciding not to interpret them as such. That does not make such actions any less racist.

  • RH says:

    “Let Jews, like every other minority group, define their own oppression,”

    Of course – the statement contains its own absurdity – its internal self-refutation. No-one with any grasp of reasoning could fail to note the fact.

    Think Israelis; think Palestinians. Think Serbs; think Croats. Think ….

    Then say it with a straight face.

  • Tony says:

    It was interesting to hear Andrew Neil talk about ‘anti-Semitic’ tweets in relation to replies to RLB.
    But one was about Israel and the other about Mossad.
    People should not say things unless thay can back them up with evidence but criticising Mossad is hardly evidence of anti-Semitism.
    Attacking the CIA or MI6 does not mean that you hate American or British people.
    On another subject, David Baddiel has never been my favourite comedian. I can think of better and worse ones. I thought, however, that his programme about Holocaust Denial was very good. For what it is worth, I do recommend it. Perhaps he ought to make more documentaries.

  • Gerry Glyde says:

    The author gave passing reference to the Macpherson principle as if was a mere secondary issue. It is primary. A minority group may believe something is discriminatory against them, but it is up to society as a whole through democratic systems ( as far as is possible), through the law to make a determination as to whether an act was actually wrongful as opposed to someone just being upset or annoyed by it. There is no right not to be offended

  • RH says:

    In relation to Tony’s comment about Baddiel’s documentary :

    In my experience, Holocaust denial is a wild fringe activity. Obviously, it needs refutation when and where it occurs, but it is hardly a common mainstream belief.

    Nakba denial, on the other hand, seems to have been adopted as a central plank of policy/ideology in many contexts – not least that of the Labour Party.

    The contrast illustrates the historical distortions that have become commonplace through the operation of the hasbara initiative. The researches of the Glasgow Media Group shows vividly how embedded is the distortion in the public conciousness.

  • RC says:

    Phillips makes no attempt whatsoever to define, or even describe, oppression. She assumes in passing, and giving no reason, that the existence of an antisemitic belief (on the part of how many people? put into what sort of action? or none?) automatically constitutes Jews as an oppressed people. This is completely ridiculous; social life is full of prejudices. Why does Phillips not offer any evidence of objective material, social, political or economic inequality from which British Jews suffer?

  • Alasdair MacVarish says:

    quite frankly many Labour Party members are getting thoroughly pissed off with the anti-semitism issue being raised at every opportunity.

  • Amanda Sebestyen says:

    In my local constituency party we have two longstanding members who survived the Holocaust as children, and one at least who came over on the Kindertransport (as did Leslie Brent of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, who preferred the LibDems but shared with me his horror at the antisemitic slurs being aimed at the Labour party). THESE are the Jewish members who have been injured and whose voices have been ignored. I’ve never met Joanna Phillips and agree with her contention that we need a definition of anti-racism which is objective and structural, a view shared by organisations such as the Institute of Race Relations and The Monitoring Group, which I deeply respect . However I hotly oppose her contention that ‘real harm has been done to Jewish members’, unless she means to those of us who have been continually traduced as antisemitism-deniers and antisemitism-‘relativisers’. Or perhaps she means that the JLM, JLC, CAA, CST, BoD and the various self-appointed cliques claiming Jewish community leadership have by their recent actions immeasurably increased the amount of antisemitism in the UK? There, I would agree with her and it is more evident every day.

  • For me the central question is this: “can violent racism ever be justified even when the objective is desirable ?” Can the ends justify the immoral means ?
    I say a resounding NO ! No member of the Labour Party or any decent human being should ever defend or excuse ethnic cleansing.
    Even Labour Friends of Israel accepts that Israel only has a Jewish majority because of ethnic cleansing of 1948. The fact of that Ethnic Cleansing is no longer disputed by any serious historian it is documented by Professor Pappe and not even Benny Morris disputes the historical facts.
    “Israel’s Right to Exist” means an Israel with a Jewish majority achieved by Ethnic cleansing.
    And why do European Jews have a “Right of Self Determination” denied to the Roma ? Their ancestors never even visited Palestine let alone lived there and very many of them don’t believe in the God who gave Palestine to the Jews. This “Right of Self Determination” sounds much more like Settler Colonialism to me and what Labour Party member should defend Colonialism ?
    And if Jews need a permanent place of safety wouldn’t it have been more equitable to have made it in Munich rather than Tel Aviv ?

  • Marge Berer says:

    It’s always wonderful when someone writes something that I would have liked to write myself. Thank you, Joanna Phillips! I would like to add three things. Firstly, the situation of Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and the Palestinian diaspora is, above all, an issue of denial of citizenship rights, with all other human rights being denied arising from that. This was stressed at the last Edward Said Memorial Lecture on 2 May 2019 at the Mosaic Rooms, especially by Hassan Jabareen, a lawyer and the founder and General Director of Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (
    Secondly, I want to ask why anyone in the Labour Party has accepted the validity of participating in a “Jewish hustings” as part of the process of standing for election. Surely, “religion” and political process should never be mixed together in this way, no matter what the religion. Thirdly, I would like to ask whether members of the Jewish Labour Movement have to be members of the Labour Party, let alone Jewish, and whether they supported Labour in the last election.

  • JanP says:

    I’ve just had a quick look at Labours Race and Faith Manifesto and I was disappointed. I think it is too general to define anything and it incorrectly conflates race and faith. Not everyone of the same race has the same faith and vice versa. Worse – in a socialist party especially – it leaves out belief; as most Holocaust commemorations also do. For example, many people were persecuted in the Holocaust for being socialists or communists. I feel this is a flavour of what is going on in the party now – members are being denigrated because of their socialist beliefs. Even the British government definition includes belief (for the moment). Labour should have two manifestos – one for Race and one for Faith and Belief. I think that would also help to clarify thinking around these issues.

  • Tom says:

    There is some worthwhile analysis in this article, but also much woolly thinking. For a far better analysis of the issues, including the use of antisemitism claims for political gain, I would direct readers to the many excellent articles by the journalist Jonathan Cook (see his blog site at and the article by the American journalist and academic, Peter Beinart, “Debunking the myth that anti-Zionism is antisemitism” at
    The author’s statement,
    “The Jewish community is famous for its internal schisms; it’s therefore not difficult to find a Jew who will agree with any opinion you espouse, up to and including Holocaust denial.”
    is an absurdity and a slur on people within the Jewish community who do not accept the views of the majority.
    I do not see the need for profound thinking about the meaning of antisemitism, in the Labour Party or elsewhere. Antisemitism is nothing else than a form of racism directed at Jews and does not require specific definition or analysis: any attempt to do so is mere exceptionalism. I do, however, see an urgent need to fight all forms of racism, including the structural racism which is evident in the state of Israel.

  • RC says:

    Is it not slightly embarrassing that our slogan “always with the oppressed, never with the oppressor” has not, in this thread at least, offered any definition of oppression: social, economic, political or indeed cultural, particularly in respect of Jewish communities? Is it not ridiculous that the so-called JLM has not offered any evidence of oppression of ‘the (allegedly unitary and monolithic) Jewish community’ in those regards? Yet that is the implicit basis of its outrageous claim that the BoD/so-called JLM should own the exclusive right to define antisemitism – a claim so outrageous and totalitarian that even Professor Geoffrey Alderman – no weak-hearted liberal – has been sacked from his column in the Jewish Chronicle for querying the IHRA definition (and no doubt for his objective study of the politics of Jewish communities in Britain and in the East End in particular). It took the US Army to stand up to McCarthyism in the 1950s; but there is good news from Ian Austin of all people: in today’s Mail Online he lets us know that 78% of Labour Party members sampled have not been taken in by the antisemitism smears against our party. Let us reinforce this big majority by education and discussion; the purge-mongers are very few, and we are many. Any natural justice and transparency in the disciplinary procedures – and in the reporting of their substance – will see their case crumble.

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