Educating Labour – a serious approach to antisemitism: No 3

JVL introduction

This is the third in a planned series of commentaries based on the many comments the JVL Education Group has received about the Jewish Labour Movement’s online Antisemitism Awareness Education sessions. We offer the commentaries as further contributions to the discussion about how best to understand antisemitism in order to challenge and resist it.

The contribution below briefly unpacks the meaning of some crucial terms.

No 3: Judaism, Zionism, Israel

The JLM’s presentations barely mentioned the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ‘working definition’ of antisemitism. The advantage for them, perhaps, was not having to remind people of the deeply divisive role their advocacy of it has played within Labour over recent years. They also ignored entirely the far better written and much less problematic Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA).

One consequence of taking the IHRA working definition as read, is that crucial terms like ‘Israel’, ‘Zionism’ and ‘Judaism’ were treated as if their meanings were self-evident, well understood by participants, whereas in fact they require unpacking. This is because, while each of these terms has a distinct (and often contested) meaning, they have been conflated in such a way that criticism or condemnation of any one of may be interpreted as prejudice against Jews.

A useful education programme would need to take into account the following:

Judaism

Being Jewish refers to the historical and social heritage individuals inherit through their families and upbringing. For many, adherence to one or another version of the religion of Judaism is central. For very many, it is not and a secular Jewishness is widespread, though it is rarely represented by Jewish communal bodies like the Board of Deputies. The range of political opinions and ideologies held by Jews is extremely wide-ranging – none of which changes the fact that a person was born (or has become) Jewish. To condemn or rebuke a person or community on account of their being Jewish is to be antisemitic. This is a position we share with the JLM.

Zionism is a political movement

Zionism was one of a number of political movements formed by Ashkenazi (mainly white European) Jews in the 19th century. Another was the socialist, non-Zionist Bund, which advocated Jewish autonomy in the countries of eastern Europe where large numbers of Jews lived. Until the Holocaust, Bundism was far more popular among Jews than was Zionism – a nationalist movement advocating a “Jewish homeland” in which Jews would predominate. Palestine became its chosen location because of the biblical connection between Jews and the Holy Land. It is not antisemitic to criticise or condemn the values and ideology of the Zionist movement since these are not intrinsic qualities of Jewish people.  Not all Jews are Zionists and indeed, not all Zionists are Jews – there are around 20 million Evangelical Christian Zionists in the USA alone. Open discussion about this should be fundamental to learning about antisemitism but is absent from the JLM training.

Criticising Israel

Israel is the country founded on the basis of the ideology of Zionism.  Many Jewish people, Israeli Jews amongst them, are strongly critical of the Israeli state because of its discriminatory values, epitomised in The Nation-State law of 2018 which asserts that “the right to exercise national self-determination” is “unique to the Jewish people.”

JLM advises “being specific with your language: talk about the Israel government, don’t generalise or talk about Zionists or Jews”.  This is fine as far as it goes. But who is to decide what limits, if any, apply to Palestinians wanting to talk about their lack of rights? Are they not permitted to talk about the Zionist movement and the establishment of a “Jewish state” which led to their dispossession? Is B’Tselem, Israel’s premier human-rights organisation, to be condemned as antisemitic for producing a report called This is Apartheid, describing the Israeli regime – not a particular Israeli government –as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea”?

These questions must be open to debate, in an educational setting as in wider political discourse.

JLM’s position, far from assisting people in understanding these subjects, leaves them fearful of even suggesting they should be explored.

Comments (12)

  • Derek Taylor says:

    Thank you for this straight forward commentary. I’ve become more and more frustrated since the IHRA presented their definition of antisemitism, as I’ve found people I previously respected have lazily adopted this, rather than continuing to separate Jews, Zionists and Israelis when talking about what Palestinians call The Nakba.
    I have to remind many who are critical of ‘the Israelis’ of those brave young people – the sarvanim – who risk jail and in some cases family disgrace, by choosing to reject joining the IDF because of the policies of the Israeli government.
    Likewise I have to dispute the label of traitor given these fine youngsters by those who blindly support current Israeli policies of dealing with the occupied territories. However I more than many, need to constantly watch my words when describing events in and around Israel and remind myself of the difference between these terms as I’m tempted to link (for instance) the historical success of Likud in power as a sign that Israelis agree with extreme policies. I must remind myself that ‘not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists are Jews’.

  • Again I feel the need to be critical of the approach taken by JVL on the lies perpetrated by such propaganda outlets as JLM, Board of Deputies, Jewish Chronicle ect. These institutions have one purpose only, to damage socialism. They have NO interest in any form of racial or religious bias therefore to attempt to disprove their lies is a waste of your time!! Why does JVL persist in trying to play their game?? So much of JVL, whom I support, is taken up with trying to seriously engage in discussion with their fantastical allegations. I have to ask, would JVL be so foolish as to attempt to disprove the lurid accusations dealt out by the Sun or the Mail or the Telegraph? I would hope not! So why, if JVL does not dignify these dreadful journals with a response, does it feel the need to dignify such others as the BOD with any analysis or discussion whatsoever?
    This is a serious question. I would like editors at JVL to consider it and wonder if, in their attempt to disprove the allegations of DOB and JLM they have perhaps “given ammunition to the enemy” as Jeremy did in his attempts to negotiate with that same enemy??

  • George Wilmers says:

    I have some sympathy with Jay Henderson’s comment above, though I disagree with his conclusion. It does seem to me that JVL are in danger of making a category error by appearing to treat Zionist front organisations as entities whose leaders are amenable to rational discourse, even though the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this is not the case. The historical record suggests that the sole purpose of JLM in its current incarnation is the manipulation of opinion by any means possible in order to maintain the British public’s ideological consent to Israel’s continuing apartheid project, a purpose which fits neatly with the desire of the UK’s elite to crush both the left and any possible challenge to the UK’s criminal foreign policy. This is surely the purpose of the hysterical campaign concerning the supposed flood of “antisemites” in the Labour Party. If the leaders of these pro-Israel organisations were genuinely concerned about real antisemitism in the Labour Party, they would surely consider how their own vicious campaigns of defamation and vilification of innocent LP members who support the Palestinian cause would be likely to generate real antisemitism.

    The truth is that Zionist organisations and their opportunist supporters in the LP are terrified of rational discourse with their opponents, because nothing except a truly fanatic ethnonationalist belief system can justify the present apartheid reality. That is why none of them ever engage with JVL’s arguments. They try to ignore JVL or, if that fails, to pretend we are a tiny bunch of cranks, self-haters, or any other insulting epithets that are at hand. On JVL’s website there are frequent links to articles on the Jewish Chronicle website, but please let me know if you ever find a link to the JVL website from the JC, the JLM, or for that matter the Guardian website. They know they have lost the argument, so their currency is insults, defamation, threats, but NEVER rational discourse.

    However Jay makes an error above in comparing JVL’s reasoned arguments to Corbyn’s attempts to negotiate with Zionist organisations. It is quite correct to say the Corbyn made a fundamental error in attempting to negotiate with people who only wanted to destroy him; but negotiating is a very different activity from rational argument, and indeed the main problem with Corbyn and his entourage was that they failed to stand their ground intellectually and vigorously defend matters of fundamental principle where they had the strongest arguments.

    Rather than engaging in a monologue with an interlocutor who is absent, I think a better strategy for JVL would be to issue an open invitation to the JLM or the BOD to debate, in a sequential published exchange of letters in an agreed format and publication, a topic such as the appropriateness of the IHRA definition, or the relationship between political Zionism and Judaism. Of course the challenge would be likely to be refused, but the fact of its rejection could then advantageously be widely publicised on social media. The offer could then be made to other prominent Zionist ideologues: eventually one might be found with sufficient self-confidence, independence, or sheer hubris to agree. The resulting exchange of correspondence might then achieve wider publicity beyond the usual confines of left online media, and this could only be to our advantage.

    • Mike Cushman says:

      WE have frequently offered to debate with JLM but they refuse and try to get us disinvited by the groups proposing such a debate – it’s their version of ‘cancel culture’

  • patrick lonergan says:

    Thank you for unpacking this. I attended a session. I am non Jewish . I found the format did not lend itself to to discussion and therefore there was not an opportunity to clarify some of the points raised in the article about Zionism and the controversial role of the Israel today .

  • George Wilmers says:

    I accept the good point which Mike makes in reply to my comment above, but the argument that zionist organisations such as JLM eschew any rational engagement with JVL does not rule out public rational engagement, whether verbal or written, between individuals on opposing sides of the zionist/antizionist divide. It is this kind of debate, already taking place in the USA, sometimes in written form, which I believe JVL should be seeking to act as a catalyst in fostering, even if it needs to be done surreptitiously so that JVL does not appear as an official sponsor or participant. A couple of years ago I read a piece on the blog of a locally influential UK zionist student condemning “cancel culture” in the form of students at his university trying to prevent the Israeli ambassador from speaking, and stating that he personally was prepared to debate respectfully with anyone and that that was a part of Jewish tradition. (I paraphrase from memory). Such offers should in my opinion be taken up.

    Much as political zionist leaders would like to have totalitarian control over adherents of zionism, their flocks are increasingly fraying at the edges as zionist ideology confronts reality. Most people in the UK who accept official apologetics for the apartheid state do so either out of ignorance or opportunism, or, if they are Jewish, out of communal pressure based on an apocalyptic fear exploited and fostered by zionist ideologues. Of course true fanatics exist, both religious and quasi-secular, but they are a minority amongst the UK Jewish population. Outside of Israel political zionist ideology is collapsing not because it has changed in any essential way, but because its settler colonial and ethnosupremacist nature is now completely transparent and in contradiction even with officially accepted liberal values of our epoch. The fact that this collapse can be papered over only by increasingly frantic attempts at censorship of debate indicates the impending demise of the ideology.

  • Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi says:

    Jay Henderson and one or two others query JVL’s approach to the JLM, BoD, etc, suggesting we might be “giving ammunition to the enemy” while “wasting our time attempting to disprove their lies.”

    There’s little doubt that arguing the toss with the JLM is pointless. They have consistently refused to confront our arguments. Indeed, they refuse to appear in the same space with us and actively work to have us excluded and silenced.

    The point of contesting their narrative is not to defeat them in debate, but to arm ordinary party members who have been rendered confused, frightened and overwhelmed by the party’s handling of the antisemitism issue. Some members confidently rejected the JLM antisemitism training without seeing the need to sign up for the presentations. Thousands of others, however, have already or soon will, feel obliged, even coerced, into registering. This is an official, Labour Party programme which will be rolling around the country for months to come.

    For those who genuinely want Labour to be an antiracist party, it’s our duty to help people understand antisemitism in order to challenge and resist it.

  • Hazel Seidel says:

    I agree that the JLM training session left unanswered questions over what sort of discourse on Israel/Palestine is permissible within Labour. My understanding is that you can say anything you really need to so long as you do not make sweeping Nazi/Hitler comparisons, exaggerate the power of Israel in the world/promote conspiracy theory, suggest British politicians are ‘bought’ or ‘controlled by Israel, demand British Jews hold any particular position on Israel, or promote any solution involving the expulsion of Israeli Jews, or any solution not involving their consent. These seem to be the main reasons people have actually been expelled or disciplined.

    The IHRA definition states it is wrong to suggest ‘a’ state of Israel is necessarily racist, leaving it open that ‘the’ state of Israel may be deemed thus. I’d suggest that it is a bit pointless anyway to aim at Zionism as an ideology, and probably incorrect to suggest that racism, as opposed to national self-determination, is intrinsic to it, or at least to the motivations of those founding Israel, when freedom from antisemitic persecution was very fundamental. Even given the actual outcome was racist and led to the Nabka. In the real world, some Zionists need winning over, not least within Israel itself, and highlighting the very grave specific wrongs and injustices to Palestinians and indeed other ethnic minorities within Israel is more useful. But I am not sure anyone has actually been disciplined for critisising Zionism, though I may be wrong.

    Labour really needs to publish clear examples of what kinds of discourse are liable to attract disciplinary proceedings, this woukd clear up a great deal of confusion including the blanket statements ‘you can’t critisise Israel’ which are so common.

  • Linda says:

    How much of a threat to JVL’s ability to communicate with the wider Labour family is MP Coyle’s attempt to ban them? How much backing does he himself have?

  • DJ says:

    I think we can all agree on one thing. We will not be silenced on the legitimate struggle of the Palestinians against Israeli settler colonialism. We will continue to defend the right of free speech on Israel and oppose the anti Palestinian IHRA definition of antisemitism.

  • Dave says:

    With JLM we have to recognise that this was a supposedly Labour organisation that refused to campaign for a Labour government in 2019 because of an unprecedented smear campaign against the left. And it isn’t about antisemitism but the battle between left and right in the party. So I’m with Jay on this.

    Hazel Siedel’s comment is all about Israel. This is about the politics of a settler-colonialist power and again nothing to do with antisemitism. If it were we’d be posthumously expelling people such as Gerald Kaufman from Labour.

  • Shaun Pye says:

    I was offered a place on the Labour Party’s training event on antisemitism. I declined because I had recently taken part in a much more extensive course provided through FutureLearn. It was a six weeks course with a large number of sessions each week and was run by Yad Vashem. The course was, at times, very informative though there were, on occasions, what I considered to be significant omissions. The main presenter (I am careful to call him a presenter rather than a tutor because he was clearly reading a script rather than lecturing) was rather wooden.
    My overall impression was that a narrative was being created that characterised antisemitism as a kind of virus that was just there and flared into epidemics every now and then, rather than seeing it as a creature created by the powerful as an asset in maintaining their power. There was also a tendency to imply that Islam and Socialism were the major factors in the perpetuation of antisemitism. It seemed that a political narrative was being gently created.
    Lastly, the simplistic discussion of the formation of the state of Israel effectively excluded any consideration of whether its’ role should play a part in the debate.
    From what I have been told by people who took part in the Labour Party’s training event it didn’t even benefit from any of the plusses of that of Yad Vashem.
    Things that are as important as racial or religious bigotry deserve to be addressed with serious educational programmes. It is sad that we have not had the opportunity to do so in a Labour Party forum.

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