Fighting Labour antisemitism must not come at the cost of Palestinian rights

Protesters gathered in front of the Israeli Embassy in central London, UK on 30 March 2018

JVL Introduction

Tony Lerman contributes yet another important analysis of the “antisemitism crisis” in his critical view of the EHRC report.

As he points out, the most intractable issue at the heart of the row over Labour’s antisemitism furore is the fundamental question “Where does legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism end, and antisemitic criticism of Israel and Zionism begin?”’

It is a problem that the report simply fails to acknowledge.

Instead, its insistence that Labour deal almost single-mindedly with a perceived antisemitism problem is bound to further marginalise efforts to tackle other forms of racism and prejudice in the party.

And it is Palestinians, among others, who will pay the price.


This article was originally published by +972 Magazine on Thu 26 Nov 2020. Read the original here.

Fighting Labour antisemitism must not come at the cost of Palestinian rights

A major report highlights the need to address antisemitism in the Labour Party, but ignores how Palestinians could pay the price for its broad definition.

In a report published on Oct. 29, Britain’s official rights watchdog delivered what many described as a “damning” judgment on the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism in its ranks. The report’s release was the latest development in a saga that plagued Labour throughout the five-year leadership tenure of Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran anti-racist campaigner and staunch supporter of Palestinian rights.

The report, the culmination of a 17-month-long investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, concluded that there was a “culture in the Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”

The EHRC found the party responsible for “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination” against Jewish members and laid the blame right at the top, citing “serious failures in leadership” which the Commission found “hard to reconcile with [the Party’s] stated commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism.” Nonetheless, the report did not hold Corbyn, who was widely vilified for four years as an antisemite, personally responsible for the “unlawful acts.”

This severe judgment was widely anticipated. The party, under its new leader Keir Starmer, received the draft report in August; upon its publication, Starmer announced that the party “accepts this report in full… without qualification” and that all its recommendations would be implemented.

Starmer had already spelled out this position months earlier to establishment Jewish organizations and the party’s Jewish affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement. He therefore likely felt confident that this would draw a line under the affair, and that he could proceed with his aim of uniting the party and bringing it back to the center ground of social democratic politics.

An intractable question

Lost amid this fast-moving saga, however, was a critical appraisal of the EHRC’s findings.

Repetitive, bureaucratic, and overly fixated on process and procedure, the report places enormous weight on the only two instances of actionable unlawful behavior by the party, and is more significant for what it does not, rather than does say. Notably, the report does not conclude that the party is institutionally antisemitic, even as those who welcomed the findings drew that conclusion.

More problematic is the EHRC’s failure to define its understanding of antisemitism on which the report’s judgments are based — even as it criticizes Labour for having a rule book that “does not provide any guidance on the meaning of antisemitism.”

For example, the report stresses that there is no protection for “antisemitic criticism” of Israel, but fails to define what that, or “legitimate criticism,” consists of.

Moreover, the EHRC admits that it “may have [had] regard to” the non-legally binding, though hugely controversial, IHRA working definition of antisemitism. But why be so coy about it when the party itself, after intensive internal wrangling, adopted the definition in full?

What the EHRC’s hedging over a definition of antisemitism reveals is that the most intractable issue at the heart of the Labour antisemitism furor is the fundamental question most often posed as: “Where does legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism end, and antisemitic criticism of Israel and Zionism begin?”

There is clear evidence of Labour members trading in classic antisemitic tropes relating to bankers, Holocaust denial, blood libel, and others. Yet it is the suppression of open discourse around Israel-Palestine — whether it is a Palestinian narrating the simple truth of their own family’s experience of ethnic cleansing, accusations that Israel is an apartheid state, BDS advocacy, arguments that Zionism is a form of racism, and so on — that fans the flames of the antisemitism story. The report completely fails to acknowledge this.

Palestinians sidelined

Some observers are arguing that the value of the EHRC report lies in its highlighting of the need to fight endemic racism in the Labour Party. Indeed, the report has brought to the surface the persistence of emblematic anti-Jewish racism that has resulted in contraventions of the very anti-discrimination law on which the party has led.

Labour certainly has work to do to improve its handling of allegations of racism. Some of us, aware of the Party’s dysfunction, have been saying this for several years.

But the huge resources that the EHRC is demanding Labour expend on confronting the antisemitism problem, and the insistence on getting a clear definition of antisemitism into the rule book — which is almost certain to be the IHRA definition — is bound to further marginalize efforts to tackle other forms of racism and prejudice in the party. And since chilling free speech on the harsh truths of the Palestinian story is one of the main consequences of the “working definition,” can it be anyone else but the Palestinians who will suffer most from this?

In September, a group of British Palestinians sought to publish an open letter to the Labour Party in one of the party’s periodicals. The letter expressed the authors’ concern that the IHRA working definition poses a “severe threat” to the “space to publicly bring the facts of the Palestinian people’s history and ongoing dispossession into the public domain.” Not one Labour organ was ready to publish it, according to a senior Palestinian source who wished to remain anonymous.

Moreover, Labour’s new General Secretary David Evans wrote to local Labour Parties proscribing any debate or discussion about the definition, even as his letter asserted that “[r]espect for Palestinian rights is not incompatible with the struggle against racism and antisemitism; in fact, it is integral to that struggle.” Palestinian party members and supporters have also sought a meeting with Starmer ever since he became leader; so far, without success, according to the source.

Meanwhile, following Starmer’s decision to suspend Corbyn as a Labour MP, the party has once again been plunged into crisis and is on the verge of full-blown factional war.

In this febrile atmosphere, it is hard to see how implementation of the EHRC report will not contribute, even inadvertently, to toxifying solidarity with Palestinians and legitimizing Jewish exceptionalism. This would be a strange way of having a positive effect on the future of anti-racist politics in the UK.

Antony Lerman is a senior visiting fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue Vienna, and the former Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) in London. He is the author of “The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey” (Pluto Books 2012).

Comments (8)

  • Linda says:

    One of the most frightening things to me is the ease with which “not on message” questions and views can be censored and never heard by the public at large.

    Tiny media sources (eg “Skwarkbox” and “The Canary”) often cover – both bravely and extremely well, given their limited resources – news that is either “disregarded” or biased in presentation by the national media. However, these tiny organisations are far too small to reach most of the UK audience and have to rely on donations for growth.

    Of the national “print” media, the only newspapers likely to educate as well as inform are the “Guardian” and “Independent” (sometimes the “Mirror” and – oddly enough – the “Mail” and “Express” on specific topics).

    My experience with the “Guardian” is sadly there now seems to be active BTL censorship of any “off message” posts.

    It appears to be “off message” to ask whether Starmer and Evans’ procedurally invalid, authoritarian behaviour towards the CLPs, members and Corbyn is driving divisions within the party to the extent both will have to “about-face” very rapidly to save the leadership and the party.

    (I don’t want another leadership contest – so I want to avoid the necessity for one)

    It appears to be “off message” to suggest a pause until the Forde Inquiry has reported in any more action against Corbyn, his supporters, party members, CLPs etc would be sensible.

    (This shouldn’t be a controversial view – faced with the choice of going through two destabilising upheavals or only one, most party managers would prefer teh second choice)

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    In not addressing the report’s massive legal inadequacies, Tony Lerman ends up being far kinder to the report – and its EHRC authors – than it deserves. It isnt particularly ‘repetitive’ as Tony says – it examines a range of overlapping issues, and from different angles, so some repetition is inevitable, and anyway, hardly important. I fail to see how it is ‘bureaucratic’, and as it is supposed to be establishing whether the Labour Party as an institution is responsible for acts of some of its members, including its relationship with those members, and how it dealt with allegations against them, it certainly ought to be ‘fixated on process and procedure’. It’s just a pity that fixation didnt extend to being prepared to review the ‘leaked’ internal Labour report which showed at whose door Labour’s very definite failures of process and procedure should be laid.

    And thank goodness ‘the report places enormous weight on the only two instances of actionable unlawful behaviour by the party’ – after all, it’s actionable unlawful behaviour which the EHRC has the power to investigate, NOT the myriad of moralising and implicit political judgment-making with which it fills many of its pages. What’s wrong with the report’s treatment of ‘actionable unlawful behaviour’ is not the time, effort or ‘weight’ placed on it, but the quality of legal reasoning that enables the EHRC to conclude the behaviour is actionable!

    Like Tony, I am very pleased the EHRC doesnt say the Party is institutionally antisemitic, but for me, it’s not just because I am sure it was not borne out by the evidence. It is also because the EHRC should not be making judgments outside the law, and the expression ‘institutionally antisemitic’ is completely unknown to British law. In its two parts, that is. ‘Institutional’ anything is a non-legal concept, while as for ‘antisemitism’, well, it would have been pleasing to have read a report where the EHRC stuck to the concepts of ‘direct’ and ‘indirect discrimination’ and ‘harassment’, the three forms of behaviour which the Equality Act both defines and outlaws, rather than a report chiefly concerned with the concept of ‘antisemitism’, whose lack of approved definition, either among lawyers or the rest of society, it completely ducks. In fact, while it castigates the previous Labour leadership for failing to lead in dealing with antisemitism (while simultaneously excoriating that same leadership for interference in the investigations of antisemitism allegations), it’s own collective instinct for self preservation means that nowhere does it say what it – the EHRC – thinks antisemitism is.

    Significantly, even though its ludicrous terms of reference for the investigation, gave the EHRC the power to consider the (completely legally irrelevant) IHRA definition and examples, when it came to writing the report, it became clear that the EHRC was too cowardly to engage in any kind of discussion about the IHRA document at all. Or perhaps its lawyers finally took a proper look at the mess that is the IHRA Document and had the competence to agree not to go there.

    Legally – in its application of legal concepts like ‘agency’ and ‘harassment’ and ‘indirect discrimination’; in its straying off into completely non-law based territory; and in its evidential thinness (to put it very charitably) – the EHRC Report is a mess. The people who produced it have done British Jews no favour – and, by the way, have dishonoured a generation of left and liberal Jewish lawyers who, in the 1960s and 70s, dominated legal debate about how to deal with rampant race and sex discrimination, and put so much effort into building the anti-discrimination laws of which we ought to be proud.

  • Ian Hickinbottom says:

    Criticism of the actions of the Israeli state must never be accepted as anti semitic rhetoric, in the same way that criticism of the actions of other states is racist or religious phobia, (criticising Saudi Arabia is not Islamophobia, criticising Myan Mar is not anti-Buddism). To conflate legitimate political criticism with racism is to cover up the actions, often illegal in international law, of that state.
    Succesive Israeli governments have continually treated the UN and its resolutions with contempt and disdain. In the same way that Western governments are criticising China for its treatment of the Urghir(?) peoples, and many more instances of oppression by states across the world, then the Israeli government must be held to account for its acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing to the Palestinian population since 1948.

  • Chris Khamis says:

    Excellent article but perhaps a little too pessimistic. If an independent body for complaints is set up, it will have to satisfy British law including the Human Rights Act and Article 10. So more decisions will be challengeable through the courts. Many of the travesties of Labour’s disciplinary process would not be repeatable. And how can they enshrine the IHRA definition, including its examples, in law? A definition that a leading QC, Stephen Sedley if I remember right, described as failing at the first hurdle as it is an indefinite definition.
    But then the Tories might repeal the Human Rights Act…

  • Pam Bromley says:

    No socialist could support anti-Semitism. I suggest the tropes were planted by hostile forces and repeated by socialists who were unfamiliar with them and saw them as anti capitalist. Had they been in common circulation before the witch hunt we would all know about them. The only way to combat this is to discuss the subject.

  • Patrick Lonergan says:

    Thankyou for eloquently putting the case for the voices of Palestinians to be heard and for the highlighting the debate is being sidelined.
    As a Labour Party member , I feel totally silenced at the moment and yet there is an almost daily barrage from the leadership on what we can and cannot say including the JLM conference this weekend. I understand Angela Rayner has now come out supporting the Starmer and Evan line stating ‘there is no debating the EHRC report, no debating whether antisemitism in Labour exists.
    What will be silenced on next ?

  • Margaret West says:

    This whole thing is beyond belief – after Corbyn became leader there was a realisation by him and others that there was an AS problem and the way it was dealt with. It is evident that the problem did not start with Corbyn – for many of the complaints went back years – so where was the leadership during those year(s) of apparent inaction?

    Corbyn duly apologised and made efforts to improve matters via the Chakrabarti report although he faced opposition to its complete acceptance. In fact the EHRC report stated that things improved during his leadership – as did a previous report. So what year was regarded as the initial year viz when antisemitism increased and tackling it became inadequate? Further – why were there no complaints at the time?

    Getting back to proposed reforms of Labour disciplinary processes – I was astounded to read from LabourLIst the following:
    “Keir Starmer has suggested that the party should “look again” at the rule that would usually ban anyone who stood against official Labour candidates in the last general election from rejoining for five years.”

    I think this is outrageous when there are LP members still under “formal investigation” and now presumably “in Limbo”. This applies particularly to the group of (mainly elderly) Jewish members who featured in a recent JVL report and who appear to have been targeted. Many members have waited a long time to be heard and I hope that Starmer’s suggestion is summarily dismissed. Further, I hope that the new Independent Disciplinary panel convenes ASAP – and quickly dismisses charges against targeted members without further delay.

    And meanwhile there is the Forde Inquiry ..

  • Stephen Richards says:

    “Until the philosophy that hold one race superior & another inferior, is finally discredited & abandoned, everywhere is war”‘ Will Keir Starmer continue to take instruction from BoD until the slaughter in Palestine provides -the Final Solution’? Ephraim Mirvis, in his recent AIPAC address gives you a clue…..the EHRC is just another agency.

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