Labour’s “No Place for Antisemitism” – a constructive critique

This article by Richard Kuper was published in Chartist in November 2019 under the title “Getting to grips with antisemitism”..

While welcoming Labour’s statement No Place for Antisemitism it identifies some of the gaps and shortcomings within it. It stresses the urgency of developing what the statement says is needed: “a programme to educate our members and empower them to confront oppression.”

In August 2019 the Labour Party published a web page called No Place for Antisemitism. It contains what is a downloadable 1000-word leaflet and three links:  to an article by Jeremy Corbyn published in the Evening Standard; to the IHRA definition of antisemitism; and to an introductory short course run by Birkbeck University.

The statement begins: “Antisemitism has no place in our Party. Hatred towards Jewish people has no place in our society.”

And it explains:

This page aims to provide Labour members and supporters with some basic tools to understand antisemitism so that we can defeat it.

Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) immediately responded to it with “A cautious welcome” because it:

  • recognises the need for open discussion in order to confront bigotry, and specifically antisemitism;
  • explicitly states that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, and nor is advocacy of a single democratic state with equal rights for all;
  • sets the stage for an open discussion about Israel-Palestine in which the legitimacy of critical positions is not ruled out in advance; and
  • states that over the coming months, the party will produce educational materials on a number of specific forms of racism and bigotry, starting with this one on antisemitism.

But we also stressed that there were elements in the message we disagreed with, in particular its discussion of “many key historical issues: Zionism, the Nakba, Britain’s historical role, settler colonialism and more”. We further stressed that “we do not see any justification for the privileging of one ethnic group within the state of Israel at the expense of others”.

And we endorsed Clive Lewis who had recently written: “Expulsions alone will not solve Labour’s antisemitism crisis. Political education about antisemitism can help to ensure a socialist politics based on real equality becomes the common sense across the party”.

In our approach we start from the fact that “antisemitism is a form of racism”. It has its own forms of specificities, certainly (as do all forms of racism), but it is important not to elevate it above all other forms of bigotry. It needs to be set, rather,  in the context of equalities, human rights and anti-racism more generally. At the end of Labour’s statement there is a nod in this direction  with a promise to launch “a programme to educate our members and empower them to confront oppression, wherever it arise (with) our first materials (being) on antisemitism”. We are concerned that no others have yet been published.

Before developing some of the reservations we expressed, let me first state my general agreement with the statement’s (all too) brief words on antisemitism as a hatred towards Jews; on conspiracy theories; on Holocaust denial or minimisation. JVL has attempted to spell out its view of  What is – and what is not – antisemitic misconduct, which is fully in accord with these generalised statements and, I believe, adds some real substance to what is found in Labour’s leaflet.

Labour’s statement is on weaker ground when it comes to three broad areas:

  • its incredibly attenuated history of Israel and Zionism;
  • its condemnation of “anti-Jewish tropes” but with no guidance as to how to recognise them (nor how not to misidentify them); and
  • the threat to freedom of speech: it is fine not limiting “legitimate criticism of the Israeli state or its policies or diluting support for the Palestinian people’s struggle for justice, their own state, and the rights of refugees and their descendants”, but everything hinges on the word “legitimate”. Again, no guidance is given.

The trouble is that, when saying “we are launching a programme” on antisemitism this document appears not to be the first step but the entirety of the programme. It just isn’t such a programme. It is totally lacking in guidance on key issues, for instance:

  • guidance about the complexities and nuances of what is or is not antisemitic. While this applies to racisms of all kinds, it is a particularly vexed issue with antisemitism because of the attempt in recent decades to delegitimise certain kinds of criticisms of Israel as antisemitic. Referring us on to the IHRA definition is no answer. As repeatedly pointed out (e.g. by ex-Appeal Court judge Sir Stephen Sedley), that fails as a definition because it simply does not define. Nobody knows how to apply it and its examples of things that may, taking into account the context, be antisemitic, is no help.

Large sections of the Zionist movement today take particular exception to any description of Israel as an apartheid society and to the BDS movement, both of which they claim are antisemitic. Most objections to Israeli anti-apartheid week each year, for example, assert they are such. They are not. These are perfectly legitimate expressions of opinion which would only be antisemitic if argued for in ways which express hatred of Jews. Yet Labour’s statement is silent on this.

  • guidance to the complexity of the history: any history of the region cannot be limited to the effects of the Holocaust and simply saying that, since 1948, “Zionism means maintaining that state” as Labour’s statement does. Missing is the Balfour Declaration, the British mandate, the establishment of the state of Israel by dispossession, the Palestinian nakba, the occupation of 1967, the increasing exclusion of Israel’s own Palestinian citizens from full citizenship, and – perhaps most important in recent years – the elimination of all forms of political Zionism with any purchase on reality other than an expansionist ethno-nationalism.
  • guidance as to what to do about people who are found to hold views which we disagree with and deem to be racist. “Zero tolerance” is not a programme for education – but seems to be suggested as the prime weapon in our armoury for dealing with antisemitism. It is not. In a society in which all kinds of racism are prevalent, some are bound to surface from party members and in our wider milieu. Ignorance is often a major factor, aided in the age of social media by a willingness to pass things on without engaging with their content in any serious way. People who express such ideas need to be engaged with constructively wherever possible. As socialists we believe in the transforming power of education, deliberation, reflection – and argument. So it appears does this document. But it says nothing about how to provide it.

In July 2018, in an attempt to make the IHRA definition fit for purpose, Labour’s NEC drafted a serious commentary on it called NEC Code of Conduct: Antisemitism. Withdrawn in the face of a barrage of orchestrated opposition from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Chronicle and more, the code was set to be redrafted. As far as we are aware, it hasn’t. Something like it is desperately needed if Labour is to be able to engage in a serious educational discussion around antisemitism and in the development of serious guidelines for disciplinary bodies charged with dealing with allegations of antisemitism.

Indeed our  What is – and what is not – antisemitic misconduct was submitted as a contribution to their development. In their absence we would urge people to fall back on the old NEC Code of Conduct and our contribution to the discussion.

In the meantime, we as Jewish Voice for Labour, are developing our own educational workshops on antisemitism. These are available to any trade union Labour branch or CLP. Contact us at [email protected]

Comments (7)

  • Richard Hayward says:

    The whole thrust of the use of false ‘antisemitism’ accusations and the confusion around the IHRA document has been to confuse the issue of prejudice and discrimination in order to mask ulterior motives. Worse, its politically sectarian nature has been to the disadvantage of the wider Jewish community – many of whom have been persuaded that they are in danger from a firmly committed anti-racism within the culture of the Labour Party at large.

    It seems to me that the prime need isn’t more navel gazing, but a return to focus, clarity and simplification in definition. It really isn’t that difficult.

  • Tessa van Gelderen says:

    Can we have a few points for comrades to deal with anti-semitism in doorstep?

  • Adrian Stern says:

    I am sick and tired of hearing about the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Correct me if I am wrong but there is no such thing. The organisation did commission one and was presented with a draft the author was not happy with. It was never adopted. the author I believe withdrew it. So even if other organisations have adopted this “definition” (which you agree it isn’t) the IHRA certainly didn’t – and nor should we!

  • why is the labour party so bothered about trying to define antisemitism when there is no more antisemitism in Labour than in the rest of Britain (conclusion of 3 ugov polls carried out by The Jewish Policy Research Institute in 2015.16 and 17??) is it not more productive to simply ackowledge that allegations that AS is more of aproblem in Labour than in other groups is a massive LIE and to use all available evidence to expose this lie!

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    I agree entirely with Richard’s criticism of the “Zero tolerance” slogan. It’s an example of demagogic tough-guy talk. Here’s an anecdote that might show how stupid it is. A few weeks ago an old aquaintance who is a Labour Party member, knowing my interest in such matters, sent me a link to an Al-Jazeera discussion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, adding that he thought it was pretty good. Overall the discussion was quite good but at a certain point one of the participants, referring to the pro-Israel views that dominate the US mainstream press, said “and we all know who controls that”. Whether the participant in the discussion was ignorant or anti-semitic I don’t know. In any case, I wrote to my aquaintance pointing out that given that the people in the discussion were generally well-informed this could indicate the anti-semitic prejudices of the speaker. My aquaintance wrote back, kicking himself for not having picked this up and apologising for having sent me the link.
    Zero tolerance would mean that I should have reported him to his local Labour Party and called for his expulsion or at least an investigation. What idiocy!

  • what this entirely misses out is how ‘antisemitism’ has been used as a political weapon and why that is so. To understand how ‘antisemitism’ has been so used you have to place antisemitism in the context of British racism.

    The article entirely fails to do this. Racism is not the same as prejudice or personal interactions or ‘tropes’ but an ideology related to discrimination by the State and actions that result from this.

    Why the concentration on antisemitism? How are Jews oppressed in Britain today? Are they subject to Windrush style deportations, stop and search, deaths in police custody, disproportionate gaoling, violence? It is precisely the lack of any state antisemitism and the closeness of the Jewish leadership to the State that has enabled the ‘antisemitism’ campaign to have such legitimacy.

    Why do the popular press endorse a campaign against anti-semitism whilst employing the likes of Katie Hopkins or Rod Lidell?

    The LP statement is utterly pathetic. It is an attempt to patch over different issues and fails to understand how the issue of ‘antisemitism’ is directly related to Palestinian oppression. As such it is a good example of white racism and is only fit for the bin

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