The EHRC, the Labour Party and the IHRA – a submission by Geoffrey Alderman

JVL Introduction

Prof Geoffrey Alderman, author of British Jewry Since Emancipation, The Jewish Community in British PoliticsModern British Jewry and more, has made a personal submission to the EHRC

In it he is critical of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ‘working definition’ of antisemitism, which he considers “deeply flawed and much misunderstood”.

This article was originally published by Skwawkbox (and a version in the Independent) on Wed 31 Jul 2019. Read the original here.

Jewish professor’s EHRC submission criticises ‘deeply-flawed’ IHRA, challenges EHRC to use ‘objective yardstick’

Geoffrey Alderman, emeritus professor of politics and contemporary history, is a noted historian of the Jewish community in Britain. He has made a submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which is investigating complaints of antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Alderman’s submission, sent to the EHRC yesterday, is critical of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ‘working definition’ of antisemitism, which he considers “deeply flawed and much misunderstood”:

Equality & Human Rights Commission and the Labour Party

Submission from Professor Geoffrey Alderman

1. Earlier this year the Equality & Human Rights Commission was asked to rule on whether the Labour Party has “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish.”

2. To investigate this complaint the EHRC will need to consider whether there is any objective yardstick against which the complaint might be benchmarked. On the face of it, there is: namely the “Working Definition” of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016.

3. This compilation is likely to feature in the EHRC’s deliberations not least because the Working Definition was formally adopted by the British government in January 2017, and has been embraced by numerous UK government organs and agencies, including the Labour Party. Indeed the EHRC has itself given notice [in the Terms of Reference of its inquiry] that it may “have regard” to the Working Definition.

These endorsements have certainly endowed the Working Definition with an almost sacrosanct status. That does not mean that it is either perfect or even fit for purpose. It is – in fact – neither.

4. Space does not permit me here to explain how the Working Definition came about. What needs to be stressed is that it was never intended to be a binding legal act, but was designed merely as a note of guidance for police officers and human rights activists. As such, it’s very much a work in progress.

6. The Working Definition is composed of two unequal parts. The first consists of the Definition itself. The second comprises eleven examples of what that Definition might mean in practice.

7. The Definition declares:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

8. The eleven examples embed numerous internal contradictions. One example affects to condemn as antisemitic “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” But the preamble that introduces all eleven examples explains that manifestations of antisemitism “might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

9. A number of political regimes around the world have been criticised because they are alleged to be pursuing policies reminiscent of the Nazis. So how in principle can it be antisemitic to draw a comparison between “contemporary” Israeli policy and that of the Nazis?

10. I personally do not believe any Israeli government has in fact ever pursued policies remotely reminiscent of the Nazis. The point I make is one of principle.

11. Another of the examples declares it to be antisemitic to accuse Jewish citizens “of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” This exemplar strikes me as very valid – but only up to a point. There is no world Jewish conspiracy. There is no secret Jewish ‘government’ endeavouring to manipulate to the exclusive advantage of Jewish people the destinies of mankind. But I know many British Jews who hold dual citizenship and who, under certain circumstances, would act (and have indeed acted) in the interests of Israel rather than of Great Britain. How can it possibly be antisemitic to point this out?

12. Amongst the eleven examples there is one astonishing omission. The examples include the use of “symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel),” but only when employed “to characterize Israel or Israelis.” But the accusation that it was the Jews who killed Jesus is in fact the oldest antisemitic trope, has nothing whatever to do with Israel or Israelis, and was repudiated long ago by the Second Vatican Council. The Working Definition simply brushes this aside.

13. Each accusation against the Labour Party brought to the attention of the EHRC must be measured against an empirically-derived benchmark. That benchmark cannot be the deeply-flawed and much misunderstood IHRA Working Definition.

14. I make this Submission in an exclusively personal capacity. I am not a member of any political party.

Professor Geoffrey Alderman
30 July 2019

Remarkably, the Independent has also published a version of Alderman’s comments, including a reference to Alderman’s complaint to the Labour Party about antisemitic comments in a Tom Watson article for Easter:

Geoffrey Alderman’s article in the Independent

In the article, Alderman goes on to note issues with the application of the ‘Macpherson principle’, often taken to mean that discrimination exists if it is perceived as such. Alderman instead challenges the EHRC that it must:

consider whether there is any objective yardstick against which the complaint might be benchmarked.

He goes on:

simply because a Jewish person believes that they have been the victim of antisemitic prejudice does not mean that they have in fact been so victimised. Simply because Jewish people believe they have been victimised by or within the Labour Party does not mean that they have in fact been so victimised.

Each accusation brought to the attention of the EHRC must be measured against an empirically-derived benchmark. I believe that this benchmark should not be the deeply-flawed and much misunderstood IHRA working definition.

Last weekend, Professor Alderman made a complaint against Labour’s deputy leader for what he termed the world’s “oldest antisemitic trope” – the libel that Jewish people killed Christ. Yet he notes in both his EHRC submission and his Independent article that this libel is an “astonishing omission” from the IHRA ‘working definition’:

Amongst the 11 examples there is one astonishing omission. The examples include the use of “symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel),” but onlywhen employed “to characterise Israel or Israelis.” But the accusation that it was the Jews who killed Jesus is in fact the oldest antisemitic trope, has nothing whatever to do with Israel or Israelis, and was repudiated long ago by the Second Vatican Council. Why does the IHRA definition brush this aside?

It was this omission I sought to highlight by asking the Labour Party to investigate remarks made by Tom Watson. His Easter message had asked readers to recall the arrest of Christ by “a squad of Roman soldiers under the direction of a servant to the High Priest.” That such comments do not fall under the definition only highlights its flaws.

The IHRA ‘working definition’ of antisemitism is routinely described by UK media and Labour’s critics as ‘the internationally accepted’ or even ‘universal’ definition. Alderman notes that its author never intended it to be a legal definition and that the EHRC accepts this.

Although frequently described as ‘universal’, according to the IHRA’s page on its working definition it has been adopted by some seventeen countries, plus the Greek education ministry. Canada adopted the working definition at the end of June, but last week the city of Vancouver decided not to implement it, instead sending it to a committee for further study.

The deadline for submissions to the EHRC investigation is today.

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