What Next? Reconstructing Political Dialogue

JVL Introduction

The article below was written at short notice for a Verso ebook which it was hoped to publish during the Labour Pary conference The ebook failed to meet the deadline and and will hopefully appear soon.

We are posting this article as a contribution to a discussion on how we move on from here. The text was finalised on 20 September and has not been altered to take account of subsequent events.

What Next? Reconstructing Political Dialogue

Richard Kuper, 20 September 2018

The author is a member of the JVL committee but writes here in a personal capacity.

There is no doubt that there has been a setback following the Labour Party’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the full accompanying text and examples. But I will try to argue here that it is not the end of the world. While the terrain on which a fight back can be staged has got much more difficult, there is still room for manoeuvre, and reason for hope.

I see no mileage in trying to reverse the NEC decision, even though the intellectual argument against the IHRA document is unassailable and has been made countless times, as can be seen elsewhere in this collection. The decision was made not on its intrinsic merits but in a belief that this was the best way to lance the boil of allegations of antisemitism that have plagued the Labour party since February 2016 and, more particularly, over the last few months. Once the IHRA document was in place, it was hoped, the issue of antisemitism would go away, and Labour could move on.

I think those who made this call are quite wrong; it won’t go away. There are clearly those who want to see hundreds if not thousands expelled from the party, if not the party destroyed. But, recognising that the IHRA document, as a rambling, discursive, non-legally binding set of statements, contains nothing to guide anyone as to how to implement it in either educational or disciplinary contexts, the NEC also accepted that: “This does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians. We re-invite organisations to engage in consultation on the Code of Conduct.”

There is room here to try and salvage a sane – and implementable – position on antisemitism and how to deal with it. For, in reality what is at stake are the procedures that Labour puts in place to deal with disciplinary offences in general. Crucial will be the eventual wording of its Code of Conduct, and how the IHRA document is interpreted in this context. On both counts there is much to be done. And beyond that, of course, lies the whole Labour anti-austerity project.

The Chakrabarti Recommendations

It is vital that the relevant Chakrabarti recommendations about Party disciplinary procedures are implemented. This must form part of the urgent campaigning.

Shami Chakrabarti noted in her report that Labour’s complaints and disciplinary procedures lacked transparency, uniformity and expertise in delivery. She advocated a shift from arbitrary  and unpredictable processes to ones in which complaints were taken seriously and handled sensitively, but in which it was up to an investigation and any subsequent process to determine whether any complaint was ultimately well-founded. In other words, the Labour Party should seek to uphold the strongest principles of natural justice including a presumption of innocence, a restriction of the power of interim suspension, no presumption of guilt by association, and an end to subjecting members to trial by media. The person complained of should be clearly informed of the allegation(s) against them, their factual basis and, normally, the identity of the complainant.

The watchwords should be “due process” and “proportionality” with an emphasis on swift and informal resolution of complaints where possible, and disciplinary procedures and punishment as a last resort. There should be, she recommended, greater use of a wide and creative range of graded sanctions such as warnings, a requirement for apologies and/or some other form of sensitive reparation, a public warning or reprimand, suspension for a period, and expulsion all on the agenda.

Finally, almost the very last words of the Chakrabarti report were these: “I ask for a moratorium on the retrospective trawling of members’ social media accounts and past comments, so as to create the much needed atmosphere and opportunity for learning, positive consensus and progressive change.  Wise words, which will be key to being able to move on.

Developing Labour’s Code of Conduct

Labour’s Code of Conduct adopted by the NEC in July, incorporated most but not quite all of the examples of the IHRA document in a form that made sense of them. It has not been abandoned. Something like it, or based on it, will have to be developed to guide everyone from branch officers to members of disciplinary tribunals as to what, precisely, is or is not to be deemed antisemitic misconduct. This is essential as the IHRA illustrations are only examples of what might – and therefore might not – be antisemitic, with no clear criteria to help make any decision.

Jewish Voice for Labour and Free Speech on Israel will shortly be publishing a contribution to this discussion called ANTISEMITIC MISCONDUCT: What it is – and what it is not. [Now published and available here – ed.] I have been involved in this work and I draw on it in the following paragraphs.

The clarifications offered in this contribution are based on the fact that there is no disagreement about the fact that antisemitism as traditionally understood has no place in the Labour Party or the wider society. By that I mean antisemitism, understood as a form of racism, consisting in prejudice, hostility or hatred towards Jews as Jews. It is manifested in various ways: denial of rights; direct, indirect or institutional discrimination; prejudiced-based behaviour; verbal or written statements; or violence. Underpinning such expressions are stereotypes, characteristics which are projected on to all Jews.

We stand united against it.

This approach is quite compatible with the 38-word IHRA definition but goes further, actually giving substance to our understanding, something we can work with, and extends the notion of antisemitism (and indeed racism in general) much beyond the extreme form of “hatred” which the IHRA definition focuses on. But this approach doesn’t mention Israel. Precisely. Israel as such has nothing to do with a definition of antisemitism.

Criticism of the government or of the state of Israel may be robust, over the top, or even plain wrong. None of that makes it antisemitic. It can be antisemitic – but only, as the approach outlined above makes abundantly clear, if it is antisemitic i.e. if it takes the form of “prejudice, hostility or hatred towards Jews as Jews”.

This is where the Labour Party statement that acceptance of the IHRA document “does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians” comes in. It is clear that the IHRA document needs to be read in the light of this commitment, which is merely summarising the legal protection of free speech (Article 10 of the Human Rights Act) and of Palestinian rights, especially under international humanitarian law.

The IHRA caveats

Supporters of the IHRA, in selling the document, have made much of the two caveats contained within the document. The first of these is that, while “[m]anifestations [of antisemitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity… criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The second is this: “Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include [emphasis added], but are not limited to [followed by a list of 11 possible examples – 7 of which refer to Israel]

The problem in both cases, is that no clear criteria are offered for distinguishing which criticisms of Israel might be problematic or why? The effect of this has undoubtedly been to create a presumption that criticism of Israel, unless shown otherwise, is likely to be antisemitic.

This presumption has been levelled, variously, at such things as descriptions of Israel as an apartheid society (and the very existence of Israel Apartheid Week on campuses), at analyses of embedded racism in Israeli society, past and present, and at anyone calling for BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions).

Interestingly, one of the document’s original authors, Kenneth Stern, of the American Jewish Committee, has condemned the use of this document to police campus discussion, arguing strongly that it has already had a chilling effect on free speech.

We must challenge this use of the document head-on. None of these descriptions, analyses, or proposed actions on or about Israel are in themselves antisemitic. They should certainly not be presumptively charged with so being, as has so often been the case. Such challenges are licensed by the common misreading of the IHRA examples, in which the caveats are ignored and phrases taken out of context. Mainstream media, for example, commonly refer to statements as “antisemitic statements” not “statements about which antisemitism is alleged”. No investigation is deemed necessary before a presumption of guilt is broadcast.

This is seen at its clearest in the version of the IHRA document circulated for adoption to all local authorities by Luke Akehurst, on behalf of an organisation calling itself “Local Government Friends of Israel”. The line “Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include [emphasis added], but are not limited to” has been doctored to read: “The guidelines highlight manifestations of antisemitism as including:”!

It was this falsified version that was passed overwhelmingly by the Greater London Authority and who knows how many other of the councils that have adopted it. No councillors appear to have bothered to read it, nor have in-house officers and lawyers been involved in confirming that the document was what it purported to be. And even worse, organisations like the CST and the Board of Deputies, selling the IHRA document on the basis that its caveats ensure that free speech is not restricted, have not uttered a peep of protest at this grotesque distortion. You could be forgiven for thinking they relish this confusion.

Let us take the IHRA document and call on those who use it to read it. Let us provide “the overall context” that justifies and renders legitimate the vast majority of critical statements made about Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. And let us be clear that accepting that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” does not mean that criticism of Israel for its exceptionalism is antisemitic.

For Israel is in so many ways exceptional. What other state has been in occupation of a neighbouring territory for over fifty years? What other country has been in clear and constant violation of numerous clauses of the 4th Geneva Convention with its ongoing transfer of population, land and resource theft, punitive housing demolitions, denying the Palestinians their right of self-determination – and more? And, what other country claims to be doing all it does in defence of Western liberal-democratic values?


Labour’s statement is not limited to criticism of Israel: it also talks of Palestinian rights. Indeed, as part of the way forward we must renew our commitment to that struggle. This must include the right of Palestinians to describe their history and their dispossession in an appropriate language – which has to identify the Zionist movement and the Israeli state as the entities that deprived them of their rights, including that of self-determination.

The attempt to prevent any examination of the nature of the Israeli state or of the history of Zionism, has unwittingly drawn attention to Palestinian history and experience. It has put the issue back on the agenda from which it had largely disappeared in recent months and years. This offers a potential launchpad for constructive solidarity work within the party.

Fight antisemitism as part of the fight against racism

Furthermore, this work must be used as a basis for broadening out. International solidarity and antiracism go hand in hand. Antisemitism must be fought as part and parcel of the struggle against all racism.

Recognising that each racism has its own specificities should not detract from recognising that there are also overlaps and family resemblances between them and they need to be fought together. Here John McDonnell’s support for the call for a revival of  “an Anti-Nazi League-type cultural and political campaign to resist” because “we can no longer ignore the rise of far-right politics in our society” is of the highest importance and should be given every support.

Furthermore, unless we can develop an anti-austerity politics to undercut the erosion of our public services, the deprivation afflicting so many of our communities, the disintegration of sections of our education, health and housing services, and the desperation which provides fertile ground on which the far right feeds, all will be in vain.

I have no space to argue the case here and can only assert that the most important step we can take to fight racism in all its forms, is the return of an anti-austerity Corbyn-led Labour government. We need it for its antiracism, for its internationalism and for the social and economic well-being of us all. The choice is between such a government or a revamped Tory Party.

Reconstructing political dialogue

Freedom of speech is the freedom to say what one thinks (within the framework of law which does not permit hate speech). Many things said will cause others to take offence – indeed there is no freedom of speech worth its salt that isn’t likely to cause some offence to someone, somewhere. And while there is a right to free speech there is not a right not to be offended.

That said, the right to cause offence is not a duty to cause offence. Our aim should not be to constantly tweak the tail of those we disagree with, goading them to lash out at us. It may occasionally seem to be fun, but it is not serious politics. It is also counter-productive, alienating many of those we should always be attempting to win over.

For example, analysing Israel as an apartheid state is fine and there are good arguments for it. But there is no point in hurling accusations that Israel is an apartheid state in order to hurt supporters of that state who do not see it that way; or to use “the Zionists” as a term of abuse, rather than as a descriptor, historical or contemporary, of certain groups of people and their ways of thinking and behaving. The current febrile atmosphere in which passions are running high and trust is at a low ebb calls for a precision of language, and a care and compassion in speech.

How we approach the emotional minefields of antisemitism and of the Israel-Palestine question must also be part and parcel of a more general reconstruction of how we do politics and political dialogue. The toxic nature of these debates has been mirrored in those over Brexit or over immigration. And of course Trump’s approach to politics is something else again and is affecting political discourse worldwide.

We can usefully remind ourselves of Shami Chakrabarti writing in the Foreword to her report two years ago:

“The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism…However, as with wider society, there is too much clear evidence (going back some years) of minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours festering within a sometimes bitter incivility of discourse.”

Within the multicultural, multi-political world we have become today civility is necessary, but it doesn’t simply mean being polite to each other. It means listening to each other’s deepest hopes, fears and beliefs – and trying to understand their reality even where we believe them to be unfounded. Too much of what passes for political discussion is dogmatic posturing. Labour needs to foster political discussion and debate on difficult and disputed topics as a central concern in a way that fosters a climate of enquiry and civility. One that allows that we, as well as those we disagree with, might learn something from the encounter. Surely everything we do is premised on the belief that people can change their minds.

For, if persuasion, and the development of a vision of a future worth living, is not our primary aim what are we doing in politics?



Comments (6)

  • Ian Saville says:

    A well considered ams very useful analysis. Thanks for this, Richard. (small typo in last sentence of penultimate paragraph – delete “might” or “can”).

    [Thanks for correction – it has been made]

  • Tony Booth says:

    I like this article very much with its argument for civility of dialogue. My only small diversion is that I do not think we should see “the terrain on which a fight back can be staged” as having been made “much more difficult” by adoption of the IHRA definition. We have to show that it does not make a difference. The bullying of the Labour Party and other institutions to adopt it is only successful if we allow ourselves to be censored and silenced. If we continue to speak out with civility then complaints will only publicise the legitimacy of free speech and the absurdity of efforts to curb it. The use of the IHRA definition in the call for the resignation of Jewish Board of Deputies Vice President Sheila Gewolb following her criticism of the Israel Nation State Law is a gift for this task.

  • Dr Brian Robinson says:

    Great statement that will be useful to a very high degree in discussion, in writing to eg MPs, journalists and others. In many respects Israel is like other states, but in too many ways it’s quite unlike other states and with regard to the latter, it becomes impossible to meet the requirements of the IHRA without dissembling or obfuscation.

    On the question of the illegal occupation, I wondered about China and Tibet, although I understand in that case Tibet has been “incorporated” into China’s territory. In the West we tend to use the word “annexed”. Rather like what Israel has done with the Syrian Golan Heights. I suppose “occupation” could turn into “annexation”, considering evident Israeli expansionism. It’s really impossible to meet all the terms of the IHRA and stay honest.

  • Rick Hayward says:

    Having just had an evening listening to the reality of the current Palestinian experience, I am thinking that we should focus less on the ‘anti-‘ definitions (although these may be important in context), and more on the issue of how to positively advance the cause of the Palestinian people, who are the sufferers in all this.

    Perhaps a start might be the inclusion of the Palestinians within the term ‘semitic’ (using it in its root sense). It certainly would give an inclusive boost to notions of discrimination.

  • Rick Hayward says:

    I’d be wary of using the sloppiness of the IHRA definition in any context (re. Jewish Board of Deputies Vice President Sheila Gewolb).

    It gives unwitting validity to the logical and semantic mess that is really what needs to be attacked.

  • Joseph Finlay says:

    Really useful thoughts Richard

Comments are now closed.