JVL Introduction

In a recent Guardian article Hannah Weisfeld and Alex Sobel  suggest that Labour’s [alleged] antisemitism devalued its ability to be a credible critic of Israel. The article appeared with the standfirst: “The party’s words will carry little weight until it adopts the accepted IHRA definition”

Paul Mountain, a member of Worcester CLP, takes them to task

Protest against the Jewish Nation State Law. Photo: ActiveStills


On 9 August the Guardian ran an article by Hannah Weisfeld (Director of Yachad) and Alex Sobel (Labour MP for Leeds North-West) entitled Labour’s antisemitism failure means it cannot be a credible critic of Israel. I read it with particular interest because back in May of this year, Alex had accidentally blurted out to me his gut feelings on the subject in a late-evening exchange of emails, and it was interesting to compare what he had to say then, to what he was saying three months later.

It all started when, as a concerned member of my local Constituency Labour Party, I had responded to a fairly low key report in the Guardian, dated 10 May and headed Labour MPs back antisemitism measures rejected by Corbyn, by writing to Jim McMahon, the MP who was named in the report as the leader of this impromptu group, to ask him and his colleagues to accept that there are serious legal problems with the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and serious doubts as to the wisdom of incorporating the IHRA wording in toto into the party’s Code of Conduct.

In my letter I wrote:

The two most troubling portions of the IHRA’s illustrative definitions of contemporary anti-Semitism are:

 *     Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour; and

 *     Applying double standards by requiring of [the State of Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

As regards the first of these, if I believe that a constitutional arrangement which confers certain rights and benefits exclusively on citizens of a particular religious or ethnic heritage is not a good model for a nation state that aspires to be secular, equalitarian and pluralist, I do not expect to be accused of being antisemitic.

As regards the second, if I point to particular examples of (i) the numerous war crimes and human rights abuses perpetrated by the IDF over the last 70 years and (ii) the expropriation of indigenous Palestinian people’s land and natural resources that has been a constant feature of Israel’s 51-year occupation of the West Bank, and if I do not immediately engage in special pleading on Israel’s behalf by invoking similar or more heinous crimes perpetrated by other “democratic” states against indigenous peoples (such as the USA or Australia), again, I do not expect to be accused of antisemitism.

These two descriptors are tending to conflate and confuse antisemitism (which may be defined, perfectly simply and accurately, as irrational hatred of, or fear of, or antipathy towards, or contempt for, Jews because they are Jews) with legitimate criticism of the State of Israel, including criticism of its constitutional arrangements.

I sent the letter to McMahon by post and email at 10.00 pm on 17 May, with copies to the other eight MPs named in the report. Imagine my surprise and curiosity when only 10 minutes later, the following message popped up in my Inbox:


You are under no obligation to respond, but if you want to rebut this, happy to help.  Both Co-op and Labour will need to rebut these claims. None of the things in his letter would breach the IHRA definition. The definition is being used to distract from the issue, I mean I could have worded it better but still it doesn’t mean criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.


Oh dear. Alex had clicked on “Reply All” and not taken me off the circulation list – well, we’ve all done it. But, as I explained to Alex and Jim in a further letter, his quick-fire response told me two things: first, that he was rattled by the strength of objection that had by that time emerged to the IHRA definition, particularly in jurisprudential and academic circles; secondly, that Alex regards himself as a defender of some sort of orthodoxy (“both Co-op and Labour will need to rebut these claims”), as if those who think like him are proper, responsible Co-op and Labour people, while those who hold views like mine, aren’t.  Neither of them replied.

The second point gives rise to a deep concern. Since I sent my letters in May, we have watched the degrading spectacle of more and more Labour MPs and other public figures insulting and deriding Jeremy Corbyn for taking a cautious stance on the issue. Corbyn is cautious because the “debate” (if one can call an affair that more resembles a national bear-baiting festival) concerning these portions of the IHRA document is not about the best means of eradicating anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.  It is about the genuineness of Labour’s claims to embody the values of social democracy, internationalism and anti-colonialism which inspired its foundation and have enriched the Party’s development over the last 118 years. The row about whether is anti-Semitic to claim that “the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”, or whether one may use highly similar but not precisely synonymous forms of words, reached its vulgar climax at the very point when the Knesset passed a Nationality Act which, in the opinion of several of the MKs who voted against it (55 versus 62), establishes a neo-apartheid regime.

Against this increasingly grim backcloth, Alex’s and Hannah’s piece relied on familiar contradictions and special pleading. They claimed that the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is the closest thing that exists to a universally recognised definition”. It is nothing of the sort. Leading human rights lawyers have independently advised that it potentially infringes Article 10 of the Human Rights Act guaranteeing freedom of speech within the rule of law; and even the author of the IHRA declaration, Kenneth Stern, has deplored the way it has been transformed from nothing more than a discussion document into a highly politicised article of faith.

Alex and Rachel went on to claim that the NEC’s stance justifies the feeling within the “mainstream” Jewish community that they would be “unsafe and unwelcome”. This is ludicrous. For the past century, the UK‘s Jewish community has enjoyed a good  degree of security and has, as a result, massively enriched our society, culturally, economically, morally and spiritually, without the need to rely on ambiguous and legally questionable definitions of anti-Semitic behaviour. And yet it is only since the IHRA definition came along and Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Party leader, that the allegation has been made that the party has become rife with anti-Semitism, and that the slander has been made and repeated with impunity, that Corbyn’s polite refusal to adopt the IHRA wording in full somehow shows a tolerance of, and even secret sympathy for, anti-Semitic views and opinions. The Jewish Chronicle’s claim, made around the same time and Alex and Rachel’s article, that a Corbyn premiership would present “an existential threat to Jewish life in the UK” may be old news now, but it’s still worth pointing out that for sheer offensiveness, it beats even Churchill’s line during the 1945 election campaign that a Labour government “would need to fall back on some sort of Gestapo” to ensure effective enforcement of its policies.

I’ve never met Alex Sobel, but by all accounts he is a hard-working MP and amiable young man.   His lively and varied constituency stretches all the way from hip and trendy Headingly to lovely, rural Lower Wharfedale, where I lived in the 90s and was an enthusiastic member of Otley Labour Club. So I wish him well. However, on this occasion he’s got it wrong.

Paul Mountain is a member of Worcester Constituency Labour Party and an associate member of Jewish Voice for Labour