JVL introduction

Phil Edwards writes with his usual forensic precision about the current row over the IHRA definition.

The point he stresses, after exttensive analysis of the defintion is that it “has nothing to do with the separate – and much more important – question of how seriously Labour take anti-semitism.”

We can agreew with his “hope to see continued progress on that front” but his “hope to see the spurious and dangerous row over a definition blow itself out and be forgotten” looks a bit more remote…


Credo

Phil Edwards, Gaping Silence blogspot
30 July 2018


Once more on Labour’s problems with anti-semitism and the “IHRA Definition”. Here are a few points – five, to be precise.

The first point may seem frivolous, but I think it’s worth making. It’s just that the situation we’re in is really quite odd. I’ve knocked around on the Left for quite a while now – I’ve been called out on strike after a show of hands, I was at the first Chesterfield conference, I’ve been to Greenham – and I can’t remember a massive public row about a definition before.

“Adopt the definition!”
– Well, this is an issue we take very seriously, and of course…
“Stop dodging the question! Adopt the definition! Adopt it!”
– I’m sure we can look at it, and… Yes, actually that definition seems fine. No problem.
And the illustrative examples!”
– And the…
You’ve got to adopt the examples as well! Honestly! Don’t try to pretend you didn’t know!”
– All right, but we’ll need to see if they need to be modified in the light of our…
“Modified? Modified? What do you think this is? Adopt the illustrative examples!”
– Clearly there’s a process that will need to be gone through, and…
“Right, that’s it. Adopt the illustrative examples! Now! Adopt them! Adopt them!”

The fact that the definition was explicitly labelled as a working definition, and that it was devised fifteen years ago by an organisation that no longer exists (and whose successor organisation didn’t adopt it) makes it all the odder to see the furious intensity with which Labour are being pressurised to adopt it entire, root and branch, omitting not one jot or illustrative tittle.

So that’s my first point: when people start acting oddly and making strange demands – and, viewed with any kind of analytical distance, making verbatim adoption of the EUMC “working definition” into an unconditional red line is a strange thing to do – I’m reluctant to jump to it and endorse those demands; not because they’re wrong, necessarily, just because they’re… odd.

Secondly, why the EUMC definition specifically? Let’s look at the definition; it won’t take long.

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.

The second sentence isn’t really part of the definition; it supplements it by identifying the targets of anti-semitism in practice – although, other than specifying Jewish religious and non-religious institutions, it only identifies them as “people and/or things”. The trouble is, the second part of the first sentence isn’t really part of the definition either, as it says how anti-semitism may be expressed. Nothing in the definition requires that hatred should be expressed towards Jews before anti-semitism can be said to exist. So we can lop off that clause as well – which leaves us with

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews

This is almost entirely uninformative, and the one thing it does specify is wrong – anti-semitism isn’t a perception of Jews, singular (even the Nazis had trouble explaining how it could be that Jews had bestial appetites and super-human cunning, or that they were behind Wall Street and Communism). The abiding impression is that the definition is there to introduce the “illustrative examples”, which will do the real work of sketching out the boundaries of a definition – labelling some behaviours as potentially anti-semitic and others, by omission, not. The definition itself basically says

So, antisemitism. What do we know?

The EUMC definition itself, then, isn’t an advance in clarity; if anything it’s a deliberate retreat from clarity. If it’s important to adopt it – and not to adopt an alternative definition such as the one put forward by Brian Klug, discussed in this post – we’ll have to look elsewhere for the reasons why.

We could look at those illustrative examples, for a start. Taken individually, to be fair, the examples are mostly uncontroversial. Actually, even the controversial ones are uncontroversial, as defenders of the definition have been at pains to point out. Applying double standards to the state of Israel “could, taking into account the overall context,” be anti-semitic; who could deny that?

But the question to ask of a definition is not what it says but what it doesn’t say, and/or what it makes it hard to say. I asked my father once why the Christian Creeds went to such lengths to nail down particular details of the faith, given that so many of the points they affirm are uncontroversial among believers, irrelevant to the Church’s everyday work, or in a few cases both. My father said that creeds aren’t aimed at the people who find them easy to say, but at all those people who can’t say them; every one of those stipulations is there to nail down a question that somebody, some time, wanted kept open, and to define the Church by excluding those people. Every public affirmation is also a denial, or a shibboleth: “I attest, in sight of you all, that I believe this – which in turn demonstrates that I am not one of them.”

To say that critics of Israel have nothing to fear – because, according to the definition, applying double standards to Israel isn’t necessarily anti-semitic (and why would they be applying double standards, anyway?) – is to miss the wood for the trees, or to grasp the definition on paper but overlook the work it’s doing. To put it another way, the question isn’t who would be found guilty by the definition but who would be put under suspicion by it – and the second group includes everyone who might be presented as applying double standards to Israel for anti-semitic reasons (presented, specifically, by their factional enemies).

This is the third point: the merits of the definition as a whole – and a fortiori the merits of individual clauses and examples – shouldn’t be taken in isolation from the project of which the definition is part. (Historical background here, here and here.) As an aside, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be a lot less squeamish about terms like “lobbying” and “behind the scenes”. From local party branches up to the Cabinet, lobbying – including “behind the scenes” lobbying – is how politics gets done; and politics is how democratic representation gets done. (Imperfectly, in other words.) Anyone who tells you that he organically represents a broad groundswell of public opinion (whereas you’re just a well-organised minority of activists) is lying; lying to himself, possibly, but lying, definitely.

If there had been goodwill and trust, Labour could have sat down with the Jewish community and ironed out any wrinkles, perhaps by adopting the IHRA’s definition in full and then adding a couple of caveats explicitly protecting free speech. The trouble is, there is no such trust, and Labour attempted no such thing. Instead it drew up its code of conduct itself, without consulting the organised Jewish community at all.

Jonathan Freedland‘s equivocation between “the Jewish community” and “the organised Jewish community” is symptomatic. What does “the Jewish community” think about Corbyn’s Labour Party? Generalising about what any group of 300,000 people think about anything would be a bold move, and it’s not hard to enumerate Jewish individuals and groups known to be strongly in favour of the Corbyn project. What does “the organised Jewish community” think? Ah, that’s an easier one.

The EUMC definition hasn’t floated down from the sky, or bubbled up from the collective unconscious of “the Jewish community” – and it isn’t just an acknowledgment that anti-semitism can take many forms. It’s a proposition that anti-semitism tends to take some forms and not others, which tends to put some areas of public discourse under suspicion, and not others. As such, it’s the product of a sustained effort to establish that proposition and embed it in the ‘common sense’ of organisational activity. I’m not qualified to comment on exactly why organisations such as the Board of Deputies have bought into the definition, and got behind the campaign to shame the Labour Party for not adopting it; in any case, that’s a secondary question. The important thing is to recognise that there is an organisational dimension here: organised groups of people pushing for the adoption of the EUMC definition (just as I and my comrades regularly push for our local Labour Party to adopt left-wing positions), and other organised groups getting on board with this effort for their own reasons (just as we occasionally get a motion through or a couple of delegates elected, because something about it or them has appealed to another faction).

As for the point about anti-semitism coming in “some forms and not others”, here are the topics covered by the eleven illustrative examples:

  1. Advocacy or justification of killing Jews
  2. Dehumanising stereotypes of Jews
  3. Accusations of Jewish responsibility for world events
  4. Holocaust denial
  5. Alleging that Jews (or Israel) exaggerate the Holocaust
  6. Accusing Jews of having greater loyalty to Israel than their own nations
  7. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination
  8. Applying double standards to Israel
  9. Applying antisemitic stereotypes to Israel or Israelis
  10. Comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
  11. Holding Jews responsible for actions of the state of Israel

Granted that all of these can be an expression of anti-semitism (many, many things can be an expression of anti-semitism), there’s still room to be concerned by the scope of the implicit definition mapped out by these examples. Four of the eleven – numbers 7-10 here – aren’t about Jews or Jewish identity as such, but about critiques of Israel and Zionism considered as proxy targets for unavowed anti-semitism; the seventh example in particular seems designed to outlaw outright opposition to Zionism and its presentation of the Jewish people as a nationality (an opposition which has been expressed by substantial currents within the international Jewish community, and still exists today). The eighth, ninth and tenth, for their part, would be entirely unproblematic if we could be confident that they would never be abused in faction fights by people committed to making pro-Zionist prevail over anti-Zionist positions. Considering that the entire context of this definition is exactly this kind of faction fighting, this amounts to saying that the illustrations give pro-Zionist activists additional weapons to use against their bitterest enemies in a political conflict which is currently raging, but that there won’t be any problems just as long as they consistently use them with integrity and self-restraint.

There’s nothing very problematic in the other seven examples, although the sixth would seem to make Theodor Herzl an anti-semite; Zionism as he proposed it meant precisely that the primary loyalty of Jews, wherever they found themselves, would be to the new National Home. What’s interesting, as always, is what’s not here. Not here, for example, is any suggestion that it might be anti-semitic to promote the interests of Israel at the expense of those of Jews in the Diaspora; or to denigrate the history and culture of the Diaspora in contrast to the new society of Israel; or to conflate Jewish identity with the nationalism of a militarised state, tied to western imperialism and entrenched in confrontation with the Muslim world; or to defile the holy name of Zion by identifying it with the goyim naches of a mere nationality. Every one of those positions is arguable; every one of them is held, and has historically been held, by non-negligible numbers of Jews. Perhaps a majority of Diaspora Jews are committed to Zionism (certainly a majority of Israeli Jews are) – but is a majority good enough for a question like this? Can you declare what does and doesn’t constitute Jew-hatred – can you identify which political quarter another Haman would or wouldn’t come from – by taking a vote?

In short, there are many ways of defining anti-semitism, or rather ways of defining areas where it’s likely to be found. There are some approaches to this question which put Zionism and the state of Israel under suspicion, and others which throw suspicion on opposition to Zionism and the state of Israel; what we’ve got with the EUMC definition is, very much, the latter.

But – fourth point – aren’t Labour handling this badly, irrespective of all this background? So the illustrative examples (and hence the overall definition) tilt Zionist; so what? Maybe that’s just because the Jewish community tilts Zionist. (Its representative bodies certainly do, most of them anyway.) What gave Labour the right to mess around with the definition anyway? Shouldn’t they be listening to the victims?

Taking the second question first, it’s frequently been argued that “the Jewish community” supports the adoption of the EUMC definition; that we generally believe that the victims of racism should be the ones to say when and where it exists (this is sometimes referred to as the “Macpherson principle”); and hence that Labour (and, presumably, everyone else) should adopt the EUMC definition, as failing to do so would be represent discrimination against the Jewish community relative to other ethnic minorities.

This looks persuasive, but unfortunately it’s nonsense. The Macpherson principle – dating back to the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – was that a ‘racist incident’ should be recorded by the police whenever an ‘incident’ was reported and anyone – not just the victim – alleged a racist motive. (An ‘incident’ is essentially anything that’s reported to the police but isn’t a crime.) It doesn’t say that the view of the individual victim on a specific incident should be taken as definitive – still less that we should privilege the views of an entire ethnic community on the topic of racist incidents in general. In point of fact, there is no comparable definition of (say) anti-Black or anti-Asian racism, devised by the respective community and generally accepted; failing to adopt the EUMC definition, far from representing discrimination against Jews, would put Jews in the same position as other minority groups. (There is a widely-accepted definition of Islamophobia; however, it was devised by the Runnymede Trust, not by the British Muslim community or any of its representative organisations.)

As for the Labour National Executive Committee’s amendments to the definition, once again the context is crucial. The context here is an organisation which is committed to taking anti-semitism seriously, to the point of suspending or expelling numerous activists. (Was that a hollow laugh I heard? How many anti-semites have the Tories expelled?) It follows that any definition Labour adopts won’t be ornamental; it has to be something that can be referred to and used. As we’ve seen, the EUMC definition is hopelessly vague (“a certain perception of Jews”); the only point at which it has any possible disciplinary bite is in the list of examples. These, however, are introduced with the rubric

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, but are not limited to:

So anti-semitism could, but doesn’t necessarily, take the form of applying double standards to Israel (for example); moreover, if double standards are being applied, that could be anti-semitism, but it isn’t necessarily. From a disciplinary standpoint this is singularly unhelpful; anyone who’s ever studied harassment (or the later Wittgenstein) knows that literally any individual action can form part of a specified pattern of behaviour. If people are going to face expulsion for antisemitic statements or activities, the definition needs to be a lot tighter than this; instead of “could … include, but are not limited to”, it needs to be couched in terms of the actions or statements which are likely to be evidence of anti-semitism. This in turn will mean the definition becoming narrower; higher levels of culpability necessarily apply to a narrower range of acts. This, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the direction in which edits have been made.

In short, Labour has made a good-faith effort to engage with the EUMC definition and turn it into something usable for disciplinary purposes. While we may or may not agree with individual changes to the definition, specific problems with individual changes are the level at which the argument should be had; there is no sense in which Labour’s failure to endorse the definition precisely as it stands represents any kind of differential treatment or discrimination against the Jewish community.

Having said that, I can’t help feeling – fifth and final point – that engaging with the EUMC definition at all represents something of a missed opportunity. Do we know what racism is? Is there a canonical definition? The answers are Yes and No respectively, surely. Do we know what anti-semitism is? I tend to think we do; it’s a range of forms of hostility towards Jews, considering Jews as fundamentally and inherently different from non-Jews. To put it another way, it’s anti-Jewish racism. This is not a mystery.

Moreover, the EUMC definition doesn’t add to this rule-of-thumb definition or refine it. If anything it subtracts and makes it coarser, before supplying some of the missing detail in the form of those illustrative examples – a sort of ‘paint chart’ approach to definition. There’s a perception that examples like these make a disciplinary process more straightforward by removing excuses – excuses like “I’m not anti-semitic, I just think the Holocaust never happened” – but I think this is an illusion. Anyone who’s capable of saying “I’m not anti-semitic, I’m just concerned about the Jewish control of the media” is perfectly capable of saying “I know that conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the media are anti-semitic, but the evidence I’ve seen makes me really concerned about media ownership and how it’s concentrated in a few hands”… and so on. Whether you’ve got a definition or not, if you’re going to offer those people any kind of procedural justice you’re going to need to have that conversation. (What if “Jewish control of the media” turns out to mean “I hate Rupert Murdoch, and my mate told me he’s Jewish”? Expel them anyway for being dim and credulous?)

The merit of having a formal definition (with illustrative examples) is, essentially, the same as the merit of having a creed – it doesn’t make the accusations any easier to prove, it just means that when you’re making accusations, the people you’re accusing are likely to be from groups A, B, C and D. (Or groups A, B, F and K, depending on the definition.)

The leadership is right to be reluctant to embrace this particular definition; in fact they’d be justified in not adopting it at all. Certainly the definition has nothing to do with the separate – and much more important – question of how seriously Labour take anti-semitism. I hope to see continued progress on that front; I hope to see the spurious and dangerous row over a definition blow itself out and be forgotten.