Why Palestinians have a problem with the IHRA definition of ‘anti-Semitism’w

First published by the Arab Weekly on 9/9/2018

The conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism suits Israel.
People wear flag of Israel glasses at a gathering organised by the Campaign Against Antisemitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in London. (AFP)
Not seeing eye to eye. People wear flag of Israel glasses at a gathering organised by the Campaign Against Antisemitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in London. (AFP)

If the average person is asked to define “anti-Semitism,” most would likely reply something like “hatred towards Jews because they are Jews.” It is safe to argue that “Israel” would not be mentioned in the same breath as “hatred towards Jews” in any traditional definition of anti-Semitism.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines anti-Semitism as “having or showing a strong dislike of Jewish people or treating them in a cruel and unfair way.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “hostility to or prejudice against Jews.”

This sets in context the reason supporters of Israel have been working to create a new definition to reflect what they consider to be the “new anti-Semitism,” one that would conflate anti-Semitism with opinions against Zionism, the founding ideology of Israel. This most certainly would include references to “Israel” in any such definition.

In 2005, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) published a working definition of anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

It then brought Israel into the mix by stating: “In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

Several examples were cited as to how anti-Semitism would manifest itself when related to the state of Israel, including “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.”

While supporters of Israel referred to it as a definition, its stated purpose was to “provide a guide for identifying incidents, collecting data and supporting the implementation and enforcement of legislation dealing with anti-Semitism.”

In November 2013, the definition was removed from the organisation’s website in “a clear-out of non-official documents.” A spokesman stated that the document had never been viewed as a valid definition and that “we are not aware of any official definition.”

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which lists 31 countries as members, states that it “unites governments and experts to strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance and to uphold the commitments to the 2000 Stockholm Declaration.”

It produced a non-legally binding working definition: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The IHRA went further stating: “The following examples may serve as illustrations: Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

Had the statement stopped at the clunky 38 words of the actual definition, then many people would have accepted it. However, once Israel is brought in, its potential effect stretches beyond Jews in any country and links them all to Israel, when many of them do not identify with it.

Scholars have argued that bringing Israel into the definition would affect the ability of the Palestinians to advocate for their rights. Brian Klug, a researcher in philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, argued that the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s — and by implication the IHRA’s — definition “proscribed legitimate criticism of the human rights record of the Israeli government by attempting to bring criticism of Israel into the category of anti-Semitism and does not sufficiently distinguish between criticism of Israeli actions and criticism of Zionism as a political ideology, on the one hand, and racially based violence towards, discrimination against, or abuse of, Jews.”

An opinion by Hugh Tomlinson, QC, concluded that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is unclear and confusing and should be used with caution and, in an opinion prepared for the Palestinian Return Centre, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, said the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the government is “not fit for purpose.”

The United Kingdom’s Conservative government has adopted the full IHRA definition. However, the British Labour Party, which has been engulfed in a controversy over anti-Semitism since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in September 2015, decided to develop its own code of conduct to deal with anti-Semitism in the party, based on the IHRA definition but clarifying and contextualising the examples related to Israel.

This brought the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby and raised the heat on Corbyn, who has been attacked by some party members for failing to adopt the IHRA definition in full.

While, in the past even Corbyn’s staunchest critics on the matter held back from accusing him of anti-Semitism, some, including MP Margret Hodge, have explicitly called him an anti-Semite. The controversy over anti-Semitism has reached a level that may split the party.

The reality is that Corbyn’s record on fighting racism, including anti-Semitism is exemplary. So why the attacks on him? The answer lies in his support for Palestinian rights, for an end to the suffering of the Palestinians and for recognition of a Palestinian state.

The conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism suits Israel. Its supporters have suggested — without evidence or justification — that the UK Jewish community would face an existential threat from a Corbyn-led government. The message to the British electorate is not to vote Labour while Corbyn is its leader.

The Labour Party’s adoption of the IHRA definition, including all 11 illustrative examples, was a huge blow to the Palestinians and their supporters. They said they fear it would restrict their ability to describe events leading to the creation of Israel, which they consider a racist endeavour. This is despite the party’s National Executive Committee adding that it would not “in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of the Palestinians.” This statement has been seen by Israel-supporters as a farce. Richard Angell, director of the centre-left Progress group, said: “The Jewish community made it clear and simple to Labour: Pass the IHRA definition in full — no caveats, no compromises.”

While the controversy is currently about the Labour Party, the effect of the adoption of the IHRA definition in full is chilling in that it is designed to curtail criticism of Israel. There has been no assessment made to measure how this would affect the Palestinian people’s ability to campaign for their rights, denied by Israel, without fear that they or their supporters would be accused of anti-Semitism.

It is important to note that the Palestinian people, who have been the victims of the creation of the state of Israel in their homeland and without their permission, have not been consulted about any definition of anti-Semitism that brings Israel into the equation.

While the Labour Party consulted with British Palestinians and solidarity groups about its code, which advised the National Executive Committee against its adoption, it adopted it, raising fears that legitimate criticism of Israel at its inception and its policies may be called anti-Semitism by pro-Israel groups despite the additional statement. This could lead to their suspension or expulsion or at least smear them as racists while an investigation takes place.

Attention turns to other public bodies that will be pressured to follow Labour and adopt the IHRA definition in full. They, too, should be cautious about taking steps through the adoption of the IHRA definition that could curtail discussion on the effect of the creation of the state of Israel through ethnic cleansing and dispossession and its policies on the Palestinian people. This is particularly important now that Israel passed the Nation-State Law, which confirms its apartheid status.

If free speech is to mean anything at all, its principles must be applied equally

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 10/8/2018

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, speaks after the announcement of his victory in the party's leadership election, in Liverpool, Britain September 24, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn [REUTERS/Peter Nicholls]

Britain’s two major political parties have been gripped by accusations that they have a problem with racism. In the case of the Labour Party, this allegedly takes the form of anti-Semitism, while in the Conservative Party, it is alleged Islamophobia. Clouding the anti-Semitism issue, somewhat, is the fact that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of such odious racism includes examples which conflate irrational and unacceptable hatred of Jews with opposition to the State of Israel and its policies against the Palestinians.

It has been difficult to avoid the controversy over the Labour Party’s handling of the accusations of deep rooted anti-Semitism against its members. Its Executive Committee’s caution about adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in full, without first considering its impact, has been welcomed by supporters of free speech, including Palestinians and their supporters. Having free and open discussion about the creation of Israel and its impact on the Palestinian people would be very difficult, if not impossible, without falling foul of the IHRA definition of contemporary anti-Semitism.

“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” cites the IHRA by way of an example of such anti-Semitism. It explains this further with, “e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

As far as Palestinians are concerned, the “ethnic cleansing” of their homeland — a description given by an Israeli historian — refers to the mass expulsion of over 700,000 men, women and children from Mandate Palestine in 1948. Israel has refused to allow the Palestinian Arabs to exercise their legitimate right to return to their land, while giving a “right of return” to any Jew from any part of the world. It is reasonable, I believe, to call that out as racism from the very birth of the state. Fast forward 70 years, and the recent passing of the Nation State Law by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, confirms that not only was Israel created through racism, but it also continues to this day; this law basically self-certifies Israel as an Apartheid state. Palestinians believe that they have every right to talk about such issues openly and honestly without being accused of anti-Semitism. This was articulated very clearly in a recent letter to the Guardiannewspaper.

BBC bows to pressure from Israel and changes Gaza headline

The Labour Party’s attempt to develop an anti-Semitism code that contextualises the examples in the IHRA relating to criticism of Israel, and ensures that its adoption will not have a negative impact on freedom of speech, has been slammed by a number of Jewish organisations in Britain. The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, which claim to speak for all Jews in the UK (although not all Jews agree that they do) led the procession against Labour’s decision, building on their distrust of party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to root out anti-Semitism in the party which goes back almost to the day that he was elected leader in 2015.

Prior to that leadership victory, Corbyn never faced accusations of racism; rather, he was acknowledged as a tireless campaigner against racism in all its manifestations. He has now been accused of racism and anti-Semitism by some of his own colleagues, including veteran MP Dame Margaret Hodge, who initially faced disciplinary action for the manner of her protest; that action was subsequently dropped.

No evidence has been presented by any of Corbyn’s critics, with not one example being provided of the Labour leader demonstrating anti-Semitic tendencies either as a backbench MP for more than three decades or as the leader of HM Opposition for three years. However, and this is possibly the crux of the matter, there is ample evidence of his support for the Palestinian people. Unlike the Conservative government, which has flatly refused to recognise Palestine as a state following Parliament’s decision to call on the Government to do so in 2014, the Labour leader has promised to recognise Palestine as a state if his party wins the next General Election.

Objective observers of the wall to wall coverage of this controversy simply have to conclude that those applying pressure on Labour to adopt the IHRA definition in full are motivated by their mission to protect Israel from criticism. Its supporters imply that it is an internationally-accepted definition, when in fact the “international” arises solely from the name of the organisation that developed it, which has a membership of just 31 countries.

The impact of the adoption of the IHRA definition in full will make anyone — a Palestinian or a supporter of the Palestinian people; individuals or organisations — think twice before speaking about Israeli racism, holding events to commemorate the dispossession of the Palestinians (the Nakba) or labelling Israel as an apartheid state. I am not aware of any other definition of bigotry, discrimination or prejudice against any ethnic, racial or other group, which brings the name and actions of a particular state into the equation.

MAB calls on Conservatives to tackle ‘endemic’ Islamaphobia

Islamophobia is another issue; former Foreign Secretary and Boris Johnson MP is in hot water having been accused of anti-Muslim hatred. There is no international definition of Islamophobia, but none of the dictionary definitions that I have seen brings a foreign state into it; most are variations of “hatred or fear of Muslims or of their politics or culture”. This mirrors traditional definitions of anti-Semitism, which were based around the “hatred of Jews because they are Jews” type of thing. The IHRA definition thus goes much further.

The Islamophobia charges against Johnson arose from his column in the Telegraph written following a visit to Denmark, which has banned the burka or full face veil, the niqab. While the headline above his article was “Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it” and was clearly against the Danish ban, he could not resist having a swipe at those women who wear the face veil. “It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes,” he wrote.

Jack Straw, UK's foreign secretary, at MEMO's 'Saudi in Crisis' conference, on November 19, 2017 [Middle East Monitor]

Jack Straw, UK’s foreign secretary, at MEMO’s ‘Saudi in Crisis’ conference, on November 19, 2017 [Middle East Monitor]

“If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly. If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto.”His “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” comments prompted outrage across large sections of the Muslim community and brought demands for an apology from Prime Minster Theresa May and Conservative Party chairman Branden Lewis; at the time of writing, Johnson has still not given any indication that he will apologise. Conservative Peer Lord Mohamed Sheikh asked for the party whip to be withdrawn from the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and 100 Muslim women have written to Lewis saying that an apology would be “insufficient”.

Johnson, they insist, must have chosen his words very clearly, making a “deliberate choice” to “inflame tensions in a way that makes it easier for bigots to justify hate crime against us.”Being the person he is, the former London Mayor and Foreign Secretary has generated much debate about the issue. While there has been a general rejection of the “letter box” and “bank robber” labels, it is notable that many contributors to radio and television discussions have rejected the calls for him to apologise, claiming that this would “inhibit free speech”.

The past year has seen a spike in hatred towards Islam and Muslims, though some try to separate the two, claiming that their issue is with Islam and its teachings rather than individual Muslims. This is certainly the position taken by the right-wing UK Independence Party, UKIP, and the recently-formed anti-Islam party For Britain, which is led by “far-right” Anne Marie Waters, a former UKIP leadership candidate. Both parties view immigration as a major issue, but it is Islam and immigration from Muslim countries and how to combat both that figures prominently in their policies. They are also both against the EU; former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has led a campaign for two decades to get the UK to leave the EU.

Nigel Farage, UKIP

Nigel Farage, UKIP

The Leave campaign won the Brexit referendum in 2016. Farage has expressed surprise at the attack on Johnson and used his LBC radio show to castigate Theresa May for requesting an apology from her former Cabinet colleague.The language used by Waters and Gerard Batten, the current leader of UKIP, when talking about Islam is undoubtedly Islamophobic. At a recent rally in support of far-right activist and former leader of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson — who was imprisoned for contempt of court — Batten referred to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as a “paedophile”. He also claimed that “rape gang members are predominately followers of the cult of Muhammad… But we, the infidels and kaffirs, are not supposed to talk about it. And people who do face possibly criminal prosecution under our so-called ‘hate laws’.”

The Conservative Party has been accused by a number of organisations and individuals of not doing enough to combat Islamophobia, including its former Chair, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. She pointed out that she has been warning the party “of its ‘Muslim problem’ for far too long,” and called for a “full independent inquiry” into Islamophobia therein.

The Corbyn anti-Semitism row reveals how desperate Israel and its lobbyists are

It is unfortunate that Boris Johnson’s words about the burka and his refusal to apologise will give comfort to the likes of Waters and Batten and their supporters. He may also play to the right-wing gallery of the Conservative Party, whose members also have a problem with Islam and Muslims and have backed his refusal to apologise. They include, of course, many of the people whose support he may need to win a leadership election.

What I take from the recent debates is that free speech must only be protected vehemently when Islam and Muslims are the topic under discussion, but it must be curtailed severely when references are made to Israel and Jewish support for its racist, apartheid policies. That much is clear from the relentless push for the Labour Party, local councils and other public bodies to adopt the IHRA definition in full and without question.

A combination of the toxic debate on Brexit and its focus on immigration two years ago; the open questioning of the value of a multicultural society; terrorist incidents; and the rise of the far-right has led to a rise in Islamophobic incidents in Britain; there has been an increase of 40 per cent in London alone. If Britain is to improve community relations then free speech must come with responsibility; those who seek to express hatred and bigotry must be challenged. The principles involved, though, must be applied consistently without fear or favour for one group or another.

Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have done more than any other party to deal with anti-Semitism but he has had to apologise repeatedly for not doing “more” under pressure from supporters of Israel. It seems that they will not rest until he is ousted. Accusations are now levelled at Muslims that they are raising Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and gunning for Boris Johnson to counter the attacks on Labour and Corbyn. The Labour leader’s critics from the Jewish community, by the way, tend to ignore the fact that there is more rampant anti-Semitism amongst right-wingers than those on the left. This has prompted one Rabbi to denounce Jewish “sympathy” for the far-right.

Those who claim the necessity for freedom of speech to challenge Muslims or the teachings of Islam cannot at the same time exclude other groups from similar robust exchanges. The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism does just that, curtailing free speech on Zionism and Israel by setting boundaries that are not set for any other form of discrimination or bigotry. This is unacceptable, and advocates of free speech should be loud and clear in their rejection of the definition’s adoption in full.

Attempts to smear Corbyn as an anti-Semite ignore Israel-Nazi comparisons made by Jews