Antisemitism, in Europe anyway, is thousands of years old, and has taken many different forms.
Since the 19th century, it has a “left-wing” variant, in which anticapitalist feeling is directed against Jews as easily-targeted scapegoats for capitalism rather than, or as well as, against the impersonal and relatively-complicated real mechanisms of capitalist exploitation and oppression.
The Stalin regime in the USSR coined (in 1949-53), and a range of groups self-defined as left-wing have promoted (especially since the 1970s), a new sub-variant, in which Israel is demonised as the world’s great font of imperialism and racism. “Zionists” are equated with fascists and Nazis.
Older variants of antisemitism still circulate. But most antisemitism today, on the right and the would-be left, is framed by the idea is that the Israeli Jewish nation is a uniquely racist and imperialistic nation which should be conquered and suppressed.
The left-wingers who believe that would reject with horror any “racial” antipathy to Jews, and yet their mental constructs make them hostile to that huge majority of Jews who have some reflex identification with Israel.
The row over the Labour Party National Executive’s new code of conduct on antisemitism (bit.ly/as/c-lp) has to be assessed in this political context.
Bill Davies (Solidarity 475) argues that criticism of the code is misplaced because “Labour’s new guidelines are clearly based on the IHRA guidelines and include all the substantive points (except maybe one)”. I think Bill is wrong. There is justice to the criticism.
The IHRA text (bit.ly/ihra-d) is by no means ideally precise, but the Labour Party leadership itself has taken it as a point of reference, and so its deliberate exclusions and departures should be scrutinised. Bill concedes that one “substantive point” in the IHRA text is not covered in the Labour Party text:
“Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.
In practice this refers to the commonplace demand on Israel that it accept a “right of return” of some six million Palestinians who have ancestral connections to territory now part of Israel.
This demand is not a democratic one for freedom of movement. It is a demand for the territory in which an Israeli Jewish nation has grown up since 1948 to be given over to some (necessarily non-Israeli) agency which will organise mass resettlement of the Palestinian Arab diaspora. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh explicated it, during the recent Gaza border protests, as the demand that the Israeli Jews retain “not an inch” of the land of pre-1948 Palestine.
The Labour Party text does include the words: “the Jewish people have the same right to self-determination as any other people”. But this is unclear, both because the issue is the rights of the existing Hebrew nation in Israel, not of a worldwide “Jewish people” which is not in fact a political unit, and because “self-determination” is a term with clear meanings in some traditions (including the Marxist tradition) but not necessarily in general usage.
The Labour Party text excludes the IHRA wording which condemns “claim[s] that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”. To criticise Israel for racist policies is right and proper: implicitly licensed here, however, are claims that the very existence, in whatever form, with whatever policy changes, of any Israeli state, is in and of itself “racist”.
The words in the Labour Party which Bill describes as “addressing” double standards “in a different way” is:
“It is not racist to assess the conduct of Israel — or indeed of any other particular state or government — against the requirements of international law or the standards of behaviour expected of democratic states (bearing in mind that these requirements and standards may themselves be contentious)”.
These platitudinous words do not “address” the double standard at all.
John Strawson, a former Marxist activist, is now broadly right-wing Labour, and announces that he has quit the Labour Party rather than continue the political fight on this issue. Yet his criticisms are telling:
“Despite the pleadings of the Jewish community, the Labour Party... created a test of antisemitic ‘intent’, not in the IHRA definition...
“The Labour party leadership claims that the reason for not adopting the full IHRA definition and examples is because it wants to ensure free speech on Israel and Palestine.
“Yet the IHRA definition explicitly says that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic’.”
The lawyer Stephen Sedley — in an article denouncing Jeremy Corbyn, back in 2016, for backing the IHRA text: bit.ly/s-sed — has claimed that the IHRA text tags “everything other than anodyne criticism of Israel as antisemitic”. But that can be true only if no other country in the world is liable to more-than-anodyne criticism.
Strawson continues: “As a staunch supporter of Palestinian self-determination and an opponent of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory after the 1967 war, I regularly criticise Israeli policy.
“For a period of eleven years I was... a visiting professor teaching at [Birzeit University in the West Bank]... I was there during the worst of the second intifada and I know something about how dreadful the humiliations and oppression of occupation are.
“I agree with the International Court of Justice that the wall that has been built on Palestinian territory is illegal.
“However, I can make all these criticisms without resorting to antisemitism or calling for the destruction of Israel. In any event antisemitism hardly aids the cause of the Palestinians”.
Likewise David Hirsh’s:
“The kind of antisemitism which is now legitimate in the Labour Party is pushed and defended by people who think of themselves as opponents of antisemitism. They have no antisemitic intent and so would not be found antisemitic by a tribunal using the homemade definition. Yet they still ostracise those who oppose antisemitism and they are responsible for a culture which nurtures and licenses antisemitic ways of thinking”.
Of course, much of the denunciation by Jewish community leaders and Labour right-wingers is informed by prior hostility to the recent leftish direction of the Labour Party. They have been spoken out much less against antisemitism in the Blair-Brown Labour Party (bit.ly/060309), or against antisemitism in the Tory Party (a Campaign Against Antisemitism survey shows antisemitic attitudes markedly stronger among Tory than among Labour supporters: bit.ly/as-svy)
They hype it up with talk about “the existential’ — existential, no less — “threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government” (bit.ly/jc-et). They demand “thousands” of expulsions from the Labour Party, a rate incompatible with any proper hearings, and seem largely uninterested in promoting the educational discussion which should be the core of the remedy.
Yet the Labour Party Leader’s Office cannot be given the benefit of the doubt as “innocents” trying to improve the IHRA’s wording. Powerful in that Leader’s Office are Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray.
These are long-time Stalinists and prominent people in the Stop The War Coalition. STW chose to tack onto the mass protests against the US invasion of Iraq the sponsorship of the British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and the slogan “Free Palestine”, deliberately vague but given bite by placards on the marches adapting the “Keep Britain Tidy” graphic to show a Star of David being binned.
There is good reason to be suspicious about their omissions and additions.