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Will Labour’s investigation into anti-Semitism claims silence the critics?

June 3, 2016 at 1:26 pm

Last month, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, set up an independent inquiry to investigate claims of anti-Semitism within its ranks. He appointed Shami Chakrabarti, the former Director of human rights group Liberty, to lead the investigation. Along with Professor David Feldman and Baroness Janet Royall she is consulting communities around the country and taking submissions for the final report to be published during the summer.

Wisely, Chakrabarti has widened the remit of the inquiry to include all forms of racism, including Islamophobia. She will need to continue in this sagacious manner to stand any chance of silencing the critics. When it comes to her final report, not only will she be required to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism that clearly distinguishes between unacceptable hostility towards Jews and valid criticism of Israel, but she will also need to be seen to be unaffected by the pressure of the vociferously anti-Corbyn camp that stoked the row in the first place. Furthermore, her team’s ability to carry out an equally comprehensive investigation into the pernicious rise of anti-Muslim bigotry will determine the success of her investigation.

Having spent many years fighting for human rights with Liberty, Chakrabarti is acutely aware of the fact that prejudice and discrimination of all types need to be taken seriously. There is no hierarchy of bigotry and racism; Islamophobia is as repugnant as anti-Semitism and both are equally degrading and hurtful to the victims, as are other forms of racism.

However, a point that will require serious consideration is the fact that the identical qualitative status of all forms of racism does not mean that they are equally pervasive in society. At times, one form of discrimination becomes more prevalent than another, acceptable even to the extent of becoming “normal”. Anti-Semitism, for example, has been a scourge across Europe for centuries from governments down to ordinary people; discrimination against black and Asian people was rife in Britain not so long ago; and in the post 9/11 world, Islamophobia has become arguably the foremost expression of racist discrimination.

The reasons for this are not complicated. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of definition; there is greater clarity about what is and is not racism against people of African and Asian descent than there is about Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Notwithstanding the fact that all forms of racism and discrimination are a criminal offence, some forms, because of their dark history, are condemned universally and tolerated less within the public sphere. Labour’s initial decision to carry out an investigation into anti-Semitism, while islamophobia is equally if not more widespread, is revealing.

The definitions of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are contentious and complicated. This vagueness is one of the primary reasons why abuse can and does take place. There is a popular notion that Islam is a religion and not a race and so one cannot accurately be labelled a racist for holding prejudicial views about Islam and Muslims. It’s a very weak defence but many so-called intellectuals and commentators use it regularly as a shield for their bigotry.

The limitations of this argument are many. Race isn’t just an issue of skin colour; it is constructed socially and politically. There are no convincing biological reasons for characterising people as Asians, European or Black Africans, for example. Islam is a belief system but Muslims are racialised equally in our post 9/11 polarised politics, so much so that Muslims of every race and ethnicity are stripped of all of their other identifiers, with only their Islam and “Muslimness” remaining. Resorting to the defence of “Islam is a religion not a race” is nothing more than a cop-out for racists to remain in polite company without being shown the door.

Hence, the designation of Islam as a religion and concept does not discount criticism of Islam and Muslims from being racist; equally, it does not make all such criticism racist. The dividing line becomes clearer if we stretch the nub of the definition of anti-Semitism provided by Professor Feldman. In his 2015 report for the parliamentary committee against anti-Semitism, he discarded a number of its commonly held definitions. Amongst these was the working definition of the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, which included criticism of the state of Israel amongst its long list of anti-Semitic acts. Feldman narrowed the definition to “a form of hostility” against Jews.

This is a much-needed simplification of a complex issue. By extension, we can also say that hostility towards Muslims as a collective is also a form of racism. Showing enmity towards Muslims due to the actions of Saudi Arabia or Daesh is just as racist as displaying hostility towards Jews for the acts of Israel.

This simple and unambiguous formula has the merit of providing clarity, as definitions of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism shift constantly to suit political needs. In the current atmosphere, politicians and commentators can make outrageous comments about Muslims without being accused of racism, while the boundaries of anti-Semitism are being broadened, allowing valid criticism of Israel to be described as racist. Bradford MP Naz Shah’s tweet and Ken Livingstone’s comments — which pushed the whole anti-Semitism row into the public eye — were at worse clumsy and hurtful to some Jews, but it is stretching it to say that they were indicative of inherent anti-Semitism in either of the two people involved. Nonetheless, they were deemed offensive enough to launch the ongoing investigation.

The assertion that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is awash with anti-Semitism is neither a true reflection of the party nor of British society. The accusation of rising anti-Semitism within the Labour Party has been made by individuals connected to the pro-Israel lobby, as demonstrated in great detail by Asa Winstanley. Since his surprise victory in the leadership election last year, the pro-Palestine Corbyn’s position has been undermined constantly by the lobby, with accusations of anti-Semitism prominent.

The perception that there is a wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across Britain and Europe is, thankfully, not reflected by reality. The Metropolitan Police crime figures for April 2016 show that Islamophobic crimes have gone up by 72.4 per cent whereas crimes linked to anti-Semitism have fallen by 4.7 per cent. The picture is similar across Europe. According to a 2015 survey carried out by Pew Research Centre, based on 6,028 face-to-face and telephone interviews in EU member states, European attitudes towards Muslims are significantly more unfavourable than attitudes towards Jews, at 33 per cent and 13 per cent respectively. In Britain, which has a more favourable attitude towards both groups, 19 per cent still hold an unfavourable attitude towards Muslims compared to 7 per cent towards Jews.

Is the success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and growing negativity towards Israel across the globe being misrepresented as anti-Semitism? There is, after all, a trend that Israel now ranks very low in popularity around the world. There are also signs, according to Prof. Feldman, of a shift in attitude of the Jewish leadership in Britain towards Israel, which adds to the perception of rising anti-Semitism. “In the past, it was customary for British Jewish leaders as well as non-Jews to draw a distinction between antisemitism and the debate on Israel. They argued that criticism of the Israeli government should not be regarded as anti-Semitic by definition.” By 2014 there was a departure from this strategy, which resulted in the blurring of such a distinction. “This identification of support for Israel with opposition to antisemitism was novel in its scale of expression,” he added. “It was also dangerous.”

Accusations of anti-Semitism, with a few exceptions, are now directed at people who are critical of Israel with the clear aim of discrediting pro-Palestine activists and groups. When these potentially libellous claims are challenged, they are often shown to be inaccurate. Just this week, for example, the Times printed an apology for an article which suggested that MEMO’s senior editor is anti-Semitic, while the Telegraph issued a clarification over an article on the admission of Tony Greenstein into the Labour Party, saying that it wanted “to make clear that we had not intended to imply that Tony Greenstein is anti-Semitic.

The personalities spearheading Labour’s investigation into claims of anti-Semitism provide some hope that the final report will be based on a definition of anti-Semitism that does not conflate criticism of Israel with hostility towards Jews. Failing to maintain this distinction will compromise its conclusions. I also hope that it will recommend that the Conservative Party should carry out its own investigation into the alarming rise of Islamophobia within its ranks and raise awareness of the dangers inherent in the normalisation of anti-Muslim bigotry in public discourse. At this stage, though, it remains to be seen if the investigation will do enough to silence Labour’s critics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.