A Jewish organisation which has acted as a proxy for the Israeli Embassy in Britain and lobbies on its behalf is putting pressure on the Labour Party to adopt a controversial definition of anti-Semitism. The definition in question insists that comparing Israel’s policies and practices to those of the Nazis is racist, a situation which has been likened to “anarchy and chaos” by a leading academic.
The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) claims that the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) has treated Jews unfairly by adopting a definition of anti-Semitism which excludes criticism of the State of Israel as an example of racism. The JLM wants the definition of anti-Semitism drafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) to be adopted in its entirety. Labour’s NEC, however, dropped the section of this definition which claimed that “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the State of Israel is a racist endeavour” are examples of anti-Semitism.
While Labour’s new code of conduct drew heavily on the IHRA working definition the party took issue with features of that definition which many have denounced as a suppression of free speech. The examples cited in the IHRA definition were particularly criticised by Palestine solidarity campaigners and groups like Jewish Voice for Labour, who said that it risked legally defining support for a unitary democratic state for Palestinians and Israelis alike, for example, as “anti-Semitic”.
It’s reported that the JLM will give the Labour Party new legal advice ahead of a crunch meeting tomorrow. The pro-Israel group, it is believed, will argue that the decision to exclude some examples of “anti-Semitism” from the IHRA definition breaches a widely held principal in Britain over what constitutes racism. A number of pro-Israel organisations, as well as some Labour MPs opposed to the leader of their party, Jeremy Corbyn, have also joined in to protest against what they believe is the unfair treatment of Britain’s Jews. Their main gripe is that the Labour Party’s definition fails to take into consideration what they say is an established principle for judging what a racist incident actually is.
One of the many issues highlighted in the MacPherson Report (1999), which examined the failure of the police to investigate properly the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence by a gang of white thugs, was the inability to keep a proper record of racist incidents. To address this failure, MacPherson offered a definition that said, “A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.”
MacPherson tilted the balance in favour of the victims of such attacks by emphasising their perceptions. It was intended to overcome the subjective judgement of police officers, as it was found that they were underreporting racist incidents. The intention, as others have pointed out, was to maximise rather than minimise the reporting of potentially racist incidents so that actual racist incidents would not get lost in the reporting process.
MacPherson’s findings kicked off a major overhaul of the system of recording racist incidents in Britain and encouraged victims to come forward, without feeling that their allegations would be ignored. While empowering victims was high on the agenda, MacPherson never intended to suggest that every allegation and the perceptions of the victims would override legal due process in determining whether someone was racist or not.
This is a point of immense importance articulated by Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the University of London’s Birkbeck College. Feldman gave the proper meaning and context of what is often referred to by the JLM as the “MacPherson principal” in the 2015 sub-report to the All Party Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism. The lecturer on Jews and Anti-Semitism wrote: “It is sometimes suggested that when Jews perceive an utterance or action to be anti-Semitic that this is how it should be described. In the UK this claim looks for support to the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, written by Lord Macpherson.”
After repeating Macpherson’s definition of “a racist incident”, Feldman said: “If we look at the context in which this quotation appears, it is unambiguously clear that Macpherson intended to propose that such racist incidents require investigation. He did not mean to imply that such incidents are necessarily racist. However, Macpherson’s report has been misinterpreted and misapplied in precisely this way.”
Feldman went on to describe the anarchy and chaos that would ensue if the pro-Israel groups forced their definition of anti-Semitism on the rest of society: “If we rest our definitions of racism on the perceptions of minority groups then we open the way to conceptual and political chaos. For if the identification of racism becomes a matter of subjective judgement only then we have no authority other than the perception of a minority or victim group with which to counter the contrary subjective opinions of perpetrators who deny that they are racists.”
Without an anti-racist principle which can be applied generally, Feldman insisted, we are left in a chaotic situation in which one subjective point of view faces another. “Jews in the UK,” he pointed out, “have diverse and, in some respects, [hold] contradictory perceptions of anti-Semitism.” He concluded that “this gravely weakens any attempt to take Jews’ perceptions as the basis for a definition of anti-Semitism.” This does not mean that, “Jews’ sense of offence, where it arises, is insignificant. But it does mean that their sense of being offended should not be elevated so that it becomes the touchstone for judging whether or not something is anti-Semitic.”
By refusing to accept the controversial elements of the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, the Labour Party has taken a bold step. Many have described the IHRA definition as being “deeply controversial” because of its conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Progressive Jewish voices have given their backing to the new Labour code of conduct, saying that it encourages “free speech on issues to do with Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, and with Zionism.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.