There is a great irony in the current row over anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. Critics of Jeremy Corbyn are frothing at the mouth with rage over his endorsement of a definition of anti-Semitism that omits controversial examples, which conflate criticism of Israel with racial discrimination against Jews. The same critics, however, have remained silent over the cosy relationship Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, enjoys with known anti-Semites. Under the new guidelines some of Netanyahu’s close buddies would in all likelihood be kicked out because of their anti-Semitic views if they were members of the party.
Perhaps these detractors of Corbyn share something in common with the Israeli prime minister. Could it be that they believe that an anti-Semite who is a friend of Israel is more deserving of friendship than an anti-racist who is critical of Israel? Their repeated assault against Corbyn while showing complete indifference to the visit to Israel of the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, suggests they are not as concerned about anti-Semitism as they are over shielding Israel against criticism.
The right-wing leader of national conservative Fidesz has many strange bedfellows including members of the far-right as well as Nazis. He has been condemned by Hungarian Jews for glorifying the Nazi-allied Miklós Horthy regime and minimising the role Hungarians played in the extermination of half the country’s Jewish population. And yet Orban – denounced as an anti-Semite – was greeted with open arms by Netanyahu two days ago.
Orban’s anti-Semitic views have made him a pariah in the eyes of Hungarian Jews. For over three years, the Orban government has been running a political campaign warning that hordes of Muslim immigrants are about to descend on Europe. The face of that campaign is an elderly Jewish financier, and the terms used to describe, it’s been said, could have been lifted directly from the notorious forgery the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Jewish leaders in Hungary denounced the campaign as anti-Semitic; Israel’s ambassador in Budapest also sent a harsh letter condemning Orban’s use of Jewish stereotypes, only to be slapped down by Netanyahu.
His visit to Israel also incited protests as furious demonstrators blocked his motorcade outside the Holocaust memorial, to denounce his nationalistic policies and apparent embrace of a Holocaust-era Nazi collaborator. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust are said to have been amongst the protestors.
While Orban enjoys adulation in Israel, which is normally reserved for a state visit, the Labour Party is once again tearing itself apart over the minutia of a definition of anti-Semitism; a definition, which in all likelihood would prevent Orban from ever becoming a member of the party. Corbyn’s detractors claim that the guideline adopted by the party is “watering down” the widely accepted “working definition” of anti-Semitism framed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The row has become so toxic, veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge lashed out publicly and is alleged to have denounced Corbyn as an “anti-Semitic racist”. The outburst by Hodge was followed by calls for Jewish Labour MPs to quit the party and form an independent block.
Contention over the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party boils down to the claim that IHRA’s definition is “universally agreed” and Labour needs to simply get on board. In their rejection, critics of the NEC code give the impression that Labour has rejected the IHRA definition and replaced it with something new.
That is by no means the case. The NEC has not only kept the core features of the IHRA’s guideline, it has also enhanced it.
Critics of the NEC code have failed to notice that a “working definition”, which is what the IHRA code represents, is as the adjectives suggests; work in progress. It is not sacred text that is set in stone.
The NEC believes that its guidelines take the IHRA Working Definition and supplement it “with additional examples and guidance”, thus creating “the most thorough and expansive Code of Conduct on anti-Semitism introduced by any political party in the UK”.
Jon Lansman, a fellow member of the NEC, calls the code “the new gold standard” for political parties, “stronger than anything of its kind adopted by any political party in this country”. The code, he says, “fully adopts the IHRA definition, and covers the same ground as the IHRA examples” but goes further, making it more workable.
The actual text of the NEC could not be clearer: “To assist in understanding what constitutes anti-Semitism, the NEC has endorsed the definition produced by the [IHRA] in 2016”. The part of the definition adopted by IHRA, which is universally accepted is reproduced: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
In both the NEC code and the IHRA code, the identical definition is included in the guideline and set apart using bold text. In other words the NEC takes the IHRA “working definition” in its entirety and without altering it one iota.
So what’s all the fuss about? The difference between the NEC code and the IHRA code is purely to do with the examples they select to illustrate what they believe may or may not constitute anti-Semitism. Examples are, by their nature, not definitive and the Labour NEC believes that it has offered un-ambiguous clarification of anti-Semitism for its members while also defending free speech.
Detailed comparison of the two guidelines shows that five of the 11 IHRA examples are taken word for word. In the sections where it differs the NEC Code improves upon the IHRA document. Four examples of anti-Semitism in the NEC guideline that are in the IHRA guideline have been omitted: “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations;” “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;” “Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation;” “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
These four examples are seen to be problematic mainly due to the fact that they conflate anti-Semitism with the policies of the state of Israel. Their non-inclusion perhaps now seems perfectly sensible following the adoption of the controversial “Jewish Nation State Bill”, which has been widely denounced as a racist bill that has institutionalised apartheid in the country.
Israel, by its own definition, is no longer a state of its citizens but a state that favours and privileges Jews over non-Jews. This fact is now enshrined in the closest thing the country has to a constitution; the Basic Laws. The UK, France, US or any country for that matter would not be a democracy if the constitution denied self-determination to non-Christians and non-Whites. Their political systems would be denounced as a “racist endeavour” for treating millions in the country as second class citizens. Nor would these countries be regarded democratic if they favoured one race or religion over another and enshrined in law the creation of exclusive communities.
If critics of Corbyn are honest about fighting racism and anti-Semitism they ought to take a moment to reflect on the racist apartheid policies of Israel and the people the country’s prime minister regards as friends, before starting another war in their ranks.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.