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Labour bows to pressure and adopts controversial code on anti-Semitism

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn [Chatham House/Flickr]
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn [Chatham House/Flickr]

Following a summer of bitter infighting over anti-Semitism the ruling body of the British Labour Party has adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in full after rejecting Jeremy Corbyn’s request to add a clarifying statement that said “it cannot be considered racist to treat Israel like any other state or assess its conduct against the standards of international law”.

Party leaders and members met in London yesterday amidst crowds of protestors for what turned out to be a long and tense meeting over the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which was included in the party’s code of conduct in 2016. In July Labour’s National Executive Council (NEC) visited its code of conduct and approved the IHRA definition but decided to leave out or add clarifications to four of the 11 accompanying examples that were cited in the document as being anti-Semitic. The four examples related to the state of Israel.

While critics of the IHRA definition maintained that adopting all of the examples cited in the code would restrict the party’s ability to criticise the Israeli government’s actions against Palestinians, a row erupted within the party over the NEC’s decision. The mainstream media along with Corbyn’s critics accused the Labour leader of refusing to abide by an internationally accepted code on anti-Semitism.

The IHRA definition was widely presented by Corbyn’s critics as the gold standard definition of anti-Semitism endorsed by the entire international community. A false narrative was being pushed by the media and the Conservative Party to berate Corbyn over the IHRA code. Not only have the overwhelming majority of countries not adopted the IHRA definition, even the Tories do not include the controversial definition in their rule book. The Lib Dems, the other major party in the UK, only now adopted the definition in its code of conduct.

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The claim that the IHRA code had been internationally endorsed has also come under scrutiny. Of the 195 countries in the world only 31 have adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Of those only six are said to have endorsed and adopted it fully with all the examples. The six include: Austria, which is threatening to make Jews put their names on a state register in order to get kosher meat; Lithuania, whose government supports commemorations of Nazi wartime events; and Israel, which has just enacted a constitutional law entrenching apartheid.

Academics and legal experts also pointed to concerns over the code. Jewish academic experts, notably, David Feldman, Brian Klug, Tony Lerman, who have all made critical studies of the IHRA document found it inadequate and unhelpful in numerous ways. Concerns were also raised by the author of the IHRA code, Kenneth Stern. He condemned its use saying that the document was being used around the world to chill free speech. A legal opinion of the document was provided by Sir Stephen Sedley, Hugh Tomlinson QC and Geoffrey Robertson QC who explained in detail the failings of the document.

Despite the flaws within the document and concerns over its chilling effect on free speech, leading Jewish figures, supported by Corbyn’s critics in the party, led a campaign, which many described as a witch hunt, to get the Labour leader thrown out. MP Margaret Hodge accused Jeremy Corbyn of being an anti-Semite and compared the investigation into her behaviour by the Labour Party to that of the Nazis. Former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, also waded in and stirred controversy after equating the Labour leader to Enoch Powell, a notorious British Conservative MP who opposed immigration into the UK. Lord Dubs, a Labour peer and Holocaust survivor denounced Sacks’s comments yesterday and said he had lost the argument by making such a comparison.

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In what is being described as a climb-down, Labour’s 40 strong party body backed the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, with an additional clause to protect freedom of speech, in an attempt to end the crisis which has paralysed the party.

A party spokesperson said: “The NEC has today adopted all of the IHRA examples of anti-Semitism, in addition to the IHRA definition which Labour adopted in 2016, alongside a statement which ensures this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.”

Details of the closed meeting were revealed by the spokesperson who reported that Corbyn had made an additional statement to the meeting describing action being taken against anti-Semitism and expressing solidarity with the Jewish community and the importance of the protection of Palestinian rights.

Corbyn is reported to have made a proposal to include a paragraph that said: “It should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.” The paragraph was withdrawn and a shorter sentence that says “this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians” was adopted.

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Labour was accused of “sullying” the IHRA definition and was forced to defend the inclusion of an additional paragraph to protect freedom of speech. The shadow attorney general, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, who carried out a review into anti-Semitism in Labour for Jeremy Corbyn, told the Today programme: “There was no sullying,” adding that “the words were not a caveat, were not a dilution. The words are true, which is that accepting these examples, in my view, in no way negates reasonable free speech around these difficult issues around Israel and Palestine”.

Asked if she thought it was acceptable to describe the circumstances around the foundation of the state of Israel as racist, Chakrabarti said: “It depends how you do it. There has to be a space for disagreement in a reasonable way, otherwise we cannot move forward around one of the biggest geopolitical problems of my lifetime.”

It’s too early to say if Labour’s acquiescence will draw a line in the sand. Having outraged the British public by comparing her experience in the Labour Party to that of the Nazis – which puts her in contravention of the IHRA code of conduct – Hodge made it clear that she will not stop her campaign against her leader even if the full IHRA definition was adopted and that only through the removal of Corbyn would she and her colleagues become satisfied.

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