When cyclists signed up for this year’s Big Ride For Palestine, which raises funds for a charity aiding Palestinian children in Gaza, they were expecting to finish with a rally in a Tower Hamlets park. But the council took a secret decision to ban the rally using a false interpretation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) controversial “working definition” of antisemitism.
Internal mails, acquired by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign after submission of a freedom of information request, revealed that officials, influenced by the furore over antisemitism in the Labour Party, were concerned that references to “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” on the Big Ride’s website were antisemitic, according to the definition.
In fact, the definition says no such thing. The officials turned conditionality into one-sided certainty. The IHRA text explicitly states that examples it gives of critical discourse on Israel and Zionism “could be” seen as antisemitic, depending on context. It does not say that they are, no matter what, antisemitic. The council’s decision was therefore a clear and potentially illegal attack on freedom of speech.
Together with other critics of the definition, I warned that those hit hardest by the steamroller campaign to force Labour to adopt the IHRA text in full in September 2018 on the spurious grounds that it was the “universally accepted”, “gold standard” definition, without which the party would never resolve its perceived antisemitism problem, would be Palestinians.
Merely by describing their experience of Zionism (self-determination for Jews alone) as dispossession, denial of rights, ongoing Nakba – catastrophe – they would fall foul of the definition, and many would remain silent for fear of the consequences. Never mind that their experiences have been documented, in numerous definitive studies, by Jewish Israeli historians since the 1990s. We also cautioned that adoption by government, local authorities, universities and other public institutions would do nothing to protect Jews. In fact it was likely to make things worse. We were right.
Labour’s internal and external critics had no such qualms. For them, adoption of the IHRA was too little, too late. Relentless attacks on Corbyn and party officials handling complaints culminated in a hatchet-job Panorama programme on 10 July, “Is Labour Antisemitic?”, made by a known Jeremy Corbyn critic, John Ware. Disgracefully lacking balance, testimony came solely from Jewish members accusing the party of antisemitism. Not one alternative Jewish voice was heard. Numerous forensically detailed complaints were submitted to the BBC. Its reply claimed that the rationale of the programme was “how Labour is handling claims of antisemitism”, not “whether or not the problem exists”, when the title reflected the latter and not the former.
Not only had paying obeisance to the IHRA provided precious little respite for Labour, there was no sign that adoption of it anywhere was having any impact on actual antisemitism. News reports from across Europe and North America confirmed that far-right antisemitism was intensifying, but here in the UK there are strong signs that the IHRA has sown so much confusion it is having a negative impact on the quality, reliability and objectivity of reports issued by the Community Security Trust (CST), the private charity monitoring and combatting antisemitism for the establishment bodies of the Jewish community.
Its two recent reports – “Antisemitic Incidents January-June 2019” and “Engines of Hate: the online networks behind the Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis” – have attracted withering criticism for their muddled, possibly politically biased and selective scrutiny of social media hate. It’s not difficult to understand why.
In the “Engines of Hate” report, the grounds for implying that the 36 accounts discussed contribute to the alleged antisemitism in Labour are flimsy at best. “Proof” of antisemitism is based, for example, on guilt by association, on assuming that defending the party against accusations of antisemitism is antisemitic, on judging that criticism of public figures like Margaret Hodge and Rachel Riley, who vociferously attack Corbyn and Labour for being antisemitic, is antisemitic.
This is shockingly unprofessional. David Rosenberg, who previously praised CST for the reliability of its data, concluded that many allegations about Twitter accounts are “unsubstantiated by evidence, distorted and exaggerated, and made in bad faith for factional political purposes”.
The redefinition of antisemitism, placing Israel at its centre as the “collective persecuted Jew among the nations”, has been a gradual process gaining momentum since the 1990s. It was not a new initiative formulated by the IHRA and adopted at its plenary meeting in March 2016, as that body wants us to believe.
Experts have widely condemned the text as being so vague as to fail the test of any definition – to be definitive – and while it purports to allow for so-called “legitimate” criticism of Israel by the conditionality of its examples, its promoters categorically want people to ignore provisos and treat all the examples as antisemitic, come what may. This was what the original drafter of the definition, Ken Stern, the former chief antisemitism researcher at the American Jewish Committee, intended back in 2004. He still sticks by that, but in recent years has tellingly spoken often and powerfully against its growing use to stifle freedom of speech.
But it’s the very vagueness of the IHRA that has licensed a free-for-all of interpretation, delighting opponents of Palestinian demands for equal rights, the right of return for refugees, an end to ethnic cleansing and acknowledgement of the Nakba, and sowing such a degree of confusion and cowardice as to prompt a London council to show blatant disregard for Article 10 of the UK Human Rights Act protecting freedom of speech.
The sooner this non-legally binding, free speech-chilling, prolix and muddled definition, which does nothing to help fight real antisemitism, is set aside and common sense on why criticism of Israel and its repressive policies towards the Palestinians must be unequivocally accepted as the expression of perfectly acceptable political opinion and judgement, the better we will all be placed to challenge the deepening discrimination and racial hatred causing such damage to our societies.
The Tower Hamlets fiasco shows that the definition is severely impeding progress to reaching that end.
Antony Lerman is the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) and a senior fellow of the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna