LONDON — On Tuesday, Britain’s Labour party delivered its most extraordinary snub yet to the country’s Jewish community.
After two years in which it has been rocked by allegations of Jew-hatred within its ranks — and countless promises to mend its ways — Jeremy Corbyn’s party decided it knows best how to define anti-Semitism.
In so doing, it purposefully rejected the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism — an explanation which has been adopted by the UK government, Scottish government, Welsh assembly, more than 130 local councils, the police, the judiciary, and prosecutors.
In rejecting this definition, the party, suggested the Jewish Labour Movement (an organization not given to hysterics or hyperbole), had acted in a “deliberate and offensive reckless manner.”
Instead, Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee, decided to opt for a code of conduct which deliberately omits key IHRA illustrative examples of anti-Semitism — all of them relating to criticism of Israel.
These guidelines matter. They will be used by Labour to decide the cases of a huge backlog of members who have been accused of anti-Semitism and whose chances of escaping disciplinary action have now been immeasurably aided.
Labour did not blunder into this decision blindly.
It has spent the fortnight since the code was first published doggedly defending its position and claiming that it simply “expands and contextualizes” the IHRA.
Indeed, Jon Lansman, the Jewish leader of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group and a member of the NEC, went so far as to argue that Labour’s guidelines “should be seen as the new gold standard.”
Nonetheless, the NEC was fully aware of the anger and hurt its decision would cause by defying the many voices — including the chief rabbi, Jewish communal bodies, JLM (Labour’s sole Jewish affiliate), and the parliamentary party — who had urged it to think again.
This defiance is highly illuminating. It sheds light on the state of the Labour party, the hard left’s obsession with Israel, and how fraught relations between the community, Israel and Corbyn are likely to be should he make it to Downing Street.
It is now absolutely clear that the Labour leader is unwilling to meet the demands put to him by the Jewish community when the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council met with him in April in the wake of the previous month’s demonstration in Parliament Square.
Moreover, as the new president of the Board, Marie van der Zyl, stated in an interview with The Times of Israel last week, their requests — which included the party adopting the IHRA definition in full — were the “absolute minimum” standards that were expected of Labour.
Indeed, since the Board of Deputies’ meeting with Corbyn, the party has also decided to appoint an in-house counsel to oversee disciplinary cases with alleged links to activists embroiled in the anti-Semitism row. That decision had already provoked the senior Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger to declare that she has “no faith” in the party’s processes to tackle anti-Semitism.
That the party has failed the tests set for it by the community is no longer in dispute; that anyone expected it to do so is perhaps more surprising.
When the crisis that precipitated the “Enough is Enough” demonstration in March broke following the revelation that Corbyn had defended an anti-Semitic mural, it took three personal statements before the Labour leader settled on a form of words which looked like he understood the nature of the problem.
Even then, his admission that “anti-Semitism has surfaced within the Labour party, and has too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples” stood in stark contrast to his words just hours before, which half-heartedly apologized for “pockets” of anti-Semitism within the party.
Corbyn was at yesterday’s NEC meeting and reportedly sat silently while his supporters made claims such as: “In 50 years I have never seen any anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. I met an Auschwitz survivor who said the same.”
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, under pressure, the Labour leader and his team tested the waters to see how far they needed to go. With Jews no longer massing in Parliament Square and the media and Westminster village distracted by the apparent death-throes of Theresa May’s government as it tries to square the Brexit circle, they have retreated to more familiar terrain.
For the avoidance of doubt, Labour has now made it crystal clear that it believes it is more qualified than the Jewish community to decide what constitutes anti-Semitism. This, as Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis put it in an unprecedented last-ditch appeal to the NEC, is an “astonishing” claim, and one that sends “a message of contempt to the Jewish community” and threatens to place the party on “the wrong side of the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance.”
Labour’s belief in its own ability to define Jew-hatred flies in the face of the so-called Macpherson principle, a bedrock of anti-racist policy in the UK for the past two decades, which suggests that a racist incident is one perceived to be racist by the victim.
It is for this very reason that Labour has reportedly been warned by legal counsel that its stance could breach Britain’s Equality Act. Jewish Labour Movement’s chair Ivor Caplin told Jewish News the group is planning to refer its own party to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, a government watchdog.
It is a unique position for an allegedly progressive political party to take. But, then again, Labour’s ability to unite the 68 rabbis from all the diverse streams of British Judaism who wrote to the Guardian newspaper accusing the party of acting in a “most insulting and arrogant” manner suggests that this whole debacle has a certain inimitable quality.
Labour may have attempted to sugar this bitter pill with a pledge of a “further review,” but this reeks of a meaningless sop. The NEC already knows what the Jewish community thinks; it may spend more time scratching around for people to justify a decision it has already made, but in so doing, it’s only likely to stoke even further anger.
It is also clear that the parliamentary party — which on Monday night overwhelmingly voted to adopt the IHRA definition in full — has much soul-searching to do.
Corbyn and his hard left allies have no more respect for Labour’s elected representatives than they do for the Jewish community. Moderate Labour MPs must now decide what options are open to them when their genuine desire to rebuild the party’s shattered relationship with Jews is so clearly and publicly rejected by the leadership.
Indeed, reports that the veteran Jewish Labour MP, Dame Margaret Hodge, confronted Corbyn last night in parliament and accused him of being a “an anti-Semite and a racist” suggests how frayed tempers now are.
Finally, this episode indicates two further, highly telling but disturbing facets of Corbyn’s Labour party.
First, so great is its hatred for the Jewish state that the hard left is utterly determined that its ability to criticize it should be as unfettered as possible. This surely accounts for the fact that Labour will not unequivocally say, as the IHRA illustrative examples do, that accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel than their own nations; claiming the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavor; and comparing Israeli actions to the Nazis constitutes anti-Semitism.
Moreover, the new Labour code of conduct states that “contentious” comments about Israel “will not be treated as anti-Semitism unless accompanied by specific anti-Semitic content” or other evidence of “intent.” This is hurdle which, experts believe, is “an almost impossible thing to prove.”
Labour, argues Mark Gardner of the Community Security Trust, “wants to strip Israel from the definition of anti-Semitism, but the IHRA definition includes it because anti-Israel hatred is so important to contemporary anti-Semitism.”
In reality, the very notion that the IHRA definition is somehow designed to silence those who oppose the policies of the current Israeli government is utterly fallacious, as it clearly states: “Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”
That is perhaps why Yachad — a left-wing group which, as it director Hannah Weisfeld wrote last week, “has not once shied away from criticizing the Israeli government” — was unequivocal in its assertion that the full IHRA definition reflects the opinion of the vast majority of British Jews.
There is, however, a darker potential explanation for Labour’s seemingly unfathomable behavior: that elements of the Labour leadership have decided that among its core supporters there is political mileage to be gained in being seen to “defy the Jews.”
In a reference to Labour’s slogan “for the many not the few,” one senior Labour figure despairingly suggested to me last night, “The Jews and ‘the few’ have been synonymous. Bankers, financiers, lawyers, Tories, the parliamentary party.”
In short, a once-great party, renowned for its commitment to equality and social justice, seems dangerously close to playing the race card.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”
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