UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tried in vain Tuesday to get his party to declare that it should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel and/or the circumstances of Israel’s establishment as racist.
At a Labour National Executive Committee meeting Tuesday, the party belatedly approved an international definition of anti-Semitism, in a bid to quell a long-running storm over Labour’s failure to stamp out anti-Semitism and its leader’s own alleged anti-Semitic statements. The NEC adopted the provisions of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance‘s definition of anti-Semitism, together with a vague and controversial caveat declaring that the commitment to the IHRA definition “will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.”
Corbyn, however, sought to further dilute the significance of adopting the IHRA definition, by having the meeting also approve a statement declaring that it should not “be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist.”
His proposal did not gain support, and was not brought to a vote. The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism does not preclude criticism of Israeli policies. However, it does state that it is anti-Semitic to claim that Israel’s very existence is racist.
Corbyn himself would appear to have breached clauses of the IHRA definition, and his failed push for the approval of his statement may have been designed to offset further controversy over his alleged breaches.
Among the examples of contemporary anti-Semitism cited in the IHRA definition are “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” — the provision Corbyn’s statement apparently sought to counter.
In the 1980s, Corbyn reportedly sponsored and was active on behalf of a group called the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine, whose official platform declared its “opposition to the Zionist state as racist, exclusivist, expansionist and a direct agency of imperialism.”
Another clause of the IHRA definition defines anti-Semitism as including “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” A video that surfaced last month featured Corbyn in 2013 comparing Israeli actions in the West Bank to the World War II Nazi occupation of Europe.
Corbyn’s failed bid to permit “the description of Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist” was castigated by Labour Friends of Israel
“It is contemptible but utterly unsurprising that Jeremy Corbyn prioritised and fought for the right of anti-Semites to describe the world’s only Jewish state as racist in a meeting supposedly about combating anti-Semitism,” said its director Jennifer Gerber, according to the Daily Mail. “It is now even more clear that Jeremy Corbyn is part of the problem not the solution.”
A leading British political correspondent, ITV’s Robert Peston, described the key phrase in Corbyn’s failed statement as “incendiary.” Peston suggested, however, that Labour might find its ability to rebuild relations with Britain’s Jewish community “enhanced” because he “did not get his way” at the NEC.
The London Times headline on Wednesday said Corbyn had been “slapped down by his allies.”
A Corbyn associate told the Telegraph that the party leader presented his statement because he wanted to make some “clarifications and protections” so that Palestinian rights were not “undermined.”
In the end, Corbyn was rebuffed and withdrew the item.
“This was not formally moved, and there were no votes on this agenda item; decisions were reached by consensus,” the Labour source said.
The NEC decided to adopt in full the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism amid major public outcry, but it added a statement that emphasized the right to “free speech” on Israel drew more criticism from Jewish groups.
“The NEC has today adopted all of the IHRA examples of antisemitism, 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,” a Labour spokesperson told the Guardian.
Labour Friends of Israel slammed the party and Corbyn for including the clarification.
“It is appalling that the Labour party has once again ignored the view clearly and repeatedly stated by the Jewish community: that it should adopt the full IHRA definition without additions, omissions or caveats,” Gerber said in a statement.
“A ‘freedom of expression on Israel’ clause is unnecessary and totally undermines the other examples the party has supposedly just adopted. Labour appears determined to provide a safe space for antisemites. This decision is a sad reflection on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party and the culture it has instilled,” she added.
The crisis over anti-Semitism in the Labour party has caused a major schism within its ranks and led to Jews to express fears over their future in the country.
Labour’s previous adoption of a more limited definition — omitting some of the alliance’s language around criticism of Israel — renewed claims that the left-of-center party has become hostile to Jews under Corbyn, a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause, an opponent of Israel and an alleged anti-Semite himself.
Rival groups of protesters gathered outside Labour’s London headquarters during the debate, shouting chants for and against Corbyn.
Corbyn says anti-Semitism has no place in the Labour Party, but he has been roundly criticized over reports of rampant anti-Jewish prejudice, for his own allegedly anti-Semitic statements and activities, and for not backing the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
Last week, veteran lawmaker Frank Field quit Labour’s grouping in Parliament, saying the party had become a “force for anti-Semitism.”
Also last week, Britain’s former chief rabbi Lord (Jonathan) Sacks branded Corbyn a dangerous anti-Semite.