UK Labour Party fails to draw line under anti-Semitism row

The controversy focuses on some examples included in the IHRA anti-Semitism definition, with many complaining about vague language.

LONDON - Britain’s Labour Party, after months of heated debate and criticism, formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition and 11 accompanying examples of anti-Semitism into its official code of conduct. However, the United Kingdom’s main opposition party included a free speech “caveat” that all but guarantees that the dispute will continue.

Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) agreed on September 4 to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition in full over the objection of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Many in the party had said they hoped that the NEC decision would end the months-long saga over anti-Semitism that has dogged the party and allow a united Labour to focus on addressing the government’s record, rather than internal issues.

However, the NEC simultaneously approved a statement that “ensures this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians,” which sparked a backlash from the Jewish community and renewed criticism of the party.

Campaign group Labour Against Antisemitism described the statement as a “get-out-of-jail card.”

“There can be no caveats, no conditions and no compromises with racism,” a spokesman said. “The NEC has ignored the requests of the Jewish community and denied the fundamental right of that community to define its own discrimination.”

The Labour Friends of Israel group echoed the criticism. “A ‘freedom of expression on Israel’ clause is unnecessary and totally undermines the other examples the party has supposedly just adopted,” it said.

The controversy focuses on some examples included in the IHRA anti-Semitism definition, with many complaining about vague language.

In July, the Labour Party adopted an amended version of the IHRA definition that left out some examples, including one that said denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination “by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour” was anti-Semitic.

Technical questions on the difference between “a state of Israel” and “the state of Israel” bogged down the NEC debate before the IHRA definition was eventually passed in full. Members questioned whether supporting a single-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would now be deemed anti-Semitic.

Exposing the deep divisions within Labour over the issue, Corbyn initially intended that an even stronger statement be issued protecting those who describe the creation of Israel as “racist.”

“It cannot be considered racist to treat Israel like any other state or to assess its conduct against the standard of international law,” Corbyn’s statement read. “Nor should it be regarded as 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.”

Corbyn chose not to table the statement after it became clear that it would not pass.

However, this is a view that is held by many in the party, including among grass-roots members where antipathy towards Israel is high. There were protests outside the NEC, with anti-IHRA protesters significantly outnumbering those who supported its adoption.

Anti-IHRA protesters held placards that read “Freedom of speech must include freedom to criticise Israel” and chanted “Israel is a racist state.”

The anti-Semitism row is part of a wider split within Labour between Corbyn and his supporters and parliamentarians who would prefer a more centrist policy. For most of his career, Corbyn had been on the fringes of the Labour Party and has faced renewed criticism for some of his previous actions, such as meeting with Hezbollah and Hamas figures.

It looks unlikely that the NEC decision will draw a line under the anti-Semitism controversy in Labour but many said they hoped that it could at least signal the beginning of the end to the issue.

Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris, who was involved with the NEC’s consultation over anti-Semitism, said the issue would only be resolved when the wider splits within the party were healed.

“One thing the last three years has taught us is that statements and definitions on their own do not stop the controversy over anti-Semitism… While acknowledging that the IHRA has its flaws, I pointed out that the NEC’s proposed alternative was deeply problematic; and, for better or worse, failing to adopt the IHRA definition would be experienced as a hateful act by many Jews,” he wrote for the Guardian.

“I also stated that the IHRA, if interpreted carefully, should not inhibit pro-Palestinian activism.”

Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London. You can follow him on twitter @mahmudelshafey

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.