This Labour Party row will not be settled by relying on a flawed and faulty definition of antisemitism

I asked the Labour Party to investigate Tom Watson's remarks about the death of Christ –  and it highlights the flimsy nature of the IHRA's near-sacrosanct words

Geoffrey Alderman
Wednesday 31 July 2019 11:24 BST
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Earlier this year the Equality & Human Rights Commission was asked to rule on whether the Labour Party has "unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish."

To investigate this complaint the EHRC will need to consider whether there is any objective yardstick against which the complaint might be benchmarked. On the face of it, there is: namely the “Working Definition” of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016.

This is likely to feature in the EHRC’s deliberations not least because the definition was formally adopted by the British government in January 2017, and has been embraced by numerous UK government organs and agencies, including the Labour Party. Indeed the EHRC has itself given notice that it may “have regard” to the IHRA document.

These endorsements have endowed the IHRA definition with almost sacrosanct status. But that does not mean that it is either perfect or even fit for purpose. It is – in fact – neither.

Space does not permit me here to explain how the definition came about. For those interested in exploring this history I recommend an article by antisemitism expert Michael Whine. As Whine demonstrates (and as the EHRC apparently accepts), the IHRA definition was never intended to be “a binding legal act.” It was designed as a note of guidance for police officers and human rights activists. As such, it’s very much a work in progress.

The definition is composed of two unequal parts. The first consists of the definition itself. The second comprises 11 examples of what that definition might mean in practice.

The definition declares:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The 11 examples embed numerous internal contradictions. One example affects to condemn as antisemitic “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” But the preamble that introduces all 11 examples explains that manifestations of antisemitism “might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Well, a number of political regimes around the world have been criticised because they are alleged to be pursuing policies reminiscent of the Nazis. So how in principle can it be antisemitic to draw a comparison between “contemporary” Israeli policy and that of the Nazis?

I personally do not believe any Israeli government has in fact ever pursued policies remotely reminiscent of the Nazis. The point I make is one of principle.

Another of the examples declares it to be antisemitic to accuse Jewish citizens “of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” This exemplar strikes me as very valid – but only up to a point.

There is no world Jewish conspiracy. There is no secret Jewish “government” endeavouring to manipulate to the exclusive advantage of us Jewish people the destinies of mankind. But I know many Jews who hold dual citizenship and who, under certain circumstances, would act (and have indeed acted) in the interests of Israel rather than of Britain. It should not be deemed antisemitic to point this out.

Amongst the 11 examples there is one astonishing omission. The examples include the use of “symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel),” but only when employed “to characterise Israel or Israelis.” But the accusation that it was the Jews who killed Jesus is in fact the oldest antisemitic trope, has nothing whatever to do with Israel or Israelis, and was repudiated long ago by the Second Vatican Council. Why does the IHRA definition brush this aside?

It was this omission I sought to highlight by asking the Labour Party to investigate remarks made by Tom Watson. His Easter message had asked readers to recall the arrest of Christ by "a squad of Roman soldiers under the direction of a servant to the High Priest." That such comments do not fall under the definition only highlights its flaws.

As the EHRC goes about its work, there is one other note of caution that I need to issue. Ever since the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence it has been very widely accepted that, in the words of Macpherson, “a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.”

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Thus (for example), the recent report issued by the University of Essex on “the experiences of Jewish students & staff” at that University accepts without question that the Macpherson Report “is the key UK national source of the view that the felt experience should define whether or not discrimination exists – and not observations made by outside observers.”

I beg to differ.

It is my view that simply because a Jewish person believes that they have been the victim of antisemitic prejudice does not mean that they have in fact been so victimised. Simply because Jewish people believe they have been victimised by or within the Labour Party does not mean that they have in fact been so victimised.

Each accusation brought to the attention of the EHRC must be measured against an empirically-derived benchmark. I believe that this benchmark should not be the deeply-flawed and much misunderstood IHRA working definition.

Geoffrey Alderman is an emeritus professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham

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