Labour’s IHRA row is about whether Israel should exist at all

Jeremy Corbyn at a Stop The War demonstration in 2012. (Credit: Jewish News)
Jeremy Corbyn at a Stop The War demonstration in 2012. (Credit: Jewish News)

Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis rages on.

The party’s latest fudge on the IHRA definition is to accept all of its illustrative examples, but to add a “free speech” amendment to it.

It is a wrecking amendment.

Whenever the first case of anti-Semitism occurs that contravenes one of the contested IHRA examples – for example, a member making an Israel-Nazi comparison – the accused will simply appeal to their free speech rights to be let off the hook.

If the Labour leadership’s concerns were limited to free speech only, the unmodified IHRA definition would have been enough. It already includes adequate safeguards for free speech. The definition states “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic”.

Its examples are also introduced by saying they “may serve as illustrations… taking into account the overall context”. They are conditional, rather than prescriptive, preventing automatic rulings on anti-Semitism with no regard for the circumstances or full substance of an incident.  

But the IHRA’s protections for free speech do not go so far as to invalidate the illustrative examples completely. So Labour’s extra amendment was needed to do exactly that. Labour’s NEC have created the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card for the illustrative examples of anti-Semitism the Labour leadership objects to.

This raises the question: why is this the hill Jeremy Corbyn is choosing to die on? Why prolong a public row that has already scuppered Labour’s summer campaign, and now threatens to dominate conference season too?

It comes down to the content of the contested examples themselves – and one in particular.

Though Labour originally excluded or modified four of the IHRA examples, by the time of Tuesday’s meeting fundamental objections remained only on one: ”Denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination, e.g. by calling the existence of a state of Israel a racist endeavour.”

Some of the definition’s critics argued this example prohibited as anti-Semitic the claim that Israel has enacted, or is enacting, racism against Palestinians. They argued that under the definition, Israel’s new nation-state law, its government and policies, or the IDF’s conduct in the 1948 war could not be condemned as racist.

This argument is either made in ignorance or bad faith: the IHRA definition does no such thing. It is about the principle, not the practice, of Israel, it is about the existence of “a” state rather than the practices of “the” state. If you want to condemn the Nakba as racist, you are free under the IHRA definition to do so.

This clause is instead about the idea that Jewish self-determination in any form of statehood is intrinsically racist. If Jewish self-determination is inherently racist, it follows that no Jewish state should exist, and so opponents of Israel have historically sought to use this argument to undermine the moral principles that underpin Israel’s existence.

This, infamously, was the case in 1975 when a alliance of Soviet, Arab and Muslim countries succeeded in passing a UN declaration that “Zionism is racism”. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, had said before that vote: “The United Nations is about to make anti-Semitism international law.”

It is in this context that the IHRA definition was written. All this illustrative example of IHRA prohibits as anti-Semitic is the idea that no state of Israel should exist at all.

So why all the fuss? Corbyn and his team – who know the intricacies of these arguments well – would have known this. A shared interpretation of the IHRA definition between the leader’s office and the Jewish community could have been reached on these terms.

The answer is that Jeremy Corbyn is unwilling to even go this far.

He was recently revealed on tape lamenting what he called the BBC’s bias “towards… Israel’s right to exist”. He sponsored and supported the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine in the 1980s, which sought to end the state of Israel and, in their words, establish a “support the Palestinian people in their struggle for a democratic and secular state in the whole of Palestine.” Even in recent years, Corbyn prefers to hang out with Hamas and Hezbollah, who call for a Palestinian state from the river to the sea, rather than with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, who have accepted the two state paradigm.

The Jewish community – and the IHRA – believes that the idea that no Israel should exist at all, and that the Jewish people alone do not have a right to self-determination, is anti-Semitic. Israel is the only fundamental guarantee of Jewish survival, and the radical left seeks to remove no other ethnic minority’s right to self-determination in this way.

But this is a belief Jeremy Corbyn appears to hold. He is willing to provoke a huge public row, deviate from international anti-racist norms, lose the support of virtually the entire Jewish community and significantly damage the prospects of a Labour government just to retain the legitimacy of the idea that Israel shouldn’t exist.

This is what the row over the illustrative examples of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is all about. The Jewish community wants Israel to exist, and considers the desire for its destruction as anti-Semitic. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters want to see no Israel at all, and consider the ending of the Jewish state a virtuous goal.

And neither side is willing to compromise.

About the Author
Aaron Simons is a researcher and writer from London. He writes in a personal capacity
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