John Ware

Jeremy Corbyn’s gold standard code on antisemitism is far from black and white

Labour’s definition of Jew-hate appears to raise more questions than it answers, writes John Ware

August 02, 2018 14:41

Would the act of Jeremy Corbyn’s hosting a 2010 parliamentary event comparing Israel’s Gaza policy to Nazi Germany have been adjudged antisemitic under Labour’s new antisemitism code of conduct which it claims to be “the new gold standard”?

Probably not. While the code says such an analogy carries a “strong risk of being regarded as prejudicial” to the interests of the party, it seems doubtful Labour would be willing to concede it was antisemitic. 

For that, says the code, there would need to be evidence of antisemitic intent. 

Proving this would require an objective test of Corbyn’s subjective state of mind which is a very high evidential threshold. Protestations of his unimpeachable lifelong anti-racism would presumably be a defence against any suggestion that he intended to be antisemitic.  

All Corbyn need say is that he didn’t accept or condone the views expressed at the event. Which is what’s he’s now done.

The code does hold out the prospect of a finding of antisemitism where “contentious views” are not “accompanied by specific antisemitic content” — provided that “intent” can be proved. 

So how might that work with yet another of Corbyn’s contentious views on Israel and Zionism in particular?

In 2012 he told the Iranian State-owned broadcaster Press TV, that he suspected “the hand of Israel” to have been behind an attempt to “destabilise” the new Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi following the slaughter by Jihadists of sixteen Egyptian soldiers and border guards.
“In whose interests is it to destabilise the new government in Egypt?” asked Corbyn.  

“In whose interest is it to kill Egyptians, other than Israel, concerned at the growing closeness of the relationship between Palestine and the new Egyptian government?”

There was nothing “specifically” antisemitic in the “content” of what Corbyn had said. Equally, the notion of Jews exercising malevolent power engaged in a grand conspiracy is a classic antisemitic trope. 

So, had Corbyn made these comments today he’d again be at risk of being hauled before a Labour disciplinary committee. 
Again, a staunch declaration of his anti-racist credentials would probably provide a defence against any suggestion that he intended to be antisemitic.  

The same defence would presumably apply to Corbyn were he to sponsor — as he has done in the past — a conference of Labour supporters and members whose platform was “to eradicate Zionism”. 

This platform pledged “opposition to the Zionist state as racist, exclusivist, expansionist and a direct agency of imperialism”. 

Again, the worst Corbyn might get is a reminder of the Chakrabarti recommendation that members should only use “the term ‘Zionist’ advisedly, carefully and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse”.  

In other words, a finding that what Corbyn had said was bad for the party, but unwilling to concede that his ideas were antisemitic 
Corbyn’s office says Labour’s code is an improvement on the International Holocaust Reembrace Alliance anti-Semitism code — despite the IHRA code having been adopted in full by the government, the CPS, local authorities and other public bodies.  

The party’s General Secretary, Jennie Formby, says that it “builds upon” the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism by providing more “clarity and transparency.” Judged by reference to the Labour leader’s conduct, however, its code seems to be raising more questions than it answers.

For many non-Jews especially (and maybe Jews too), the escalating row over the code has become dizzily confusing.

On the one hand, the vast majority of Labour MPs and 68 Rabbis have said it is not the Labour party’s place to rewrite an international recognised code on what constitutes antisemitism.

The Chief Rabbi says that by approving its own code, Labour’s ruling National Executive Council has sent Jews a “message of contempt”.

On the other hand, a prominent Jew such as the human rights barrister Sir Geoffrey Bindman says objections to Labour’s code have “become the focus for a lot of rather silly and irrelevant criticism”.

The Oxford academic Brian Klug also regards the criticism as “largely, if not wholly, misplaced” and “over the top”.

Then again, the Board of Deputies President Marie Van der Zyl says the code “deliberately obstructs measures to counter hatred”, while the editors of the community’s three main newspapers conclude that if Labour fails to replace it with the IHRA code, the party will be seen “by all decent people as an institutionally racist, antisemitic party”.

On the contrary, says Ms Formby,  Labour has adopted the “IHRA definition” of antisemitism “in full.”

True, but that is manifestly not the point.

The definition is a mere 38-word summary of how a “certain perception of Jews expressed as hatred towards Jews” constitutes antisemitism, a statement of the blinding obvious.

It is not remotely the same as adopting the IHRA’s eleven working examples of how antisemitism can actually be manifested.

Labour has adopted seven of those, but again they’re hardly in contention because they cover: harming Jews in the name of radical ideology, Jewish stereotyping, holding Jews collectively responsible for single acts committed by a person, denying or exaggerating the Holocaust, using classical tropes like the blood libel, and holding Jews collectively responsible for Israeli actions.

It’s the IHRA’s remaining four examples — all Israel related — that have led to the row so damaging that, however it is resolved, deep and permanent scar tissue will have been left on a party that claims such Himalayan heights of moral superiority over all forms of racism — including the oldest form of all.

The IHRA’s examples of antisemitism run to 77 words, while Labour’s code takes 678 words to address them. 

Formby proudly avers those 678 words have strengthened the IHRA code by both “adopting and adapting” them.

A detailed parsing of the two codes shows that, in four out of the IHRA’s eleven examples, there’s been significantly more “adaptation” by Labour than “adoption” the most significant of which is to make a finding of antisemitism about a contentious view conditional on an intention to be antisemitic.

This is the weakness of the criticism by Jews like Bindman and Klug of the Labour code’s critics. They seem not to have addressed this “get -out-of-jail” caveat.

Rhea Wolfson a member of Labour’s NEC who helped to draft Labour’s code says that this caveat has been “fundamentally” misread.

 “Intent” is intended, not as a higher evidential bar, but to protect — for example — a Jewish party member being deliberately baited by a room full of colleagues making hostile comments about Israel.

Does it follow that provided that Jew is not in the room, their colleagues can rant on about how Israelis are like Nazis?

So deeply into Labour’s Left has anti-Zionism morphed into antiemitism — itself a Corbyn legacy — that Jewish Labour members are avoiding meetings. 
If Wolfson is right, it would still mean the code is more about making Jewish members feel less isolated, than attacking the ideas that are making them feel this way.

What should we make of Corbyn’s communications chief Seumas Milne removing from Labour’s code the IHRA’s view that describing the “existence of a State of Israel as a racist endeavour” could be antisemitic?

In a 2002 Guardian article, Milne rightly said “the left…...needs aggressively to police the line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism taking into account Jewish sensitivities” only to then assert that “ethnic cleansing is not, of course, a new departure for Israel” because Israeli forces had “twice organised large-scale expulsions of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967”.

It is certainly possible to argue that some current Israeli policies are racist without in any way being antisemitic, as the IHRA code acknowledges.  
But any suggestion that ethnic cleansing was a principle war aim by the Jews in 1948 when they themselves had just been so comprehensively ethnically cleansed in Europe is highly contested. The Jews had accepted the UN partition plan. The Arabs had not.

The Arabs’ war aim was the destruction of the Jews’ emergent state fuelled by a religious Jihad. Survival was the Jews’ war aim.

The Israeli historian Benny Morris acknowledges that this was achieved partly by expanding territory allotted by the UN and reducing the number of Arabs there.

But, as he also argues, making vulnerable borders more secure — and expelling people feared to have become a fifth column — is what armies do in desperate fights for survival.

That’s a very different proposition from Israel being a “racist endeavour.”

If wholesale ethnic cleansing had been a Jewish war aim, all the Arabs would have been driven out and, of course, they were not. There is, moreover, a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Milne’s objection.

On the one hand, he accepts that denying the right of the Jewish people to self-determination would be racist.

Yet by exercising that right in the face of another attempt at annihilation, he seems to believe that Jews had engaged in what he calls a “racist endeavour.”
The differences between Labour’s code and four of the IHRA’s examples of antisemitism, are indeed profound.

As currently drafted, unless there is any evidence of intent, Labour is unlikely to regard as antisemitic any member who likens Israeli policies to the Nazis, describes Israel as a “racist endeavour”, accuses Jews of being more loyal to Israel than their own country (every formal Jewish function I’ve attended always toasts the Queen before the President of Israel), and expects Israel to behave better than its fellow democracies.

Labour says its code is still up for consultation with a final ballot on  September 5.

Giving most British Jews the benefit of the doubt — instead of the culture that has darkened the Leader’s office — would go a long way to demonstrate Jennie Formby’s claim that Labour has produced “the most thorough, expansive Code of Conduct on antisemitism introduced by any political party”. 

August 02, 2018 14:41

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