Labour has strong reason to criticise the Israel’s government and to speak up for the rights of Palestinians. Although they are going about it in completely the wrong way. On Tuesday, Labour finally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism with its full eleven working examples. Adding the four of which they had previously left out of their code of conduct. Labour also added a caveat expressing the need for freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians. However, the lateness of this seems to be out of as much out of a need to alleviate the mounting pressure in the media as it is an action to fight anti-Semitism.
The adoption of the internationally recognised IHRA definitions represent for many in the Jewish community a key symbolic step in the fight against anti-Semitism. By viewing these guidelines as contentious, Labour has put themselves in a tricky position. This position conflates their rightly founded criticism of policies of Israel’s government and advocacy of Palestinian rights with anti-Semitism.
By not initially accepting the full IHRA definitions, they have shown a lack of understanding of the views of many in the Jewish community. Many in Labour say agreeing to the guidelines puts them in a position where they cannot criticise the acts of the Israeli government. However, the IHRA does still allow for this criticism. The four previously omitted examples of anti-Semitism include:
- “Accusing 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 example does not mean that the Israel’s government cannot be criticised
- “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour. This does not mean that Palestine doesn’t have the right to self-determination and does not define any specific land boundaries.
- “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” This does not mean we should stop criticising Israel’s government but perhaps does signal the need to further criticise the current and past behaviour of many democratic nations.
- “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This does not mean Israel’s policy is exempt from strong criticism but calls for criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians in a way which still respects sensitivity to the issue of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Although Labour did agree to add these four examples on Tuesday, it also added a caveat that states: “this does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians”. It is not necessarily the content of the caveat which is the problem, but its symbolic placement. This undermines the IHRA definitions by suggesting that they do not allow for strong criticism of the Israeli state’s policies and the expression of Palestinian rights.
The effect of Labour’s poor management
Labour’s handling of this situation has had two key negative effects. Firstly, it has shown disregard for the feelings of many Jewish people inside and outside of the party. Secondly, it has significantly reduced Labour’s ability to pragmatically criticise the government of Israel and improve the rights of Palestinians. It has done this by distracting from the actual actions of the Israeli government against Palestinians; and by weakening the credibility of Labour as and when it chooses to criticise them.
Some have argued that those wishing to oust Corbyn have put him in a difficult position by deliberately conflating criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. Whether this is true or not, Labour cannot move forward unless they separate the two issues.
What can Labour do now?
To make any advances in effectively criticising Israel and upholding the rights of the Palestinians, Labour must separate the two conflated points. They can deliver a strong message against anti-Semitism by fully supporting the IHRA definitions as well as by combatting anti-Semitism in the party. Whilst doing this, they can separately give strong criticism of the Israeli state and advocate for the rights of the Palestinians. But confusing the two issues will get them nowhere.