Monday, 3 September 2018

Why the Green Party Should Not Adopt the IHRA's Contentious Examples

Written by Les Levidow

In fighting antisemitism for a long time, the threat has been adequately understood as ‘hostility towards Jews as Jews’.  But this simple definition does not suffice for a different political agenda, namely: conflating antisemitism with criticism of Israel in order to attack the Palestine solidarity movement and intimidate its supporters.   This article will explain the attack, its background in a racist agenda and the necessary anti-racist response. For numerous sources, see hyperlinks in this piece.

Antisemitism weaponised

For at least two years, a focus of dispute has been a long guidance document including seven examples about Israel, four of them especially contentious.  The long document appears on the website of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Yet its 2016 delegate meeting agreed only a short definition without any examples.  

Back then, four of the examples were criticised by our Jewish-led campaign group. For example, ‘Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ is supposedly antisemitic.  Yet Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has instructive comparisons with the racist Nuremberg Laws; likewise the siege of Gaza with Nazi-imposed ghettos.  Such comparisons have been drawn by Holocaust survivors (especially Hajo Meyer) and have been explained in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.  Are they antisemitic?

Deploying the four contentious examples, pro-Israel groups have repeatedly made false accusations of antisemitism against pro-Palestine activists, especially those in the Labour Party.  In July 2018 the Labour Party leadership rightly adopted a Code modifying the examples, rather than simply adopt them.  Jewish pro-Palestine groups have led the campaign to defend the Code.  That defence has been elaborated by the Jewish academic Brian Klug.

Why such intense conflict over those four examples?  Listen to those who have led the false accusations: ‘Had the full IHRA document with examples been approved,…. thousands of Labour and Momentum members would need to be expelled’ (Jewish Chronicle, 25.07.18).  Likewise ‘antisemitism’ accusations would apply to thousands of Green Party members (including Jewish ones) who have opposed the Israeli regime. 

In particular, the well-known phrase ‘apartheid Israel’ has been targeted as antisemitic according to this IHRA example: ‘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 example applies to the entire campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS); according to its 2005 Palestinian call, BDS will continue until Israel ends its apartheid, settler-colonial regime.  The example also could apply to the Green Party’s 2008 conference decision supporting the BDS campaign.

The taboo on the ‘apartheid’ label has been deployed to undermine Palestine solidarity events. In December 2016 the full IHRA guidance document was adopted by the UK government.  Then the Department for Education warned all universities that they must apply the IHRA criteria and that ‘antisemitic comments’ may arise during Israel Apartheid Week 2017.  

Accommodating the government, some universities denied or cancelled permission to student groups for Palestine events. More subtly, many universities imposed bureaucratic obstacles or speech restrictions.   Student activists have had no recourse to any formal procedure for defending their right of free assembly and expression.

This political use of the contentious examples has been predictable.  The full document originated in 2004 from the American Jewish Committee, a US pro-Israel lobby group aiming to counter ‘the one-sided treatment of Israel at the United Nations’.   According to the main author of the antisemitism guidance document, Kenneth Stern, the ‘apartheid’ label is ‘an accusation linked with antisemitism’.   Israel’s defenders have attempted to censor the label because apartheid is a crime under UN Conventions. 

Anti-racist response

Facing the campaign of smears and intimidation, we need an anti-racist response.  Thirty Jewish organisations in a dozen countries have issued a Global Jewish Statement, which urges ‘our governments, municipalities, universities and other institutions to reject the IHRA definition’.  As they argue, the text is intentionally worded to suppress legitimate criticisms of Israel.  It ‘undermines both the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality and the global struggle against antisemitism’.    

Numerous BAME groups and Palestinians have denounced the IHRA document on several grounds.  In particular, it suppresses the Palestinians’ own narrative of being dispossessed by a racist colonisation project.  As this shows, the contentious IHRA examples are racist against Palestinians.  The above example also portrays Jews as a nation seeking self-determination in the state of Israel; this is a racist stereotype of Jews.   When Jewish pro-Israel groups try to restrict criticism of Israel, moreover, such efforts increase resentment against Jews and feed antisemitic conspiracy theories.

The Green Party should join the above groups in denouncing the smear campaign and the IHRA’s contentious examples as prime weapons. Yet some Green Party members have advocated a late motion accepting the entire IHRA guidance document.  For identifying anti-Semitism, the motion refers to ‘the overall context’ of any statement – yet strangely ignores today’s context.  Namely:  antisemitism has been weaponised in order to undermine the Labour Party leadership and to promote false allegations against pro-Palestine activists (including Shahrar Ali).  The late motion accommodates and sanitises that smear campaign.   Both should be rejected by all anti-racists.  

For similar reasons, ‘antisemitism training’ must discuss how best to define antisemitism.  Which criteria would be anti-racist or racist?  Without such discussion, training may simply promote the IHRA guidance, thus intimidating participants or deterring participation.

In all those ways, let’s defend the Palestine solidarity movement from political intimidation in the guise of opposing antisemitism.  This anti-racist stance is essential for distinguishing real antisemitism from false accusations.

Les Levidow is a member of Camden Green Party and a supporter of Green Left.

The author has participated in several Jewish pro-Palestine organisations since the 1980s.  In particular, Free Speech on Israel was established in April 2016 to counter the ‘antisemitism’ smear campaign.  He also participates in the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) and the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC).

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