Written by Les Levidow
Amidst internal conflict over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, some Green Party members have said that we should avoid the Labour Party's mistake on antisemitism. Indeed, yet ‘the mistake’ has contrary meanings. On the pro-IHRA side, some apparently accept the dominant storyline that the Labour Party tolerated widespread antisemitic behaviour. The anti-IHRA side instead means that the Labour Party pursued many false allegations of antisemitism.
So, which was the real mistake around ‘the antisemitism crisis’? And what was its underlying politics?
As this article argues: The socialist anti-imperialist Corbyn leadership posed a threat to the British ruling elite, especially its partnership with the Israeli regime. Hence the leadership’s diverse enemies jointly reinforced false allegations of antisemitism from the pro-Israel lobby. These allegations conveniently displaced the racism problem away from the settler-colonial Israeli regime onto its anti-racist critics. For this racist pro-Israel agenda, the IHRA mis-definition of antisemitism has been a key weapon in the Labour Party and plays a similar role in the Green Party, as promoted by the leadership.
For the full version of this argument, see my May 2021 journal article, ‘Bad Consciences: projecting Israel’s settler-colonial racist aggression onto Labour Party antisemitism’.
aggression Israel has further promoted itself as a front-line defence against ‘Islamist terrorism’, whereby Israel’s regional counter-insurgency role protects the West from mortal threats. This narrative should be understood as paranoic, i.e. denying unsavoury parts of one’s self or nation, splitting off these parts and projecting them onto one’s victims.
This paranoic narrative has complemented the securitisation agenda of Western states, supporting allies abroad as ‘counter-terror’ forces against threats to the West. This paranoiac displacement has a long history in UK state-sponsored domestic practices‘extremism’. So-called preventive measures have pursued ‘extremism’ through pervasive surveillance identifying pro-Palestine views. Thus Britain’s domestic practices have internalised Israel’s racist paranoiac projections., such
Moreover, state practices have essentialised Jews as a pro-Israel ‘Jewish community’ being victimised by pro-Palestine antisemitism and so needing special protection. Within philosemitic narrative has constructedMany Western Jews identify with Israel, while also needing to feel morally special. Their sensibility is offended by reminders of Israel’s institutionally racist practices, provoking a bad conscience; the offence is projected onto the putative antisemitism of Israel’s critics.
Elite philosemitism for a UK-Israel partnership
reinforce a homogeneous social identity, as a basis to demand universal deference to a single pro-Israel ‘Jewish community’, especially as a test of antisemitism. Instrumentalising that narrative, UK politicians justify their pro-Israel along two lines: as crucial for ‘social cohesion’, i.e. reassuring Jews about British support for Israel, as well as ‘national security’, i.e. needing Israel as a front-line defence against the Islamist threat. philosemitism helped to shield the UK’s pro-Israel from criticism.
Along similar lines, over several decades the Labour Party leadership has made great efforts to contain and stigmatise pro-Palestine dissent. The New Labour leadership promoted a more aggressively pro-Israel policy within the ‘war on terror’ securitisation agenda since 2001, complemented by the Prevent programme since 2006. Together these efforts stigmatised Israel’s opponents as security threats, e.g. as ‘extremists’ or ‘radical Islamists’.
Sponsored by dominant Western states, the IHRA was established in 1998. It has served to sanitise Nazi Germany of its racist colonial legacies and its Western capitalist complicity. This framing helped to legitimise Western states as anti-racist forces and to instrumentalise Holocaust memorial education for this political purpose.
As the IHRA’s next step, its website posted the Working Definition of Antisemitism (with all the examples) from a US pro-Israel lobby group, the American Jewish Committee. This document provided an extra weapon for false allegations of antisemitism by conflating this with anti-Zionism. As the wider context, Palestine solidarity activists had been highlighting how Israel’s institutionally racist character was driving its systematic violations of international law. They could be falsely accused of antisemitism by deploying the so-called IHRA Definition.
Together those practices provided a ready-made framework to contain the Corbyn-led Labour Party during 2016-19. When the membership greatly rose to support a pro-Palestine anti-imperialist leadership, this rise jeopardised the Labour Party’s century-long role within the elite pro-Zionist consensus. Members’ pro-Palestine voices aggravated and offended the bad consciences of Jewish Zionist members, who resented the offenders.
Given the Corbyn leadership’s diverse enemies, they jointly mobilised an elite pro-Israel strategy to stigmatise and silence pro-Palestine voices: In the dominant narrative, the Labour Party was tolerating ‘endemic antisemitism’, creating an ‘unsafe space for Jews’. According to the pro-Israel lobby, moreover, the leadership posed ‘an existential threat to Jewish existence’. The racist aggression of Zionist settler-colonialism was denied, split off and projected onto pro-Palestine critics.
Antisemitism was more broadly equated with ‘hurt to the Jewish community’ or simply ‘offence to Jews’.Pro-Israel Jewish organisations demanded and gained a monopoly voice to speak for .
The Labour Party’s disciplinary procedure increasingly targeted pro-Corbyn anti-racist members (including Jewish ones) who were falsely accused of antisemitism. The procedure in turn often accused them of ‘behaviour bringing the Labour Party into disrepute’; this euphemistically evaded the political issue. At the same time, the procedure delayed any action against the real antisemitism of other members; hence the pro-Israel lobby could more easily claim that the Party was tolerating antisemitic behaviour.
The British elite strategy conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism as perceived by pro-Israel Jews, thus inverting racism and anti-racism. The inversion has been put sarcastically by Hajo Meyer, a Holocaust survivor: ‘An antisemite used to be a person who disliked Jews. Now it is a person whom Jews dislike’, especially Israel’s critics.
IHRA mis-definition serves a racist pro-Israel agenda
Given that political context, let us return to the initial question: What mistake of the Labour Party should be avoided? At recent Green Party of England and Wales conferences the leadership has supported a motion that would incorporate the IHRA Definition into the disciplinary procedure. According to the motion, it’s irrelevant how the Definition has been used by other organizations. Such a claim is politically naive, disingenuous or both.
The IHRA mis-definition has already been the basis for external organisations to make false allegations against some pro-Palestine Green Party members, who then had to undergo the disciplinary procedure. This has ominous analogies with the Labour Party’s procedures. Adopting the IHRA Definition has obvious consequences, namely: to encourage more false allegations of antisemitism, to reinforce them internally and to deter criticisms of Israel’s racist character.
More generally, the IHRA Definition has been widely cited worldwide for false allegations against pro-Palestine events, speakers and comments. In response to such allegations, major institutions have suppressed or severely restricted pro-Palestine events. Such incidents have been well documented, e.g. in a journal paper on the UK, and in the Jewish-led global report.
In all those ways the IHRA mis-definition helps to protect Israel’s institutional racism from criticism, thus serving the pro-Israel commitment of the British ruling elite. By promoting the mis-definition, the Green Party leadership has shamefully colluded with this racist pro-Israel agenda since 2017. Let’s reject it and so avoid the mistake of the Labour Party.
Author: Les Levidow is a member of Green Left within the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW). Since the 1980s he has participated in several Jewish pro-Palestine groups, including many Jews who have faced false allegations of antisemitism by the pro-Israel lobby. His current focus is Jewish Network for Palestine (JNP), loosely connected with the US-based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).