Controversies have arisen in some local Labour Parties and Momentum groups around whether to endorse definitions of antisemitism proposed by various civil society organisations. Two main definitions have been promoted in the labour movement, one from the European Union Monitoring Centre (EUMC) and one from the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA). Both include short “definitions”, supplemented by lengthier “guidance”.
Some local government bodies, including Haringey Borough Council in north London, are due to debate endorsement of the IHRA definition and guidance. The local Momentum group plans a protest to lobby councillors to vote against endorsement. The protestors see such policies as part of an attempt to restrict “free speech on Israel”.
Some believe that, in all the controversies around antisemitism in the Labour Party, there is no actual antisemitism at all, but only an effort to silence critics of Israel. It seems not to have occurred to them that in almost none of the prominent cases (Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone, and others), the things said or written were not “criticisms of Israel” but comments about Jewish financiers funding slavery and comments that alleged Jewish complicity in the Holocaust. In cases where the charge relates more directly to comments about Israel (that of Vicki Kirby, for example, who tweeted that Islamic State should attack “the real oppressor”, Israel), no-one claims that those in question are sincere Palestine solidarity activists with track records of important advocacy and solidarity work for Palestine who are somehow being targeted or silenced because of this.
Quite how the “Free Speech on Israel” campaign serves the cause of Palestine by devoting its energies to defending the likes of Walker and Livingstone on these matters is not clear. Neither the occupation of the West Bank nor the siege of Gaza have been much threatened by these people’s fervent insistence that there is no antisemitism in the British Labour Party (or, as some argue, in society at all). The Palestinian people are not one inch closer to freedom because some Labour Party activists in north London have worked themselves into a lather defending Ken Livingstone’s right to spout toxic lies and misleading half-truths in the national media.
The alternative lens for understanding antisemitism proposed by the “Free Speech on Israel” campaigners is that antisemitism can only ever consist of direct, implicitly racist, hostility to Jews as Jews. As it is rare to find anyone on the left guilty of this, there cannot be any antisemitism on the left. And attempts to combat antisemitism within the movement are therefore addressing an almost non-existent problem, and must have an ulterior motive. The real issue, they argue, is the fabrication of antisemitism to bolster Israel. Labour Parties and Momentum groups should be passing motions about that, not ones which attempt to mobilise opposition to antisemitism.
It is true that antisemitism is no longer, in most of the world, a “cutting edge” form of racism and bigotry, experienced primarily materially. It has largely receded to the level of ideology, but socialists should still understand how an idea can, in Marx’s phrase, “descend from language into life”. The global rise of a right-wing nationalist populism that draws on antisemitic tropes about “globalist financiers” shows how antisemitism could easily regain a material form, as such movements grow on the streets. Governments informed, at least in part, by such ideologies are in power in Russia, Hungary, and the United States.
There is also the continued existence of a powerful global Islamist movement, steeped in antisemitism. Against such a backdrop the desire to discuss, understand, and guard against antisemitism is a perfectly legitimate one. And yet antisemitism remains the only form of bigotry which most of the left responds to not by simply opposing it and sympathetically investigating any complaints, but by immediately impugning the motives of the plaintiff and ascribing bad faith and ulterior motives. Whatever the precise details, a Momentum demonstration outside Haringey council chambers against the council adopting a firm stance of opposition to antisemitism will appear to almost everyone who notices it as a demonstration against the idea that antisemitism should be firmly opposed.
Undoubtedly there are instances in politics where allegations of antisemitism are manipulated for factional ends. This can be true of any bigotry: for example, the Bengali-background socialist Ansar Ahmed Ullah has noted how political Islamist forces have manipulated the concept of “Islamophobia” to stifle criticism of their politics and legitimate secularist-atheist criticism of Islam (Solidarity 308, 8 January 2014). But just as such manipulation does not negate the existence of real anti-Muslim racism, neither do any instances of political manipulation and instrumentalisation of antisemitism mean that the issue of antisemitism is not real.
The IHRA guidance, which is now more current than the EUMC’s, is imperfect, as any attempt to distil so complex and varied an ideological edifice as antisemitism down to a few bullet points will be. One of its points, certainly, is politically dubious: it defines any attempt to “deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination” as antisemitic: this definition would include anyone, including members of Workers' Liberty, who do not see all Jews, wherever they live, as part of a singular nation capable of expressing a unitary self-determination through the state of Israel. We believe that the Israeli-Jewish nation currently living in historical Palestine does constitute a national group, which does have a right to self-determination. And it is true that denials of that right to the only majority-Jewish national group on earth by people who extend it as a principle to every other national group cannot but tend towards exceptionalisation and discrimination: that is, towards antisemitism.
The guidance’s assertion that claims that “the State of Israel is a racist endeavour” are antisemitic is perhaps also ambiguous: any serious historical analysis of Israel’s foundation must identify elements of ethnic cleansing in the 1948 war, and conclude that much of the Zionist movement and early Israeli state policy was informed by racist ideas. Certainly, the contemporary state of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the Arab minority within Israel is racist. Such political assessments are patently not antisemitic. However claims that Israel, uniquely amongst world states and even amongst states whose foundation was based entirely or in part on colonial settlement and the displacement of an indigenous population, is so profoundly racist that it requires dismantling (rather than, say, radical upheaval and reform), do indeed suggest, at the very least, a remarkable double standard.
Workers Liberty has long argued that a form of political antisemitism exists in some sections of the left, consisting in an implied hostility to Jews, based on an exceptionalising and essentialising ahistorical attitude to Zionism. This left antisemitism can be traced back to the industrial-scale denunciations, antisemitic show-trials, and conspiracy-mongering about “Zionism” conducted by the Stalinist ruling class of the USSR. We have argued that this left antisemitism is distinct from the racialised antipathy towards Jews on which Hitlerite antisemitism is based.
If the IHRA guidance can be criticised on any more thoroughgoing basis, it is that it collapses these distinct categories into one, which risks obscuring as much as it clarifies. That is an argument for further discussion, better education, and further clarification of terms and concepts. It is certainly no argument for the approach Haringey Momentum has taken.
Those who propose its adoption in the labour movement out of a desire to clarify the understanding of antisemitism, and deepen opposition to it, have far better instincts than those whose political antenna are (mis)tuned to detect the shadowy Zionist plot to defend Israel behind every attempts to discuss antisemitism in the labour movement. Workers’ Liberty sides with those people and their better instincts against those who would downplay or dismiss the issue of antisemitism.