For the Sake of All of Us, Labour Must Reject the IHRA’s Definition of Anti-Semitism
Barnaby Raine

The Labour Party must uphold their own definition of anti-Semitism but British Politics needs to recognise discrimination is all of its forms

In the last few days Israel has killed a toddler and bombed a cultural centre in Gaza. Amid the suffocation of Israel’s siege, people are horribly bruised, but still they danced until such a haven was destroyed. They tried, as any of us would try, to maintain their humanity. Israel says it is the real victim, and in a sense that’s right; decades of paranoia contort the soul. Palestinians can stand up for their dignity and feel human for it, where Israelis are altered and damaged by meting out such violence in the defence of dispossession. None of this is unique – it is the sad truth of empire, long familiar to millions across the world.

Faraway in Britain, the Labour Party is now considering adopting the view of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that it is anti-Semitic to call Israel’s existence a racist endeavour. The critique of this bid to turn Jews into soldiers and settlers is to be outlawed in the name of protecting us, and what of the indigenous population against whom our guns have been pitted for 70 years now? They are invisible. Golda Meir, the fourth Prime Minister of Israel, recalled entering a Palestinian town in 1948 and seeing food left uneaten on tables as families fled. She was troubled, she said, by the resonances of scenes from Jewish homes in Europe just a few years earlier. That was the parallel she reached for then, and I think of the damage done to the young woman who witnessed that and then had to blot it out for the sake of her state-building project, eventually coming to deny that the Palestinian people even existed. She built parks for Jews in places where others had walked the day before: natives cleared out to make room for settlers. Jews from all over the world were told to be happy and free and to build homes atop the ruined homes of others. None of this is to be said, the IHRA insists. Tragically it endorses the presumption that defending Jews must mean defending Israel. It dooms the battle against anti-Semitism by tying it to racist violence, just as the battle against Islamophobia would be doomed if it demanded support for the Saudi war on Yemen or the Iranian state’s butchery in Syria.

There is an episode in the new series of The Handmaid’s Tale where diplomats from the dystopian Gilead attempt to establish friendly relations with Canada. When evidence surfaces of Gilead’s systemic abuse of women, the Canadians send them packing in a dramatic geopolitical repudiation of violence and injustice. This is how the crudest liberal humanitarians think their ‘international community’ really works. Palestine undermines that picture. Palestinians are rendered stateless, occupied, turned into demographic threats in their own homes or turned into refugees, and then here in Britain they are policed when they talk of the bulldozers that destroy their homes, lest they should offend others. Even in The Handmaid’s Tale, which wants to shock viewers with its unbearable horrors, it is taken for granted that beyond the borders of the killing, people sympathise. That is not the world we inhabit.

There are two groups of victims in this debate. It is worth stating that. While most are blind to the existence of the Palestinians, some ultra-Corbynites have turned denying anti-Semitism into a left-wing principle. Eager to fight a factional attack on Jeremy Corbyn, the likes of Pete Willsman and Chris Williamson barely stop to notice that the biggest group anxious about anti-Semitism are not cynical ‘Blairites’ or ‘Zionists’ but British Jews with honest concerns. They thus fail to apply (what should be) a left-wing intuition, that bigotry is not marginal or rare, but deeply embedded in hierarchical societies. The easiest response to experiences of suffering is to imagine a conspiratorial hand wrecking the world. That is how anti-Semitism proliferates. Anti-Semitism sits at the core of the western tradition because it is a mechanism for avoiding the conclusion that society is fundamentally unhealthy by blaming a few outsiders for all its problems instead. Many who think themselves noble and progressive might fall just a little into this seductive thinking. In the name of attacking Corbyn, Britain’s political mainstream has suddenly learned that lesson – it is difficult today to imagine the tabloids mocking a Jewish politician for failing to eat a bacon sandwich, as they did in 2015 with Ed Miliband, now that the subtle innuendos through which anti-Semitism spreads are under scrutiny. Labour should be much more confident and much more militant in battling anti-Semitism. In place of the sordid view that to acknowledge the existence of anti-Semitism on the left is to make a ‘concession’ to the right, we should condemn high-profile cases of apologism and denialism over anti-Semitism. That should form part of a meaningful bid to change the culture on the left. We ought to understand the battle against racism in much the same way as our most progressive instincts have always seen the battle against misogyny and homophobia: as a struggle to be fought within the left and not only against the right. On that view, understandable anger at smears against Corbyn’s Labour Party can never be a sufficient reaction to this crisis.
Confronting anti-Semitism will not be enough to end this saga. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are profoundly and honestly entangled in the minds of many, so that plenty of British Jews see solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle as nothing but an attack on the Jewish collective. In that context, it is tempting to pull our punches and adopt the IHRA text in full. But all the nobility of anti-racist struggle is demeaned where it becomes a cheap attempt to make bad headlines go away, and where other victims of racism get thrown under the bus to that end. Nobody will be fooled by the back-pedalling. Labour will not stop the attacks on Corbyn by adopting the IHRA text – the campaign will only be egged on by accepting a document that treats a good deal of solidarity with a pummelled people as racism. As it scrambles to retreat and accept the text, Labour risks inviting endless complaints against its leading pro-Palestinian figures under the IHRA’s misshapen understanding of anti-Semitism – so the party would do better to tap into the best, most radical traditions of the left which treat anti-racism as a consistent principle. The currently prevalent binary among Corbyn’s supporters pits defensiveness against acquiescence. Some seek to batten down the hatches and refuse both the IHRA text and attempts to discipline prominent activists – those who have dismissed the existence of anti-Semitism as a problem in Labour or who have sailed close to anti-Semitic tropes – while others want to fold on both issues. In practice, that means nobody is advocating firm, uncompromising opposition both to bigotry directed against Jews and to state racism directed against Palestinians, which offers the only principled path out of this mess. Being at our anti-racist best may not be enough to guarantee that we win, but it does give us more hope of winning than if we bind ourselves miserably to some of the worst defensive or acquiescent reflexes currently common on the left, which only end up damaging us all.

If politicians now demanded that Orthodox Jews changed their dress code they would surely be called racists, though a decade ago Jack Straw asked Muslim women to do that and he remains a respected figure. If politicians said Jews should be at the bottom of the pecking order when allocating council housing there would be a furore, yet Margaret Hodge said that about migrants and is considered an anti-racist. One of the greatest canards of this anti-Semitism debate has been the frequent assertion that Labour was ever an ‘anti-racist’ party. The dog-whistles of Straw and Hodge show how far Blairism was from that, and the dog-whistles of Jackie Walker and Ken Livingstone show how far we still have to go in the age of Corbyn. It should be the job of the left to challenge complacency and to insist that prejudice is ubiquitous and often veiled behind tropes, that British Jews are subjected to it, too, and that our politics fights the suffocating force of discrimination, and champions human freedom without exceptions.

A different version of this article first appeared at the Jewish Quarterly here.

Barnaby Raine

Barnaby Raine


Barnaby Raine is a PhD student at Columbia University, where he works on modern European political thought.

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