Friday, 31 August 2018

On the IHRA definition of antisemitism

The Labour Party is going to have a National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting on 4th September at which members will try to resolve its antisemitism debate. All signs so far point to the adoption in full - including highly contentious ‘examples’ of what may count as antisemitism - of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The leadership looks isolated and many NEC members probably want the whole scandal to go away. Yet acceptance of the IHRA definition would be a dispiriting result to say the least.

Both Jewish groups critical of Israeli policy and Palestinian civil society groups have issued independent letters asking that Labour not adopt the definition on the grounds that certain of its examples could be - and indeed are - used to prevent criticism of the Israeli occupation of Gaza. According to the groups, the definition has been used to attack the Boycott, Divestments and Sanction (BDS) campaign, which aims to diplomatically and economically isolate the Israeli regime while it continues to keep Gaza under occupation. According to IHRA’s supporters, BDS unfairly targets Israel and holds it to a standard not expected of other ‘democratic states.’ Of equal controversy is the example contained in the IHRA definition which states that holding ‘a state of Israel’ to be a ‘racist endeavour’ is a denial of Jewish right to self-determination and therefore itself racist.

What is the IHRA definition? Adopted in 2016 by the Alliance, it is legally non-binding and intended as an aid to governments and institutions which have to judge what constitutes antisemitism. Its central definition holds that antisemitism is ‘a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews.’ It gained rapid recognition - a European Parliament resolution in 2017  called on EU member states to adopt the definition. Yet as ever in arguments over Israel-Palestine, dissenting, pro-Palestine voices are being marginalised and ignored.

Arguably no definition of antisemitism could divorce itself from the complex interrelations between Jewish identity, the state of Israel, and other types of identity. But the definition risks clear politicisation by eliding any separation between Jewishness and the Israeli state. It’s worth restating: many of the examples of antisemitism contained in the definition are uncontroversial. The definition itself - though relying on the unhelpful modal ‘may’ - is not all that problematic. While it focuses on expressions of hatred, it is clearly an attempt to not preclude subtler, pernicious expressions of antisemitism. Where the trouble arises is in some of the substantive examples of what may count as expressions of antisemitism. 

If one accepts the principle of self-determination (and whatever the value of the term, its peculiar historical origins, or its uneven application), it is still clear that such a principle will in practice be contradictory - where one claim for self-determination conflicts with another. This is the case with the Jewish right to self-determination in Israel and the Palestinian right to self-determination on the same territory. Leftist Jewish groups outside of the scope of Zionism never wanted to found a Jewish state, let alone one in Palestine. Would the definition mean that Jewish and non-Jewish socialist and anarchist groups who disagree with the very Wilsonian concept of self-determination are de facto and by definition antisemitic? Even if one accepts the elision of Israel with Jewishness - that is Israel’s encapsulation of what it is to be Jewish in the form of a state - what would the definition mean for the right of self-determination of non-Jewish people? 

The same example suggests that the belief that ‘a state of Israel’ is ‘a racist endeavour’ is a denial of Jewish self-determination. Not only does the example elide the distinction between Jewishness and Israel, it also makes support for Jewish self-determination conditional on support for the actually existing Israeli state. Its choice of the indefinite article - ‘a’ not ‘the’ - may be an attempt to deal with this ambiguity. Not only this state of Israel, but any. Does this therefore permit the accusation that Israel is indeed a racist state? Because precluding such an argument amounts to the erasure of history - that is, it would permit only the ahistorical critique of current Israeli policies and not a broader critique of Israel as a settler colonial project. By analogy, it is possible to hold that the USA is at once a liberal democratic state and a settler colonial state based on a history of racism, colonial expropriation, slavery, and segregation. It is not ‘anti-US’ to believe this, let alone evidence of prejudice against its people. There is a range of types of criticism of Israel - including legitimate criticisms of its bloody foundation and long history of repressive Palestinian policies - that is not antisemitic. Clearly criticisms which limit themselves only to immediate government policy will be of only the most moderate kind since that cannot, by definition, take in broader structural and historical critiques of Israel as a violent state project. Holding these critical views does not at the same time mean holding Israel to unfair standards.

The latter brings us to the second contentious example: the IHRA definition claims that holding Israel to unfairly high standards not expected of ‘other democratic states’ may be antisemitic. Again there are highly contentious claims here. One has to accept the central claim that Israel somehow embodies and gives voice to Jewish opinion and that therefore its deep hypocrisies are less expressions of a particular state project than the expression of some collective Jewish will. This is precisely the wrong way to think about democratic legitimacy, which derives from the state’s accountability to its people. Where Israel fails on counts of democracy, including in its disenfranchisement of Israeli Arabs, its systematic segregation of Palestinians, its refusal of the right of Palestinian return, and its occupation of Gaza, it should clearly be criticised. This is not a case of holding Israel to unfair standards, but simply holding it to widely accepted democratic standards. This is why BDS is so important: it highlights and campaigns against the Israeli state’s special claim to be a democracy when it so often betrays those principles.

The definition and its supporters often claim that to single out Israel in this way is unfair since presumably in their eyes no state lives up to its democratic values. This may be true, but is nevertheless a deeply cynical, bad faith argument. Israel is a close ally of European and western governments. It is therefore important that Europeans be able to put pressure on their governments to hold its ally Israel to account where it violates international law and democratic principles, which it does in a systematically racialised way with regards to Palestinians. For those for whom Israel’s actions are indeed of special political and emotional significance - Palestinians themselves, pro-Palestinian Jews and Israelis, people of Palestinian descent and so on - what does it mean  for governments around the world to hold your special criticism and personal investment in Israel’s actions as themselves antisemitic? The implications for pro-Palestine activism are obvious.

All of this comes of course in the context of Labour’s long antisemitism row. There is antisemitism on the left - I’ve seen it online, from people in and outside the Labour Party. I’ve called it out in the past. But there is no evidence that Labour members or voters are more antisemitic than anyone else in British society (the contrary is the case), nor is there any evidence that rates of antisemitism have increased among Labour members, despite the tripling of Party membership since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. This should be reassuring for those of us who are concerned about antisemitism and do believe it is a problem that must be solved with the Labour Party in a leading role.

But at the same time, there is a clear political question to be answered, one that forms the pivot of the current debate in Labour: do we turn a blind eye to the systematic, historical and structural racism of the Israeli state and government towards Palestinians in order to make criticism go away? This argument has been grinding on for three years and only got worse. The Labour leadership and those of us on the left should make it clear where we stand: an Israeli state which abides by international law and a Palestinian people with their own right of self-determination respected. This demands that Israel’s history as a settler colonial state be criticised.

Israel itself can and must be distinguished as a separate actor from Jewishness more generally. Israel can be defined as having distinctive state interests that have little to do with Jews as a people or as a religion. It is precisely because we want to treat Israel as just another state that the  IHRA definition should be rejected. The left and progressives more broadly are rightly critical of other states’ histories of racial and colonial domination - it should be no different in the case of Israel.

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