Thing Known as a typewriter a 20th century model
Thing Known as a typewriter a 20th century model

When Kenny got in touch with us and asked if he could write a few words to raise the profile of Jewish Voice for Labour’s response to the antisemitism row we jumped on the offer.  Many comrades have told us that they don’t feel that they have enough information  to make their own judgement on the issues being raised in the media, nor to be able to discuss the issue on the doorstep.

Kenny is a member of  Cambridge constituency Labour Party and of Jewish Voice for Labour.  All opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Most members are understandably tired of the row over the Party’s Code of Conduct on Antisemitism and want it settled as soon as possible, both for the sake of community relations and so that we can shift public attention back to our substantive agenda for the country. But the Leader is right to resist calls simply to incorporate, without qualification, all the illustrative examples accompanying the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism into the Code.

Last month Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) sent a briefing on the IHRA Working Definition to all members of the PLP and urged them to avoid precipitating a damaging conflict with the NEC on this issue. We drew attention to the vague and confusing wording of the Definition and its accompanying guidance which, as Hugh Tomlinson QC has noted in his expert opinion, lends itself to inconsistency in its application. “A public body should give very careful consideration to its suitability for use as a guide to decision making,” he warns, “and should, if it is adopted, give careful guidance as to its application”. That is precisely what the Party has done, providing an extensive and thoughtful clarification of the issues involved while firming up some of the wording to aid precision in disciplinary rulings.

It should also be borne in mind that the guidance accompanying the Definition is peculiarly skewed towards a focus on abuses in the discussion of Israel – six of the eleven examples of antisemitism given are connected to this. Two of them are distinctly worrying. What are we to make of the descriptor “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”? While Israel’s actions are frequently placed under the microscope by its critics, the latter invariably do so with reference to human rights and laws of war that apply equally to all nations. More worrying still is the descriptor “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.” Self-determination is of course highly desirable for any nation or cultural group, but that is quite separate from the public’s right to debate and criticise the manner of Israel’s founding and the laws and practices by which it is governed. The Party has quite properly refrained from incorporating these descriptors verbatim into the Code of Conduct.

The combination of vague wording and a focus on discussion of Israel – a topic that arouses strong feelings! – is a dangerous recipe. It places too much leeway in the hands of the adjudicator and creates the fear that voicing strong criticism will place organisations and individuals alike in hot water. As Tomlinson says, it thereby risks“unlawfully restricting legitimate expressions of political opinion.” By contrast, through judicious alteration of the two problematic descriptors above, the Party has performed a delicate balancing act so as to protect the right of free speech while clamping down on abusive pronouncements.

The danger of leaving the Definition unchanged is not hypothetical. Pro-Israel organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have been quick to use it as a tool to achieve the closing down of Palestine solidarity events, particularly on campus. To his credit the author of the Definition – American lawyer Ken Stern – has been deeply critical of this trend, holding that rather than suppress debate students should “welcome the opportunity to learn how to wrestle with ideas that make them uncomfortable”. Likewise the health of our Party depends on the free exchange of ideas; it’s something we cannot put at risk.

If you’ve read this far you won’t be surprised to learn that I would rather the Party had steered clear of the IHRA Working Definition altogether. Its shortcomings recently led Liberty to pass a motion calling for public bodies not to adopt it; a number of eminent British Palestinians have warned against improper use of the Definition, declaring that “The reality of the Palestinian people’s ongoing dispossession belongs to the public space”; and a coalition of 36 Jewish organisations have issued a Global Jewish Statement on Antisemitism urging its rejection in favour of “effective measures to defeat white supremacist nationalist hate and violence and to end complicity in Israel’s human rights violations”.

However I think the Code of Conduct represents a perceptive and genuine attempt to use the Definition as what it claims to be: not a holy text, but a “working” resource to aid classification. If you want to delve deeper into the issues thrown up by the IHRA Working Definition there are a range of articles posted on the JVL website here.

by Kenny Fryde.

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