Who should define antisemitism?

Some proponents of the IHRA definition insist that only the mainstream Jewish organisations have the right to decide what constitutes antisemitism, and refer to the Macpherson report for justification.

With such a complex and contentious issue as antisemitism, the issue of who defines it becomes a sensitive one. Since there is wide disagreement about where to draw the line, how do we reconcile the competing standpoints? Who has the authority to say what it is? This became a key issue during the controversy over antisemitism in the UK Labour Party. In the summer of 2018, under pressure on the issue, the party developed its own definition of antisemitism, which modified the IHRA definition in several ways, in particular in relation to Israel. Jewish bodies such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Labour-affiliated Jewish Labour Movement rejected this and insisted that the party adopt the original definition with all its examples without modification. In fact Mike Katz, the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, claimed that only Jews had the right to define antisemitism. This was a right accorded by the Labour Party to all other ethnic minorities, so Jews were being prejudiced against when Labour modified the IHRA definition of antisemitism, a definition widely supported by the official British Jewish bodies.

In justification he cited the “Macpherson principle”, referring to the report of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry led by Sir William Macpherson. In doing so he was following the lead of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism who stated that in the light of the Macpherson Report “it is the Jewish community itself that is best qualified to determine what does and does not constitute antisemitism” (in their 2006 Report Into Antisemitism, page 1). So what did the Macpherson Report actually say? Most of the report relates to the details of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent investigation, but Chapter 45 takes a wider view of how racist incidents are treated by the police. The then definition of a “racial incident” was too vague and left too much discretion to the police. The report recommended that the definition of a racist incident should be “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.”

It’s clear from the context that this related only to the way incidents are reported. The report didn’t state that someone’s perception of racism should preempt the results of an investigation, the presumption of innocence or any other legal process. It certainly didn’t claim that only ethnic minorities have the right to define prejudice against them. So where did this notion come from, if not from Macpherson? One possible source that you can point to is from within feminism. According to standpoint theory, oppressed groups such as women have a clearer perspective on the power structure of society than men. They have “epistemic privilege” by virtue of their subordinate position; they can see through the biases and prejudices of the dominant order whereas those who are invested in it are blind to those biases.

However, more recently the concept of intersectionality has complicated the picture: patterns of oppression can overlap and interact, so that for example white women can be oppressed in one context and privileged in another. Therefore any epistemic privilege can only be relative, rather than absolute; you can say that women can have a clearer picture of sexism than men, but they don’t have absolute authority to define it. The wider picture of domination and subordination has to be taken into account, what Patricia Hill Collins called the “matrix of domination”.

As I stated in my first piece on this issue, racism can be unconscious and buried in people’s way of thinking, so that the victims of prejudice are more likely to be alert to it. If members of an ethnic minority warn us that something is prejudiced against them, then we should certainly take that seriously. But to base the definition of racism purely on subjective perception leads to “conceptual and political chaos” as Professor David Feldman put it (in his sub-report to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism’s 2016 inquiry, page 8). The fight against racism isn’t the responsibility of each ethnic minority alone; it has to be based on a coalition. The understanding of racism needs to be negotiated and shared by the coalition, and no one constituent of that coalition should be able to impose its perspective on the whole. Jews can’t have the exclusive right to define what antisemitism is, and certainly not in the context of Israel and Palestine, where Jews represent the dominant group. As Joanna Phillips points out, it’s not just Jews who are affected by how antisemitism is defined; many Palestinians have strongly objected to the IHRA definition of antisemitism. We should take their objections seriously too.

Defining antisemitism

The IHRA definition of antisemitism demands recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish ethnic state. That shuts down legitimate argument about Israel’s past, present and future.


I started this series by stating my own understanding of what antisemitism is. In fact, the very question of how to define antisemitism has become a highly contested one. The controversy centres around the Working Definition of Antisemitism, a “non-legally binding” definition promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and adopted in different forms by a number of countries, including the UK, and also by the British Labour Party. The IHRA‘s definition of antisemitism itself is rather vague:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.

This definition is so lacking in content that it becomes critically dependent on the included list of examples of what it considers antisemitic attitudes, and this is where the controversy begins. It’s striking that some classic antisemitic tropes, such as that Jews are tight-fisted or dishonest, are missing from the list. What’s even more striking is that seven of the eleven examples refer to Israel in some way; here’s Example 7:

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

This statement begs a lot of questions. First of all it assumes that Jews globally make up one people, with its own right of self-determination, rather than an ethnic category within a number of different nations, with its own rights within those nations. This whole question has huge implications, and has been highly controversial in the past. In fact, up until the Second World War many Jewish organisations rejected Zionism on the grounds that it might compromise the rights of Jews within their nation of birth or residence. Moreover, Example 7 claims the general right of “the Jewish people” to self-determination, but the concrete example that it gives implies that self-determination means statehood, when as Peter Beinart has argued that is only one possible form that self-determination can take. Where ethnic groups are intermingled as they were and are in Israel/Palestine then the right to self-determination may have to take different forms.

Example 7 goes on to link that right of self-determination to “a State of Israel”. Does it mean the principle of a Jewish state? If so, why not say a “Jewish state”? Or does it refer to the State of Israel? If so, there’s a further logical leap from stating that the Jews have a right to their own state in principle, to saying that the State of Israel as it is constituted is legitimate and that any accusations of racism against it are antisemitic. In practice the distinction between “a” State of Israel and “the” State of Israel is liable to disappear; for example, during the conflict over antisemitism in the Labour Party, the Guardian cited Example 7 as follows: “claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour” [emphasis mine].

There are several ways in which you could characterise the state of Israel as racist, starting with the assumption by the Zionist founders that the Jews had a claim to Palestine that took precedence over that of its majority Arab inhabitants. You could point to the mass expulsions of Palestinians in 1948 and the continued exclusion of the refugees and their descendents. You could also refer to all the ways in which Israel discriminates against its Palestinian citizens and denies rights to the Palestinians in the occupied territories, all in the name of preserving the Jewish ethnic character of the Israeli state. It may not fit into the typical imperial-colonial context of racism because Israel’s history is unique, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a form of racism.

So in fact there are three contestable assumptions within Example 7: that Jews constitute one nation with its own right of self-determination, that self-determination necessarily implies statehood, and that the State of Israel is the legitimate expression of Jewish statehood. Anyone who doesn’t accept this chain of logic is condemned as an antisemite. Certainly the question of the best long-term exit from the conflict over Israel/Palestine is a difficult one, with arguments for and against two-state or one-state solutions, but such an accusation just closes down thought.

I’ve focused on Example 7 because it’s the part of the IHRA definition that has the widest political significance, but other parts of the definition can be criticised on similar grounds (see for example Stephen Sedley’s critique in the London Review of Books). The point is, the IHRA definition in general and Example 7 in particular is so ambiguously drafted that it could be used to suppress a wide range of criticism of the Israeli state’s history, law and practices, way beyond what could reasonably be considered antisemitism. Indeed one of the original drafters of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has himself expressed concern about the way that it is being exploited to suppress legitimate debate in American universities.

Antisemitism may motivate some criticism of Israel, but what we know about antisemitism is that it can be quite subtle in its manifestations; a simple checklist approach to defining antisemitism is always likely to be a blunt instrument. The IHRA definition is a very blunt instrument. It seeks to constrain criticism of Israel so that any challenge to the way that Israel is constituted is ruled out of bounds. By conflating antisemitism with legitimate arguments about Israel it actually makes it harder to think about antisemitism rather than easier.

Where to draw the line?

The failings of the Corbyn leadership over antisemitism have handed a victory to Israel’s defenders.

Although I supported the Corbyn leadership, I felt frustrated at its handling of the antisemitism controversy: too often it appeared to be chasing events rather than leading them, and opportunities to take the initiative such as the Chakrabarti Inquiry report were squandered. Jeremy Corbyn’s own conduct in the past was open to criticism, and the drip-drip of revelation undermined him. Of course Corbyn’s enemies inside the party and out have exploited the issue to damage him, but that’s because there was a weakness there to be exploited. The publication of the report into antisemitism in the Labour Party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is the latest turn in this conflict, and one that could have far-reaching consequences. Most of the political attention has been taken by Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension and ongoing denial of the whip, but I want to take a closer look at the report itself.

The EHRC has found that the Labour Party breached the 2010 Equality Act in several ways. First of all, elected officials of the party (“agents” in the terminology of the Equality Act) have harassed the Party’s Jewish members with antisemitic conduct. The report gives prominence to the case of Ken Livingstone and the statements he made after the suspension of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West at the end of April 2016 (Livingstone was a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee at the time and so is classed as an agent of the Labour Party). What’s striking about the report is that it fails to mention the worst things that he said, such as that Hitler “was supporting Zionism – before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews” (so before the Holocaust began Hitler’s policy towards the Jews was benign?) or “a real antisemite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate their Jewish neighbours in Golders Green or Stoke Newington” (so hating the Jews in Israel is OK?). The Labour MP John Mann attacked him later that day as a “Nazi apologist”, which is certainly one way of interpreting his comment about Hitler and Zionism.

What the report does focus on (on pages 28-29 and 105-106) is Naz Shah’s conduct (as exposed by the right-wing blogger Paul Staines AKA Guido Fawkes), and Ken Livingstone’s defence of it. In August 2014, during that summer’s Israel-Gaza conflict (and nine months before she was elected), Shah tweeted a graphic suggesting that relocating Israel to the United States would be a solution to the Middle East conflict. In September Shah tweeted a mug shot of Martin Luther King under arrest with the caption “Never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal” and the hashtag “#APARTHEID ISRAEL”. In interviews Ken Livingstone defended these comments (although acknowledging that they were “over the top and rude”).

The report considers the antisemitic nature of Naz Shah’s comments about relocation and Hitler to be self-evident, referring to her subsequent apologies in lieu of an argument. I’m not so sure: I read the tweet about relocation as rejection of Israel’s legitimacy in the Middle East and a satirical comment on its alliance with the United States, but to call it antisemitic begs a load of questions. Her comment about Hitler was “over the top” as Ken Livingstone put it, but comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis come very quickly to mind when tempers are running high in politics, even though they can trigger painful experiences of trauma for many Jews. For me the worst thing about Shah’s tweet about relocating Israel was the reference to the “transportation costs” of such a move: that immediately brought to my mind the transportation of Europe’s Jews to the extermination camps, and Paul Staines clearly had the same thought. I also think she stepped over the mark when she tweeted that “The Jews are rallying to the poll [about Israeli and Gaza]”, implying that all Jews supported Israel’s actions. However the report doesn’t mention either of those specific statements.

Regarding the general question of antisemitism in the Labour Party, Livingstone said “there’s been a very well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticises Israeli policy as antisemitic.” The EHRC offers more of a rationale here. It refers to Labour Party members who described this as a “classic antisemitic trope…Instead of taking their concerns seriously, Ken Livingstone dismissed them as acting on behalf of a foreign power” (p. 106). Now I think that Livingstone’s denial of any antisemitism in the Labour Party and dismissal of all claims of antisemitism as smears were unconvincing. However it isn’t clear to me that his use of the term “Israel lobby” here is antisemitic: there certainly are a number of bodies in the UK that campaign in support of Israel (with grassroots support within the Jewish community and beyond). Some of them have been probing the Corbyn left, including for example the Israel Advocacy Movement that revealed Jackie Walker’s comment about Jewish responsibility for the slave trade. There is a hint of a conspiracy theory in Livingstone’s use of the phrase “very well-orchestrated”; again, the report doesn’t refer to this.

Why the emphasis of the report? I think that this is because the EHRC is trying to ensure that its approach conforms with the definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Although the report states that the EHRC has based itself on the Equality Act, that in itself doesn’t provide a methodology for identifying antisemitism: the IHRA definition does. The definition gives a number of examples of antisemitism, the potentially relevant ones here being:

Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations [Example 6].

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor [Example 7].

Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis [Example 10].

The report states that the harassment that it has identified “would meet the IHRA definition and its examples of antisemitism” (page 116). Both of the main plaintiffs in the enquiry back the IHRA definition, and one of them, the Jewish Labour Movement, recommended that the IHRA definition be adopted as the basis for disciplinary procedures and training in antisemitism in its submission to the EHRC enquiry (pages 45-46).

The other part of the EHRC’s judgement covers the way complaints of antisemitism were handled by the Labour Party. According to the report the Leader’s office interfered on a number of occasions in the disciplinary process, and at one point took over the handling of all outstanding antisemitism cases, in a clear breach of the Party’s own internal procedures. The Corbyn left’s response has been to claim that the leadership was fighting an anti-Corbyn cabal within the unit responsible for investigating complaints, accusing them of spending their time conspiring against the leadership instead of doing their jobs. Without ploughing through masses of detail, I can’t say if that’s a fair picture, but even if it is, the solution was not for the Leader’s Office to unconstitutionally take over the handling of cases of antisemitism. This seems like bureaucratic warfare rather than a democratic political response.

The EHRC also characterises the Party’s training and documentation with regard to the handling of antisemitism cases as inadequate, and criticises the inconsistent and undocumented application of sanctions (pages 80-82). The report requires (pages 13 and 74) the Labour Party to establish a clear framework for assessing complaints of antisemitism and applying sanctions consistently. It also requires (pages 14 and 75) Labour to publish data on the handling of antisemitism complaints, including the number of cases, the speed with which they are processed, and the outcomes. However, the EHRC wants this data compared with other complaints in general, but not specifically complaints of racism. There is already a perception that there is a “hierarchy of racism” within the Party, a suspicion that antisemitism is taken more seriously than other forms of racism, and it would be very dangerous if that were to grow. The point is to ensure that all complaints of racism are treated with equal seriousness, and the only way to prove that is with full transparency.

My greatest concerns about the report however relate to the independent process for handling complaints of antisemitism that the report mandates. It requires the Labour Party to “engage with Jewish stakeholders to develop…principles and practices to tackle antisemitism” (page 12). Given that the main bodies that represent British Jews are pro-Israel and back the IHRA definition, that is likely to restrict debate about Israel and the Palestinians within the party to the limits that those bodies are comfortable with, and in particular make it impossible to challenge the way that Israel is constituted. In my next posts I want to try to explain what I mean; there’s a lot to unpack here.