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.