To Show it is Serious About Anti-Semitism, Labour Must Accept the IHRA Definition in Full

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Photo Credit: Flickr / WJC CEO Robert Singer Urged UK's Labour Party to Accept IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism in Full

By Robert Singer, CEO and Executive Vice President of World Jewish Congress 

(Originally posted in the NewStatesman on 8/23. Link to article: http://bit.ly/2oi0rrW)

If Britain’s Labour Party truly intends to mend its widening rift with the Jewish community and rid party ranks of anti-Jewish sentiment, it should unequivocally accept the non-legally binding definition of anti-Semitism already adopted and sanctioned by the British government. 

Anti-Semitism can only be forcefully and effectively addressed once the problem has been clearly defined, in a comprehensive and universal fashion. It was in this vein that the member countries of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – the first intergovernmental coalition of its kind dedicated to combating Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism – unanimously adopted in 2016 a working definition of anti-Semitism to guide the organisation in addressing all stages and variations of this phenomenon.

Being a committed member of the Labour Party should not mean being deaf to the concerns of the mainstream Jewish community.

Anti-Semitism, as such, is a “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” IHRA attached 11 examples to serve as an integral part of this definition to further the focus on practical and relevant daily usage, and to reflect current realities.

So far, nine of the IHRA’s 31 member countries, nine observer states, and two liaisons have formally adopted the definition, including the United Kingdom.

Until now, Jeremy Corbyn has refused outright to adopt the definition as party policy, citing issues with some of the incorporated examples, namely those designating the delegitimisation of the State of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism.

Some examples of this form – which, according to IHRA, are actually highly relevant – include denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour and applying double standards, using classically anti-Semitic imagery to characterise Israel or Israelis, and comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, among others.

Corbyn recently said he would be willing to entertain the IHRA definition, if given room for criticism of Israel. What he has failed to recognise, however, is that IHRA already makes clear in its definition that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic” and is in fact wholly distinct from the anti-Semitic nature of “targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

Furthermore, anyone with a rudimentary familiarity with Israeli politics and media is aware that even locally in Israel, there is ample opportunity to criticise the Israeli government, something which is done regularly, as in any free and democratic society.

It begs the question, why does Corbyn not see the distinction between legitimate criticism and demonisation?

Corbyn also seems to have difficulty understanding why his actions, including his attendance at a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of the Palestinian terrorist behind the 1972 Munich Massacre, have caused such great upset and concern within the Jewish community. This is exactly why the IHRA definition with all its examples is so badly needed – to have a standard by which such incidents can be judged.

Being a committed member of the Labour Party should not mean being deaf to the concerns of the mainstream Jewish community, which has long had a strong and positive relationship with the party and its leaders. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, for example, has proven to be an ally, calling for a ban on hateful pro-Hezbollah marches on the streets of London – marches which Corbyn has previously supported.

Photo Credit: The Jewish Chronicle / This past fall, Jews in the UK protested anti-Semitism in the Labour Party

In its essence, the definition of anti-Semitism, drafted with input from many of the world’s foremost experts and agreed upon by the 31 members of IHRA in 2016, was monumental as it developed from an unprecedented collaborative effort to fight anti-Semitism as a united front, using the same vocabulary and criteria; anti-Semitism crosses all borders, and so should its definition.

Anti-Semitism as such cannot be defined subjectively by individual governments or citizens, with different entities picking and choosing how to characterise it as they see fit. Those who refuse to recognise the example of delegitimising Israel as a form of anti-Semitism could just as easily make the same subjective exception for forms of Holocaust denial and blood libels. Precisely for this reason, IHRA includes 11 universal examples pertinent to the current climate and of critical import to the definition on a whole.

The World Jewish Congress has for years advocated for all members of IHRA to formally adopt the definition in full. For us it is clear, however, that adoption itself is not enough; following adoption, national parliaments need to recognise the importance of applying the definition systematically, to yield as an effective tool for law enforcement. Adopt; encode; and enforce. Only then, can anti-Semitism be confronted appropriately and comprehensively.

An undeniable wave of anti-Semitism has rippled over much of the world in recent years, seeing particularly record high levels in countries in Europe, where Jews have deep-seated roots and have long been integrated in public life and society. Without a common definition, hateful rhetoric and violent acts against Jews are relegated to a murky corner, where anti-Semitism remains open to interpretation, with potentially tragic results.

Britain has already taken a lead among nations by adopting IHRA’s definition; the Labour Party now has a golden opportunity to do the same. As Marie van der Zyl, WJC Vice President and President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has said: “Jeremy Corbyn needs to lead Labour out of this deep abyss and urgently demonstrate to the world that Labour can return to being an anti-racist party.”

Indeed, all promoters of the values of democracy, tolerance, and civil rights should stand united in calling anti-Semitism by its name and making every effort to universally combat this age-old hatred once and for all.