At the bottom of Labour's never-ending anti-Semitism saga is one dishonest claim. That is the contention, made frequently by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, that adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, with all its working examples, would restrict criticism of Israel.
There are many reasons to doubt this claim. Anyone can look at the IHRA definition and see that its mention of Israel is restricted to two very narrow areas. One is criticism of Israel using Nazi analogies; the other is treating the idea of a State of Israel as a racist endeavour.
The experts who wrote the definition added them precisely because they are increasingly part of antisemitic discourse. The idea that Israel cannot be criticised without doing these things is just silly.
There is also no evidence that the IHRA antisemitism definition has inhibited debate or criticism of Israel in any of the multiple foreign jurisdictions and UK authorities that have adopted it.
But perhaps the strongest argument against this idea is that there are numerous organisations devoted to peace in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank which are deeply critical of Israel and its government. Somehow they make these criticisms without lapsing into the kind of speech which Jeremy Corbyn is trying to defend. Indeed, most of them would regard it – and Jeremy Corbyn's whole approach – as deeply unhelpful.
In my job I regularly attend events with people who have strong views and direct experience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have organised private and public discussions involving Israelis and Palestinians with tragic personal stories. The conversations can become heated and angry and include detailed criticism of the Israeli Government and Israeli army.
The Palestinians might argue that settlements are illegal colonies built on stolen Palestinian land, that the Israeli army deliberately uses disproportionate force to targets civilians or that policies of the Israeli Government are racist. The Israelis will argue this is offensive and wrong. But the crucial point is that none of these heated exchanges involve warped claims that Israelis are behaving like Nazis or include anti-Semitic language.
In Britain, there has sadly always been a radical wing of the Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel movement that has included anti-Semites in its ranks. But there is also a highly developed ecosystem of charities and activists, including Jewish groups, who have for many years done incredible work to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and campaign for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Campaigning against policies of the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority is their bread and butter.
These organisations provide education programmes, legal assistance, business investment for Palestinian entrepreneurs, joint support groups for bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who lost children to wars and terror attacks, environmental groups working on joint water and energy projects and intensive dialogue sessions with young Palestinians and Israelis.
All these organisations understand that navigating though a decades old conflict requires deep mutual respect and the utmost tact and sensitivity. They know that to build trust and break out of a cycle of hatred and conflict you must avoid extremist language and steer very far away from anyone who remotely resembles an anti-Semite.
The dark side of this ecosystem are those groups who believe violence is the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They fetishize armed “resistance” and harming Israeli civilians, believe there should be no dialogue with Israelis and deploy the most offensive antisemitic and extreme language in order to inflame communal tensions.
IHRA working definition | Anti-Semitism
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance hopes that providing a strict definition of anti-Semitism will help organisations to combat it. The definition is as follows:
“Anti-Semitism is 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.”
The IHRA gives examples such as:
- Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
- 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.
- Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
- Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (eg. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
Source: International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance
The problem for Jeremy Corbyn is that he made a choice, decades ago, to walk on the dark side and seek out the extremists, anti-Semites and holocaust deniers as part of what he calls his Palestinian activism. He entered into a long-term symbiotic relationship where he gave them publicity and a platform to cause maximum harm.
Just last weekend, it was reported that Jeremy Corbyn compared Israel’s control of the West Bank to Nazi rule in Europe. Pictures also emerged of him laying a wreath at the graves of the terrorists who tortured and murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
All of this is deeply offensive to the Jewish community but also counter-productive to the Palestinian cause. It is particularly galling because in the past, when Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of associating with terrorists, he has given the excuse that he did not support their politics but just wanted to help the cause of peace.
When questioned in Parliament about his reference to members of Hamas and Hizbollah as “friends”, he said: “The language I used...was about encouraging the meeting to go ahead, encouraging there to be a discussion about the peace process.” When he was interviewed about his history of sympathy for the IRA, he claimed that his “regular contacts with Sinn Fein” had laid the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement.
But if you talk to the people who are actually working for peace, this is far from what they want. Indeed, it harms the cause of peace and makes a lasting resolution less likely.
It is unclear why exactly Corbyn made this choice, or why he never changed tack and diverted some of his energy to the many impressive organisations working to build peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians through dialogue and cooperation.
But it is clear why Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are so opposed to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and why they can't criticise Israel and vociferously campaign for Palestinians without comparing Israelis to Nazis. It is because they long ago turned their backs on peace, and because, if Jeremy Corbyn was to agree to adopt the IHRA's definition, he would be turning his back on his own life's work.
James Sorene is the CEO of Bicom, the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre