14 April 2021
Roland Rance reports on the publication of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.
Five years ago, the Labour Party right, with support from the Israeli government, launched its witchhunt of the left, with spurious claims of antisemitism against the Oxford University Labour Club, and against NUS President Malia Bouattia. Some months later, with the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn, a left-wing supporter of Palestinian rights, as Labour leader, the campaign moved into high gear, where it has remained ever since[i].
The campaign has notched up many successes. It was indirectly responsible for Labour’s defeat in the last two general elections, and it fatally undermined Corbyn’s leadership and led to his removal. It was responsible for the expulsion or resignation of many left members and activists, including Marc Wadsworth, Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein. And it has led to the suspension of several party branches and CLPs, and to an unknown – but large – number of suspensions of individual members – including many Jewish members guilty of being “the wrong kind of Jew”, and opposing Israel and Zionism.
In recent weeks, claims of antisemitism have been used to close down both CLPs in Newham, to suspend a councillor in Haringey, to remove an elected candidate[ii] from Labour’s list for the London Assembly, to arbitrarily suspend dozens of Labour activists, and even to rule out of order motions critical of Corbyn’s successor Keir Starmer which make no mention of Jews or Israel. Beyond the Labour Party, similar claims have been used to call for the dismissal of a professor at Bristol University[iii], to attack political candidates from the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Independence Party[iv], to close down a meeting in the USA at which Angela Davis was due to speak, and to attack election candidates in Canada and New Zealand. Clearly the tactic is proving successful, and will continue to be used.
Although manifestations of antisemitic racism continue, most of the countless claims made over the past few years do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Many of them are based on the document erroneously labelled the “Definition of Antisemitism” published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). This is an inter-governmental body, of mostly European states; the UK delegation is headed by the well-known anti-racist activist Eric Pickles[v]. In 2016, this body adopted as its definition of antisemitism a statement previously discussed, and then dropped, by the EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. The statement consists of a banal attempt to define antisemitism (“a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”), illustrated by several examples which “could, taking into account the overall context” be construed as antisemitic. Of the eleven illustrations, seven related to attitudes towards the state of Israel rather than towards Jews.
The statement has been forcefully criticised by many Jewish academics and activists, as well as by Palestinians whose right to speak about their oppression has been systematically dismissed and censored. Its author Kenneth Stern has repeatedly noted – including in written evidence to the US Congress – it was only ever intended to assist with and inform data harmonisation, and certainly not to police free speech or criminalise opposition to Israel and Zionism. Despite this, the document (and the eleven examples, which were not in the original “working definition” and whose origin remains obscure) appears to have acquired the status of holy writ for Israel’s supporters, and public bodies have been browbeaten to adopt and enforce this tendentious approach. Several governments – including states with antisemitic parties in government – have adopted the statement. In some states, such as France and Germany, the statement has been used in an attempt to criminalise activity in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. In October 2020, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson wrote to all universities in England instructing them to adopt and enforce the definition, with the threat of withdrawing funding if they refused – at the same time that he was threatening to penalise universities who restricted free speech for racists and transphobes.
Opposition to the IHRA document has been massively strengthened by the publication of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism in March 2020. This document, the product of a year-long collaboration by scores of academics, and coordinated by the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, addresses many of the problems of the IHRA document.
In the first place, the JDA offers a clear and unambiguous definition, in contrast to the IHRA’s vacuous phrasing: “Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)”. Importantly, the JDA identifies antisemitism as an aspect of racism (“What is true of racism in general is true of antisemitism in particular”), a recognition that is lacking in many approaches to the issue.
The JDA responds to the examples identified by the IHRA with examples that are, or are not “on the face of it antisemitic”. These include an explicit statement that support for BDS activities, opposition to Zionism, and opposition to the existence of Israel as a “Jewish state” are not antisemitic. Some of the examples that the JDA identifies as antisemitic on the face of it (“Holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s conduct or treating Jews, simply because they are Jewish, as agents of Israel”, “Assuming that non-Israeli Jews, simply because they are Jews, are necessarily more loyal to Israel than to their own countries”) refer to behaviour that is expressed just as often by Zionists and supporters of Israel as by outright antisemites.
The declaration states explicitly that it should not “be codified into law, nor used to restrict the legitimate exercise of academic freedom, whether in teaching or research, nor to suppress free and open public debate that is within the limits laid down by laws governing hate crime”. This should prevent any abuse of its definition and examples, as has happened with the IHRA.
The JDA has been endorsed by more than 200 signatories, including professors of Jewish and Holocaust studies at several universities across the world, and many other leading scholars in these fields. One member of the Coordinating Group is the head of Holocaust Studies and of the Research Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This has not, however, insulated it, and them, from false charges of antisemitism and double standards. After initially trying to ignore the declaration, opponents recognised the threat it posed to their interests, and Israel’s propagandists and apologists launched a smear campaign to delegitimise the JDA and its signatories.
The declaration has also faced some criticism from Palestinians and their supporters. While recognising its clear benefits over the IHRA, some have criticised the JDA for excluding a Palestinian perspective, for its focus on the Israel/Palestine conflict, and even for its title. These criticisms are misplaced, and fail to recognise the purpose of the JDA. It is not intended as a statement on Middle East politics, and makes it clear that the signatories have differing views on these matters. It is, rather, an attempt to draw a clear distinction between this and the struggle against antisemitism. The focus in the examples on the conflict is necessary as a detailed rebuttal of the IHRA’s attempt to conflate opposition to Israel with hatred of Jews; the document clearly distinguishes between hate speech against Jews and criticism of Israel, however harshly expressed.
The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism may not be perfect, nor will it be the last word on the subject. It is, however, a significant contribution to our understanding and work. It is a document which we should be promoting in our unions, Labour Party branches, campuses and workplaces as a serious and credible alternative to the flawed and tendentious IHRA definition.
[ii] Preston Tabois a Unite activist and the only Black man on the list
[iii] David Miller
Roland Rance is a supporter of Socialist Resistance and A*CR, and a member of Jewish Voice for Labour. He has been an anti-Zionist activist in Britain and Israel since the 1970s.