If you’re having trouble keeping up with British political controversies and only vaguely familiar with the story of “Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s antisemitism crisis,” you’d be forgiven for thinking from occasionally glimpsed headlines and social media posts that the current leader of the UK opposition party was a “racist and antisemite,” that he had “waged war on the Jews” and that he “posed an existential threat to Jewish life.”
On August 1, 2018, public pressure obliged Corbyn to apologize for having hosted an event in 2010 in which Israel had been compared to Nazi Germany, albeit by a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Several weeks later, the furor had been about his attendance at a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunisia in 2014 to honor, he says, those killed in an internationally condemned 1985 Israeli air strike, or, according to his critics, those terrorists suspected of being behind the attack at the 1972 Olympic Games. The issue resurfaced at the end of August, this time concerning his 2013 criticism of a group of British Zionist hecklers for understanding English irony less than the Palestinian ambassador they were misrepresenting – this was taken as the smoking gun that “proved” Corbyn’s antisemitism.
The Antisemitism Crisis Narrative
The Labour Party has been under attack this summer for “failing” or even “refusing” to adopt “the international definition” of antisemitism – the “working definition” of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental organization that aims to promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance, and which counts the UK and France among its members.
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You might have also read that it has been too slow to condemn a rising tide of antisemitism within the party or to punish its antisemitic members, and that in unilaterally reaching its own definition of antisemitism as something that is distinct from anti-Zionism it has neglected to consult on the subject with anyone from “the Jewish community.”
After all, this is not only the narrative given to us by Conservative Party politicians and the notoriously untrustworthy right-wing tabloid press in the UK; it’s also the same story we’re told by many politicians within the Labour Party itself, and by much of the relatively trusted Guardian and BBC; a narrative that is then dutifully repeated in mainstream journalism abroad.
Controversy Over a Definition
However, such an interpretation is misleading at best. It also tends to depend upon the omission of pertinent information and opposing views, and to strategically deploy an ambiguous wording of key terms. It ignores the fact, for instance, that in 2016 the party did indeed adopt in full the definition of antisemitism in question, and presents what is actually a particularly controversial and not that widely used definition as “the international definition.”
Admittedly, confusion abounds as to what the “definition” actually refers to: is it the “text in the box” but not necessarily any of the accompanying “examples”, or is it the whole document and therefore all of the examples as well as the text in the box? Either way, to say that Labour has rejected the definition when, by the most commonsensical interpretation, they have actually accepted it seems disingenuous.
As it happens, the IHRA have themselves explained that it was indeed only the “text in the box” (and not the examples) that was adopted by its 31 member-states as the “working definition.” Only 8 countries (the UK, Israel, Austria, Romania, Germany and Lithuania, Bulgaria and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) have so far gone on to formally adopt it. And the commitment of some of them to combatting antisemitism is far from convincing.
When it comes to the UK, the Conservative government’s adoption of the definition along with all the examples, without the addition of any caveats to protect free speech in criticizing Israel, went contrary to the advice of a parliamentary select committee on antisemitism, while the Conservative party itself has adopted neither the definition nor the examples, nor does its code of conduct even mention antisemitism, despite the claims to the contrary of Theresa May and a widespread lack of media curiosity into how other parties have defined it.
Indeed, anti-racist charities such as Liberty, a leading lawyer and a former high court judge have all criticized the impossibility of applying such a vague definition, as well as the conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism in over half of the examples, and the chilling effect on free speech that wholesale application of the definition and examples could have on those wishing to criticize Israel.
More critically, experts on Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, such as Anthony Lerman and Brian Klug, have written particularly insightful explanations of the controversial history of the definition, criticisms of the conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism in the examples, and the extent to which Labour have adopted, qualified and in some cases extended the examples in their own code of conduct.
Labour’s Criticism of Israel
Although the IHRA document states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” over half of the examples concern criticisms of Israel that “may” be antisemitic, including the most contentious example of “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” And it is the Labour Party’s hesitation on this point, and Corbyn’s history of pro-Palestinian activism and criticisms of Israel (which have sometimes led to accusations of antisemitism), that have proven to be the sticking point.
There are significant problems, however, with the framing of the story as a crisis of antisemitism particular to a Labour Party that is turning to the left and increasingly critical of Israel. On the contrary, doing so ignores the relatively low number of accusations of antisemitism within the party, as well as the high proportion of those claims that are more obviously what can be termed “anti-Israelism.” It also ignores the fact that levels of antisemitism in Britain, although rising, are among the lowest in the world. Meanwhile, studies have shown that antisemitism in Britain is, in fact, a predominantly right-wing problem, whereas anti-Israelism has been shown to be more common among those on the left – although, as such studies demonstrate, antisemitism and anti-Israel attitudes exist “both separately and together.”
The subjective framing of this issue also downplays the significance of competing factions within the Labour party and the recent convergence of Labour’s “old and new right” wings on opposition to the party leadership’s change of political direction, obscuring the way that (often unfounded) allegations of antisemitism have been used for party-political purposes and clearly benefiting both the Conservatives and the right-wing of Labour.
Indeed, as academics in the UK have recently pointed out, the media coverage has not only lacked context and perspective; it has relied upon only a handful of sources from among Corbyn’s critics without acknowledging their political motivations or seeking to balance their views with those of his supporters.
When referring to the resignation from the Labour Party of a veteran MP (member of parliament) who can purportedly no longer put up with the Corbyn-induced antisemitism in the party, for instance, why not mention that his own constituents were already calling for his deselection from the party for his anti-immigration, pro-Brexit, pro-Thatcherite agenda?
When presenting a Jewish Labour MP’s accusations that Corbyn is a racist, why not refer to her own history of appropriating fascist language for electoral gain? Why persistently emphasize the Jewishness of some of the accusers, but neglect to acknowledge the Jewish ancestry of many of those they accuse of antisemitism?
Why represent current or former chief rabbis as the voice of the Jewish community without acknowledging their controversial views and actions, their closeness to right-wing politicians or the non-representative status of chief rabbi?
Jewish Support for Corbyn
As for references to the “Jewish community,” why not point out that the leaders of these groups claiming to speak on behalf of all British Jews in Labour and beyond (such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish Leadership Council, Labour Friends of Israel, Community Security Trust, Jewish Labour Movement) are primarily conservative and right-wing, with strong links to Israel and close to the New Labour project and the Conservative Party?
Why not acknowledge that their views are not shared by many British Jews, particularly those who are members of the Labour Party? Groups representing these sections of the Jewish community (such as Jewish Voice for Labour, Jewish Socialists” Group, Jewish Council for Racial Equality, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Independent Jewish Voices, jewdas, Na’amod), many of which have made (with other international left-wing Jewish groups) their support of Corbyn and rejection of the working definition clear, are seldom heard in the British media, other than when Corbyn is criticized for meeting them instead of the more “mainstream” groups.
Why not at least acknowledge the diversity of Jewish opinion on the definition of antisemitism, on Israel, and on Corbyn?
For that matter, as many have been arguing, why also ignore the voices of Palestinians, who presumably have an informed view on racism in Israel? Or the voices of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) groups on the subject of defining antisemitism and racism more generally?
None of this necessarily means that all or some of the accusations are unfounded or the result of a conspiracy; nor does it fail to acknowledge the sincere and genuine concerns of a great number of (Jewish and non-Jewish) people with Corbyn’s and several Labour members’ attitudes to Israel and their dismissiveness of accusations of antisemitism. But the partial (as in both relating to a part rather than the whole, and as in biased) way in which the accusations have been elevated to the status of a crisis that is unique to Corbyn’s Labour certainly raises some questions.
Such media misrepresentation must be understood in the wider context of anti-Corbyn bias across the media spectrum, as demonstrated by successive studies since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, particularly in the partisan (and mostly right-wing) press, but also more widely, including the BBC evening news bulletins, the most watched programs of the UK’s most trusted news source.
The problems with the ways in which the “antisemitism scandal” has been presented are typical of the media failings previously identified by these studies: namely, the tendency to assign “descriptive labels” to a particular set of political views, the absence of due “qualifications and caveats” when reporting on a narrow range of sources, and a failure to demonstrate “accuracy, balance and impartiality”, even in the case of public service broadcasters. Such bias can, in part, be explained by the “revolving door” that exists between the ostensibly independent and neutral BBC and the Conservative and New Labour, Westminster establishment.
The adoption last week of the definition as well as all of its examples, alongside an unconvincing statement that this won’t somehow undermine free speech on Israel and Palestine, will not stop the media interest in “Labour’s antisemitism crisis” – that won’t stop until either Corbyn is gone or these media failings are addressed.
Note: The article above is an expanded version of the article that originally appeared on The Conversation.