Labour’s new antisemitism code is both clear and robust
The Labour party introduced a code of conduct on antisemitism last week, stronger than anything of its kind adopted by any political party in this country. This comes after our adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) full definition of antisemitism in 2016 and Labour’s annual conference voting overwhelmingly to strengthen its rules against antisemitism and racism. Some have welcomed this progressive move, but Labour has been criticised by some MPs and Jewish organisations for not simply reproducing the IHRA’s working examples word for word. However, far from lowering the bar for what constitutes antisemitism, Labour’s code lifts the bar. It requires a higher standard of behaviour than the IHRA examples do and should be seen as the new gold standard.
I have been vocal in talking about my experiences of antisemitism and in calling out the blindness to antisemitism and the unconscious bias against Jewish people that pervades our society, including when it appears on the left. I have argued for a long time that Labour must lead the way in tackling this evil within our own party, and press other political parties to follow suit. That’s why I was so pleased to support this code when it was unanimously approved by Labour’s national executive committee, of which I’m a member. Vandalised graves in Hampshire
The code fully adopts the IHRA definition, and covers the same ground as the alliance’s examples, but it also provides additional examples of antisemitism while giving context and detailed explanations to ensure it can be practically applied to disciplinary cases. Three of the four examples that the party has been falsely accused of omitting are explicitly discussed in the code. It states that Jewish people should not be accused of being more loyal to Israel than other countries; that Israel should not be held to higher standards than other countries; and that members should not use Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions or comparisons.
The only part of the IHRA working examples that is not explicitly cited relates to claims about the state of Israel being a racist endeavour. Of all the IHRA examples, this is the one that runs the greatest risk of prohibiting legitimate criticism of Israel. It cannot possibly be antisemitic to point out that some policies of the Israeli state, observed since its founding, have an effect that discriminates on the basis of race and ethnicity.
Labour’s code explicitly says that denying Jewish people the same right to self-determination as any other people is discriminatory and therefore antisemitic, and it makes clear that all countries should be held to the same, internationally recognised standards. This explanation and contextualisation is essential to ensuring that people are able to make legitimate criticisms of Israel, while prohibiting comments that discriminate against Jewish people or deny their right to self-determination.
If legitimate criticism of Israel were to be curbed, that would infringe on the rights of other oppressed groups, who have suffered at the hands of discriminatory state policies. The Palestinians have experienced decades of occupation, gross human rights violations and war crimes. The Bedouins have had their homes destroyed, the latest example being the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar. And ethnic minorities within Israel, such as the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who have been detained and deported, have been treated appallingly.
I’ve just been in Israel, where I met people from different backgrounds and organisations and of various political persuasions. Those I met, Jewish as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel, spoke about racist state policies, in relation to the occupation and settlements, and within Israel itself – the segregation of housing, education and employment as well as systematic economic disadvantage. The Palestinian minority within Israel is as entitled as Jews in Britain to define the discrimination they have experienced as racism. Such criticisms cannot, and must not, be silenced.
It cannot be right that one vaguely worded subset of one IHRA example can deny other groups the right to speak about their own oppression. That doesn’t mean there aren’t contexts in which claims about Israel being a racist endeavour are antisemitic or made with antisemitic intent. But the alliance’s wording is not sufficiently clear.
I regret that, for some Jewish organisations, the IHRA wording is so sacrosanct it can’t be expanded and built upon, contextualised, and turned into a practical, usable document for a political party. It does raise the question whether these organisations, which claim to speak for the diverse Jewish community, do speak for the 75% of British Jews who say “the expansion of settlements on the West Bank is a major obstacle to peace”, or for the 61% who back pursuing peace with the Palestinians as one of their top three priorities for Israel.
I don’t think these organisations, many of which failed to come out against the Blackshirts, or those that welcomed the presidency of Donald Trump, have the credibility to criticise a political party’s robust and far-reaching code of conduct. The only real difference between the IHRA examples and Labour’s code is that the latter provides clarity, context and detail, whereas the former is vague and open to interpretation.
Conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism is dangerous and undermines the fight against antisemitism. Clear guidelines are essential to ensure antisemitism isn’t tolerated, while protecting free speech on Israel’s policies. This is what Labour’s code of conduct provides. We should be celebrating it. is director of Birthrights, a childbirth charity