Welsh Labour should resist efforts to paint criticism of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel. Picture by US Government

Max Wallis

Last week, the Israeli parliament adopted a declaration that only Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel.

It was strongly opposed in Israel as racist, in excluding citizens of Arab descent. The proponents said it just codifies existing practice.

Indeed! For example, the Israeli state defines people worldwide as Jews simply through having a Jewish mother and grants them Israeli citizens rights.

I am one of those with a Jewish mother, and I took this definition as racist and refused years ago to associate with it and similar actions by the Israeli government.

I similarly view the new declaration on self-determination as racist.

We who held this view were called anti-semitic, which we counter by saying that our critics are exploiting anti-semitism in order to silence debate and to deflect attention from legitimate criticism of the State of Israel.

There is a disturbing trend where associating criticism of Israel’s government with anti-semitism is being misused to taint anyone opposed to the Israeli government’s actions and policies.

Contentious

Now those who support the actions of Israel’s government are putting pressure on Labour to adopt a questionable definition of anti-semitism that has a chequered history.

Introduced in 2006 as a “working definition” by the EUMC (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia), it proved highly contentious and was seen by many as attempting to proscribe legitimate criticism of the human rights record of the Israeli Government.

The renamed EUMC (EU Fundamental Rights Agency) quietly dropped it from their website.

In May 2016, the defunct EUMC definition was revived by the inter-government International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

It was then given status by an ill-considered European Parliament resolution on 1st June 2017.

While most EP resolutions including those supporting Palestinian people’s rights are largely ignored, some groups who support Israel’s government have been working to get this one taken up by governments around the world.

Teresa May’s government was among the first to adopt it in December.

Carwyn Jones followed on 23rd June with no recognition of the special treatment being given to Jews in Israel or the restrictions the definition places on freedom of speech.

The Welsh Government claimed the purpose of adopting the definition was to help all organisations and bodies in Wales to understand and recognise contemporary anti-Semitism and to use in police training.

The definition posted here is not however the whole of the IHRA’s working definition, and does not make it clear that the whole definition is endorsed.

Freedom

So, what is problematic about the IHRA’s working definition of anti-semitism?

According to the definition, it is anti-semitic to:

  • Claim that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.
  • Accuse Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  • Suggest that Jews collectively have some responsibility for actions of the state of Israel.
  • Draw comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

We should, of course, contest such generalisations. But they should not be outlawed as the IHRA want.

Desmond Tutu was outspoken in comparing Israel’s policies to apartheid South Africa.

He complained criticisms of Israel is suppressed in the United States, being “immediately dubbed anti-Semitic”.

Is Tutu’s comparison with apartheid policies to be banned along with Nazi comparisons as anti-semitic?

The Labour Party statement (reproduced here) follows the longstanding view that political discourse “often employs metaphors drawn from historical examples”.

“It is not anti-semitism,” they say, “to criticise the conduct of policies of the Israeli state by reference to such examples, unless there is evidence of anti-semitic intent.

“Chakrabati recommended that Labour members should resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel-Palestine in particular.

“In this sensitive area, such language carries a strong risk of being regarded as prejudicial or grossly detrimental to the Party.”

Those who defend the right to free expression would say Labour cannot have it both ways.

Having argued that historical examples are not anti-semitic, the Party has to defend the right of its own members to use such language.

Free speech

I believe that the Labour Party and Labour in Wales should face down the Zionists who would seek to paint criticism of the Israeli government as anti-semitic.

And I need to clarify that I do not use the word ‘Zionist’ as code word for ‘Jew’.

I myself like many defined as Jewish by the Israeli state, are strongly opposed to the attempts to suppress free discussion of the Israeli repression and crimes against Palestinians.

This is not opposition to the original Zionist project to create a Jewish homeland, but of present efforts to suppress freedom of speech and to deny the right to self-determination of Israeli non-Jews.

FM Carwyn Jones predictably aligned himself with the Zionist position, though he must be familiar with the Chakrabati report and as a lawyer he must be aware of the free speech implications.

However, he suggested that he did not understand the issue on Sunday Politics Wales: “I can’t understand why we just didn’t simply accept the usual definitio.

“Why not simply adopt the position that everyone else has adopted, and move on?” he asked.

Let’s see some Welsh politicians taking him on!

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