Feelings have been running high in both the U.K. Labour Party and the Jewish community this week, as Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) insisted on adopting its own definition of anti-Semitism, in preference to the widely used International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition. On Tuesday evening, matters came to a head when Dame Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking in East London, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Germany, confronted party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons. She is reported to have called him an anti-Semite and a racist and said, “You have proved you don’t want people like me in the party.” Corbyn, who is known for his lack of visible emotions, apparently stood quietly and replied, “I’m sorry you feel like that.”
There have been ongoing allegations of institutional anti-Semitism in the Labour party ever since Corbyn became the leader in 2015. A string of widely-publicized incidents combined with the party leadership’s refusal to deal with them firmly, lead to a demonstration outside Parliament by Jewish communal organisations, members of the Jewish community and many non-Jewish supporters including MPs from across the House, with the motto “Enough is Enough.” At the time, matters improved slightly, with Corbyn meeting representatives of Jewish organizations to discuss the issue.
Now, however, the community is in uproar once again. The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is clear, wide-ranging and has been widely adopted by governments, local councils and organisations across the world. This week in the U.K. Bradford Council adopted it, which is very significant as Bradford is a Labour-controlled council in a city with a very large Muslim population. The Board of Deputies of British Jews described this as “a very welcome move.”
Labour’s NEC, on the other hand, said that their own definition, which leaves out some of the examples given by the IHRA, is superior, despite widespread opposition to it by both the Jewish community and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The PLP held their own vote on the adoption of the IHRA definition on Monday evening, and overwhelmingly voted in favor of it. The motion said, “The PLP adopts the full IHRA definition of antisemitism, [sic] including all of its accompanying examples, and believes this should be used to define, understand and act against antisemitism in the Labour Party.”
As Labour MP Luciana Berger pointed out after the meeting, “It is a fundamental anti-racist principle that oppressed groups define their own oppression, not anyone else.
“The Jewish community must be allowed to define the anti-Semitic hate that is directed towards it, not some members of a Labour Party working group.”
Jewish communal organizations such as the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council have been very outspoken in favor of Labour adopting the IHRA definition. The Jewish Labour Movement, in an open letter, suggested that the party might be subject to legal action for discrimination were it to continue on this path.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote a letter to NEC members saying that adopting their own definition would be perceived as sending “an unprecedented message of contempt” to British Jews. The Chief Rabbi said, “Those who vote for anything other than the full IHRA definition will be placing themselves on the wrong side of the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance. Please make the right decision for Britain.”
Nearly 70 Jewish leaders from across the religious spectrum signed a letter to the Guardian, expressing their “regret” at the “insulting and arrogant” behavior of the Labour party leadership. They urged the party to “listen to the Jewish community.” The fact that people from such diverse groups agreed to put their names to the letter together showed the tremendous seriousness with which this matter is viewed and itself made an important statement, both within and outside the community.
However, in Tuesday’s NEC meeting, which was apparently very heated, the committee persisted in adopting its own definition and code of conduct. There was a small glimmer of hope as “in recognition of the serious concerns expressed, [the NEC] agreed to reopen the development of the code, in consultation with Jewish community organisations and groups, in order to better reflect their views.”
In response, the Board of Deputies, JLC and CST issued a joint statement, slamming the decision. They said, “The decision taken by the NEC today to adopt a watered-down definition of antisemitism will be regarded with a mixture of incredulity and outrage by the overwhelming majority of the U.K.’s Jews. The suggestion that they will now consult with the Jewish community is an insult, given the complete lack of meaningful consultation up until now.
“This is a sad day for the cause of anti-racism in this country. Labour, for so long a Party that put equality and inclusion at the center of its values, has today decided to claim that it understands antisemitism better than the victims of this vile prejudice and to set its face against the clear views of the Jewish community.”
The statement continued:
“The NEC has chosen to disregard the views of the Jewish community, an unprecedented show of unity by rabbis from every part of the community and even its own parliamentarians. They have distorted and diluted the IHRA definition of antisemitism that is widely accepted and used by the Jewish community, the U.K. Government, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Crown Prosecution Service, the police, and dozens of local authorities, to create their own weaker, flawed definition whose main purpose seems to be to protect those who are part of the problem.
“We are grateful to all those in the Party who have shown their support for the Jewish community, but by taking this decision the Party leadership has placed Labour on the wrong side of the fight against antisemitism, intolerance and racism. Their failure to consult with the Jewish community until now is a betrayal of basic anti-racist principles. On its current trajectory, Labour is failing British Jews and it is failing as an anti-racist party.”