or Would the Labour Party Expel Einstein for Antisemitism?
Originally posted on Medium
October 6th, 2017
My local Labour controlled council has just voted, like other councils, as well as universities and the UK government, to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. This consists of a rather loose basic definition, followed by a rambling discourse around the subject that twice mentions Israel and then 11 examples, 7 of which refer to the state of Israel. Anyone with a functioning brain might suspect that this definition has less to do with protecting Jews from antisemitism than with shielding Israel from criticism.
When the European Parliament were due to vote on whether to adopt this definition, I wrote to my MEPs urging them to reject it. Two replied in identical terms, pointing out that the definition makes it clear that ‘criticism of Israel cannot be regarded as antisemitic’. Except that it doesn’t. They lied. Why would they do that? What it actually says is that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic’.
The italicised phrase changes everything. Why is it there? Obviously to muddy the waters. Who is to decide whether criticism of Israel goes beyond that levelled against any other country? In any case, Israel is not like any other country. It is a settler colonial state, founded on massacres and ethnic cleansing. It is, by any definition, a criminal state. Transferring Israeli settlers into the occupied territory is illegal, as is transferring Palestinian prisoners into Israeli jails. The Wall, built largely on Palestinian land was judged illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. The collective punishment inflicted on the people of Gaza is a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel itself is a racist state where ‘Arabs’ are viewed as a demographic threat. Unlike other countries (Myanmar is an exception), it is not a state for all its citizens but for all the Jews in the world, who are given the ‘Right of Return’, a right denied to the indigenous people.
settlers burn 400 palestinian olive trees
But according to the IHRA definition we are not allowed to say this. What makes Israel worthy of special protection?
The IHRA definition gives as an example of antisemitism: Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavour.
This is tantamount to saying that antisemitism is the same as anti-Zionism since only Zionists (and antisemites) believe that Jews are ‘a people’ and that their self-determination means a Jewish state. Jews are not, in any ethnic sense, ‘a people’ or ‘a race’. All that Jews share is a religion — and whatever ethical values may be derived from that — and a history of persecution. The mass of Yiddish speaking Jews in Poland, Lithuania and Russia were against the Zionist project. True the socialist Bund wanted Jewish autonomy based on a language and a culture, for which they were labelled ‘Zionists with sea-sickness‘ by someone (probably Lenin), but they were totally opposed to a Jewish state in Palestine. So were the religious authorities of the time since it is written in the Torah and the Talmud that Jews are forbidden to return to the Holy Land until the Messiah comes. Nowadays most, but not all, Jewish religious groupings have accommodated themselves to the reality of the Jewish state even though it would seem to be a sin against God.
settler spraying a palestinian woman with wine in hebron
Many prominent Jews opposed the 1917 Balfour Declaration, notably Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the cabinet. He considered Zionism a form of antisemitism. He was not alone. Members of the mainstream Board of Deputies of British Jews, like Lucien Wolf and Alexander Montefiore, argued fervently against the idea of a Jewish state since inherent in the Zionist project is the belief that Jews do not belong in the countries where they have lived over the centuries, that they are ‘strangers in their native lands’.
Judah Magnes, the first president of the Hebrew University, who lobbied the U.S. President Harry Truman not to recognise the state of Israel, Martin Buber, the biblical scholar, Hannah Arendt, philosopher and political theorist, both refugees from Nazi Germany, and Albert Einstein were all sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine but firmly opposed to a Jewish state because they understood that it would necessarily displace the Arab population of Palestine. They favoured a bi-national state with equal rights for all. In Einstein’s evidence to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, which was examining the Palestine issue in 1946, Einstein argued against the creation of a Jewish state.
The state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with many difficulties and narrow-mindedness.I believe it is bad…. I am against it.
After Israel’s creation, he wrote: My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest.
Now, according to the IHRA definition, all these and countless more, including many Israelis such as the academics Shlomo Sand, Ilan Pappe and Moshe Machover, are guilty of antisemitism. Isn’t it absurd? And yet councillors all over the country as well as university authorities have been mindlessly voting to adopt this pernicious definition.
Another example of antisemitism given in the definition is: Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. In what way is that antisemitic? And if there is evidence for such comparisons, why are we not allowed to say so?
Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, notes the parallels between the Nazi Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which prohibit intermarriage between Jews and Germans, and Israel’s own marriage laws, where, because rabbinical law rules, ‘no Jew can marry a non-Jew’. So now she’s guilty of antisemitism twice over.
In 2014, with Israel’s onslaught on Gaza at its height, I wrote a song, The Ballad of Rivka and Mohammed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSCsEOk_DO4&feature=youtu.be ) which drew parallels between the experience of a Jewish girl in the Vilna Ghetto and a Palestinian boy in Gaza. That would undoubtedly have fallen foul of this clause in the definition and got me suspended from the Labour Party, had I been a member.
In March 2017, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, Marika Sherwood, was due to give an open talk at Manchester University, with the title, ‘A Holocaust survivor’s story and the Balfour Declaration: You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me’.
I don’t know what exactly she had in mind when choosing that title. She did say in explanation: “I was just speaking of my experience of what the Nazis were doing to me as a Jewish child. I had to move away from where I was living because Jews couldn’t live there….. I can’t say I’m a Palestinian, but my experiences as a child are not dissimilar to what Palestinian children are experiencing now.”
Perhaps she was thinking of how Israeli soldiers routinely invade Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, drag out young boys, handcuff and blindfold them, beat them, humiliate and abuse them, deny them access to family or a lawyer and then hold them in physically abusive conditions, tied to a chair, for example, until they sign confessions — stone-throwing is a typical accusation — in a language they don’t understand. The maximum sentence for throwing stones is 20 years.
Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes between 500 and 700 children each year in military courts lacking fundamental fair trial rights. Children within the Israeli military system commonly report physical and verbal abuse from the moment of their arrest, and coercion and threats during interrogations. (Defense for Children International — Palestine)
“Palestinian children arrested by (Israeli) military and police are systematically subject to degrading treatment, and often to acts of torture, are interrogated in Hebrew, a language they did not understand, and sign confessions in Hebrew in order to be released,” UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said in a report.
Of course, there was no antisemitic intent in her choice of title. But after pressure from the Israeli Embassy (Mark Regev, the Israeli Ambassador to the UK was formerly Israel’s Minister of Propaganda — they call it ‘hasbara’ in Hebrew — and was often referred to as Israel’s Goebbels), the University insisted the subtitle be removed, that academics chosen to chair the meeting should be replaced by university appointees and attendance limited to university students and staff.
The embassy argued that ‘comparing Israel to the Nazi regime could reasonably be considered antisemitic, given the context, according to IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism ….’
And this, of course, is what it’s all about. Silencing, censoring, stifling legitimate free speech. Nothing to do with combatting real antisemitism, everything to do with false accusations of antisemitism to protect Israel from criticism. The IHRA definition has been used as an excuse to suspend or expel too many Labour Party members, to close down too many meetings supporting Palestinian rights, to smear with spurious accusations of antisemitism too many speakers and writers speaking out for justice for Palestinians. Professor Moshe Machover is just the latest example, expelled from the Labour Party for writing an article in the Labour Party Marxists’ newsletter which documents the collaboration between the Nazi regime and the Zionist movement.The accuracy of his article has, unsurprisingly, not been challenged since it is all a matter of historical record. But the expulsion letter maintains that his article ‘appears to meet the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism which has been adopted by the Labour Party’. In fact, the Labour Party has wisely not adopted the whole definition, only the basic working definition without the examples, and it is difficult to understand how anything in Machover’s article could be construed as antisemitic on that basis. But any excuse…
The letter also mentions, as an affront to the etiquette of the Labour Party, language that could be perceived as offensive. That is a common charge made by the Zionist Jewish Labour Movement. They are offended if you call Israel a criminal state, they are offended if you label Israel’s policies as racist, they are offended if you mention apartheid when referring to the occupation, they are sensitive souls and are easily offended and since they are offended and they are Jews, you must be antisemitic.
Well, tough. There is not, as far as I know, a human right not to be offended. I am offended by the machinations of the Zionist lobby. I am offended by the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Times and the Telegraph. I am offended by Boris Johnson and the toff with 6 offspring who loves food banks. I am offended by Israel claiming to speak for me. I am offended every time Netanyahu opens his mouth. I am particularly offended by being accused of antisemitism because I believe a Jewish state is a terrible idea. Or because in a previous blog I said that the first loyalty of the Jewish Labour Movement ‘is not to their party but to a foreign country: Israel.’ Which offends against example 6 in the IHRA definition. But owing prime loyalty to the Jewish state is built into Zionist ideology. That is why Jews like Edwin Montagu feared Zionism and opposed the Balfour Declaration.
So, yes, I live in a permanent state of being offended. But I’m not trying to silence anyone.
The QC Hugh Tomlinson examined the IHRA definition and found it ‘unclear and confusing and should be used with caution’. He points out:
Any public authority which does adopt the IHRA Definition must interpret it in a way which is consistent with its own statutory obligations, particularly its obligation not to act in a matter inconsistent with the Article 10 (of the European Convention on Human Rights) right to freedom of expression. Article 10 does not permit the prohibition or sanctioning of speech unless it can be seen as a direct or indirect call for or justification of violence, hatred or intolerance. The fact that speech is offensive to a particular group is not, of itself, a proper ground for prohibitionor sanction. The IHRA Definition should not be adopted without careful additional guidance on these issues.
Public authorities are under a positive obligation to protect freedom of speech. In the case of universities and colleges this is an express statutory obligation but Article 10 requires other public authorities to take steps to ensure that everyone is permitted to participate in public debates, even if their opinions and ideas are offensive or irritating to the public or a section of it.
And the former High Court Judge, Sir Stephen Sedley, states that: No policy can be adopted or used in defiance of the law. The Convention right of free expression, now part of our domestic law by virtue of the Human Rights Act, places both negative and positive obligations on the state which may be put at risk if the IHRA definition is unthinkingly followed.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop my council voting unthinkingly to adopt it. But, here’s a turn-up for the books, along with the right of Jews to self-determination, they passed an amendment which gave Palestinians rights of self-determination. How do they reconcile those two rights since one negates the other? Who knows? I doubt that they gave it a moment’s thought.
I also doubt that Palestinian self-determination would be satisfied with a fragmented mini-state on the 22% of Palestine left after Israel’s expansionary War of Independence. So a reasonable interpretation of the amendment would be that the Brent councillors voted for a Palestinian state in the whole of pre-Israel Palestine and the return of 5 million Palestinian refugees.
Let’s put it another way: a single secular state with equal rights for all regardless of religion or ethnic origin.
Perhaps Einstein would have voted for that.