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New anti-Semitism definition denies Palestinians’ right to challenge oppression

Those attacking the UK Labour party for its newly adopted definition of anti-Semitism are contributing to the silencing of Palestinian voices, the potential criminalization of their struggle against racist Israeli policies, and the negation of their demands for freedom and equality.

By Laila Naheel and Hussein Samih

Illustrative photo of pro-Palestine protesters in London, June 10, 2018. (Alisdare Hickson/ CC BY-SA 2.0)

Illustrative photo of pro-Palestine protesters in London, June 10, 2018. (Alisdare Hickson/ CC BY-SA 2.0)

A furor over a newly adopted definition of anti-Semitism has erupted within the British Labour Party and UK media in recent weeks, with Jewish groups alleging that the definition does not go far enough because it omits certain criticisms of Israel as constituting examples of anti-Semitism.

Absent from these discussions, however, is a crucial voice: that of Palestinians. And as a result, Palestinians are once again being denied the means to express their opposition to the brutality of Israel’s policies and practices.

Anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, remains a significant problem in British society and must undoubtedly be addressed head-on by the Labour party.  It runs completely counter to any fight for liberty, justice and equality. This is well understood by Palestinians, whose struggle is intrinsically tied to the fate of all oppressed communities including, and especially, the Jewish people.

As has been widely-written, the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) — which is the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) — and its examples of anti-Semitism suffer significant problems and shortcomings. Despite this, and contrary to claims made against the party, the NEC endorsed the IHRA’s definition in full, but only excluded four of the eleven examples of anti-Semitism that accompany it.

The four omitted examples relate to: 1) Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel; 2) Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; 3) Applying double standards to Israel by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; and 4) Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

There is little dispute as to the accuracy or utility of the first two examples – something which is reflected in the new Labour party guidelines. Yet there is arguably still some debate to be had as to whether these in themselves, without knowledge of intent, can always be defined as anti-Semitic. While it is at the discretion of the Labour party to determine how these examples are treated, for defenders of Palestinian rights, such statements are only harmful to their struggle.

In relation to the third example: the issue is not whether Israel is held to different standards compared to other democratic states, but rather that it is held to any international legal standard at all. Israel has been criticized and condemned by numerous international bodies and foreign governments, yet there has been absolutely no sanctions or consequences for its illegal actions.

There are legitimate concerns regarding the double standards shown towards Israel, in that it constantly acts above any notion of international humanitarian or human rights law, while receiving consistent diplomatic and financial support from the UK and other governments. Israel cannot insist on being a democracy while refusing to be held accountable like one.



The fourth example is particularly problematic, and this has arguably attracted the most attention from both critics and supporters of Israel. For Palestinians, the idea that claiming the “existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is in itself anti-Semitic is disconnected from the history and nature of Israel’s founding and ongoing policies.

As British-Palestinian author and academic Ghada Karmi wrote last week, Israel, which was established on the land of 750,000 Palestinians that it forcibly expelled in 1948, is “a state that was founded on discrimination towards Arab people on the basis of religion and ethnicity. If that’s not a racist endeavour, I don’t know what is. And I should have the freedom, as the victim of that racism, to say so.”

Jewish activists worldwide have also pointed out that criticism of Israel and its creation is not in itself anti-Semitic. Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote recently that “perversely labeling critics of this racism ‘anti-Semitic’ also silences Palestinians who object to Israel’s historic and ongoing takeover of their land.”

The ironic timing of the debate around the anti-Semitism definition is not lost on Palestinians. This month, Israel punitively closed a vital crossing for goods to enter the Gaza Strip, whose population of 1.8 million have been living under a crippling blockade for 11 years, and intensified its bombings in the area. This follows months during which Israel’s army opened fire on thousands of Palestinian civilians participating non-violently in the Great March of Return.

Furthermore, last week, the Israeli Knesset passed the “Jewish Nation-State Law” which, according to the legal center Adalah, “guarantees the ethnic-religious character of Israel as exclusively Jewish and entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism and systematic inequality.”

In other words, this legislation institutionalizes the exclusionary principles on which Israel was created and enshrines in law the historical and ongoing erasure of the native Palestinian population.  At the same time, it explicitly denies the right to self-determination of Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian citizens, as well as those Palestinians it controls in the Occupied Territories, which is a fundamental rejection of Palestinian rights.

It is difficult to ascertain the motives behind those currently attacking the Labour Party. But what is clear are their direct consequences: the continued silencing of Palestinian voices, the potential criminalization of their struggle against racist Israeli policies, and the negation of their demands for freedom and equality.

As the new Labour party guidelines point out, the Jewish people have a right to self-determination as enshrined in international law – Article 1(2) of the 1948 UN Charter – and this principle equally applies to the Palestinian people. But the right to self-determination of the Jewish people does not entail the right to oppress another, and it cannot come at the expense of the Palestinians’ right to speak up and act against a state that continues to subject them to occupation, fragmentation, violence, and exile.

Laila Naheel (Palestinian-American) and Hussein Samih (British-Palestinian) are human rights advocates living and working in London.

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    1. Josef

      “Israel has been criticized and condemned by numerous international bodies and foreign governments, yet there has been absolutely no sanctions or consequences for its illegal actions.”

      And in that respect the Isreali State is no different from others which abuse human rights in the same way, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which also uses faith and race as fundemental values to its constitutional and legal arrangements.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Haley

      I didn’t realize that objecting to being bombed denied others freedom of expression.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Did you mistakenly post this here, and it was meant for another article? You point isn’t coming across.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Roger McCarthy

      As a Labour Party member who has been following 972 for a long, long time and recommended it to multiple people I am profoundly disappointed with this one-sided article.

      ‘Left’ anti-semitism is a real issue in Labour with hundreds of people who claim to be party members and supporters openly peddling the most outrageous anti-semitic memes and such a lengthy backlog of disciplinary cases in process that it has had to create a special unit under a barrister to deal with them.

      A couple of months the head of Labour’s own disciplinary sub-committee had to resign as she had refused to discipline an actual holocaust denier.

      Just today the Party has suspended a Labour town councillor for sharing some truly vile material depicting Jews as pedophiles and child-killers.

      I myself have issues with the IHRA line on Israel being a racist endeavour when all too clearly it has become precisely that.

      Nevertheless it is the one thing we have that does allow us to deal with anti-semites in our ranks and the purpose of diluting it is all too clearly intended to protect well-known individuals who are anti-semitic.

      Labour is led by a man whose support for the Palestinians has never wavered and the Party has officially supported the Palestinian demand for a state since the leadership of Ed Miliband (our only Jewish leader), therefore the idea that the many Labour members and MPs that support the IHRA and demand action against undoubted anti-semites are trying to close down criticism of Israel and ban support for Palestinian rights is beyond absurd.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        I agree. The only reason LP cannot accept the four examples is that such statements are fairly common amongst ant-Israel brigades.
        Accepting it would label them antisemites and racists: not a good move when so many run around claiming their antiracist credentials.
        Ghada Kharmi as quoted is a typical example.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          I find the reasoning of both Roger McCarthy and Mark to be murky. There seems to be some point floating around in there struggling to emerge but it is not clearly stated, and I do not see how Laila Naheel and Hussein Samih have not already acknowledged and accounted for the objections vaguely batted around by McCarthy and Mark, and moved beyond them to make the main points they make and make well.

          Reply to Comment
      • john

        and in which definition of antisemitism an holocaust denier or who depicts Jews as pedophiles and child-killers isn’t an antisemite?

        Reply to Comment
    4. Terry

      “The UK Labour party is silencing Palestinians right to speak out”.
      I was amazed to read the headline and of course the article didnt mention any such thing!!!
      But it did say-“It is difficult to ascertain the motives behind those currently attacking the labour party”.No-its not difficult.The three biggest british jewish newspapers called the labour party an “existential threat to jewish life”.And why would that be?Because unlike most other so-called leaders Jeremy Corbyn is willing to condemn Israel when necessary.
      Of course there are also some on the loony right of the british labour party who will support anything that helps denigrate Jeremy Corbyn-see comments below.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      On the subject of silencing and the allied issue of anti-Semitizing, the article I append below is evidence that:

      (1) right wing Israelis are prone to anti-Semitize anything they feel like anti-Semitizing–an all purpose weapon and substitute for honest thought;

      (2) right-wing Israelis can be oblivious to how they come across (the photo Avi Katz caricatured by referencing Orwell’s Animal Farm is a real-life caricature all by itself and did not even really need a cartoon, except it plainly did need it because few Israelis apparently actually saw the photo for what it was until Katz hit them over the head with his cartoon, and then their main response was to feel aggrieved, victimized; and

      (3) the Jerusalem Post is a free-speech-punisher and an Anglo-American propaganda sheet, a Bibiton directed at Americans. Pretending to be a free newspaper:

      Jerusalem Post Fires Cartoonist Over Caricature Mocking Netanyahu, Likud Lawmakers
      Mocking celebration of nation-state law, cartoonist Avi Katz depicted Netanyahu as a pig in homage to Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ published by the Jerusalem Post-owned magazine Jerusalem Report

      Reply to Comment