You don’t have to read too much of the tweets and other comments directed at Margaret Hodge and other Jewish Labour MPs to appreciate that Labour has a very big problem with anti-Semitism. But is the party’s refusal to adopt the full working definition of anti-Semitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance an example of its failings? Absolutely not.
Firstly, on a general point, it is never a good idea to allow pressure groups – however worthy their intentions – to lay down the rules on language. The same mistake has been committed with the official definition of ‘poverty’ which, thanks to left-wing campaigning groups, now includes people with Sky TV and anyone else whose household income is less than 60 per cent of the median in a wealthy country like Britain.
Specifically on the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism the problem is that it includes the example of “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
Surely we are allowed to assert that the creation of Israel was an historic mistake without being accused of anti-Semitism? We are, after all, allowed to argue that the partition of India was an error – even though that means questioning the right of Pakistan and Bangladesh to exist. Those who condemn partition are not automatically labelled ‘Islamophobes’.
Similarly, we are allowed to argue that Ireland should have been kept together as a single country without being accused of being anti-protestant. We are allowed to oppose Scottish independence without being accused of being anti-Scottish (except, perhaps, by some of the more extreme elements within the SNP).
History has left us with all kinds of nation states, from Belgium to Iraq, which cut across religious and ethnic boundaries and which have proved problematic ever since. I don’t see why members of the Labour party – or any other party for that matter – should be banned from raising the issue of one specific example of this. On the contrary, a party which has its roots in international Marxism can only be expected to question the concept of nationhood, especially where it is focussed on one religious or ethnic group. You might disagree with it, but don’t damn it as anti-Semitic, anti-Walloon, anti-Flemish, anti-Sunni, anti-Shia or anything else. If a Labour politician were to argue how much better it would have been had Palestine in the 1940s been constituted as a secular state which respected all religions and which did not represent any one ethnic group my reaction would be that they were making a statement which was fully consistent with Labour’s values and also with the party’s policies on Britain. Yet under the IHRA’s definition, a politician who said such a thing could be condemned as anti-Semitic.
Throughout most of its working definition of anti-Semitism the IHRA admirably distinguishes between Jews and the state of Israel, quite rightly describing as anti-Semitic any attempt to blame the actions of Israel on Jews in general. The group should be consistent – and recognise that it is perfectly possible to argue that the creation of Israel was a mistake without holding negative opinions about Jewish people.