WHY THE LABOUR PARTY SHOULD NOT ADOPT THE IHRA DEFINITION OR ANY OTHER DEFINITION OF ANTISEMITISM
By Norman G. Finkelstein[*]
Will the British Labour Party adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism? Leaders of the British-Jewish community have been strong-arming Labour to accept it. The Party is scheduled to make its fateful decision in a matter of days. The definition is supplemented by 11 illustrations. Fully seven of them, however, home in not on antisemitism per se but instead on criticism of Israel. Natan Sharansky famously formulated a 3D Test of Antisemitism that was later touted by Israel’s supporters: demonization, double standards, delegitimization. Whatever the virtue of his checklist, it might be said that the IHRA illustrations constitute a textbook case of the 3S Test of Political Censorship: suppression, selective application, special pleading. Before documenting this, however, the debate surrounding adoption of the IHRA definition and illustrations must be situated in a broader context.
The IHRA definition imposes constraints on speech in the Labour Party. In a word, it is censorship. It might be argued that the Labour Party is a voluntary organization and as such has the right to set rules and parameters on its members’ public utterances. But at its worthiest, the liberal-left tradition, of which the Labour Party is an offspring, has attached a unique, primordial value to Truth, and recognized that, in the search for truth, untrammeled open debate is essential.
In his classic exposition On Liberty, John Stuart Mill posited that the utility of a belief was inseparable from its truth: “no belief which is contrary to truth can truly be useful.” At the other end of the spectrum V. I. Lenin would draw on the power of truth to best his opponents: “Facts are stubborn things, as the English say.”
To get a firm handle on truth, however, liberty of speech must not be abridged. When the young Karl Marx first made his name as a journalist, “the English press,” he approvingly noted, enjoyed “the greatest freedom from restraint,” whereas censorship was rampant in Germany. This infringement was officially rationalized on the grounds that it required intercession of a higher authority to separate out the “good” from the “bad.” If indeed censorship was designed to preserve what was valuable in speech, Marx rejoined, then this objective could only be attained by its opposite of unbridled criticism: “Censorship is criticism as a monopoly of the government. But does not criticism lose its rational character if it is not open but secret . . . , if it operates not with the sharp knife of reason but with the blunt scissors of arbitrariness, if it only exercises criticism but will not submit to it . . . , if it is so uncritical as to mistake an individual person for universal wisdom, peremptory orders for rational statements, ink spots for patches of sunlight, the crooked deletions of the censor for mathematical constructions, and crude force for decisive arguments?”
When asked much later in life his favorite motto, Marx eschewed sacred, unassailable truths as he replied “De omnibus dubitandum” (“You must have doubts about everything”). Echoing Marx, his otherwise liberal nemesis Mill observed that the only rational test of one’s conviction was its capacity to withstand unhindered criticism: “The beliefs which we have the most warrant for have no safeguard, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.”
In her critique of the Bolshevik Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg presented a lyrical defense of unqualified free speech: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” She upheld this principle, however, “not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice,’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.” In a passage that resonates as much today as when it was written a century ago, Luxemburg maintained that, if the path to socialism remains uncharted territory, then only free, open criticism from below can discover solutions to unforeseen challenges and correct the inevitable errors that attend its construction: “The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions that have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism . . . is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction. . . . Socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase. . . . Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. . . . The whole mass of the people must take part in it.”
It might be wondered, What if the discovery of a truth contradicts the twin ideal of justice? But this is a false opposition. Exactly as an ennobling end cannot justify ignoble means if the end is as pure as the means that bring it about, so the ideal of justice is as pure as the truth that informs it. If something is true, it is not only, per Mill, useful, it is also, and necessarily, just—or, in the words of Antonio Gramsci, “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act.”
Only truth is useful; truth—fact—is dispositive in mental combat; truth can only emerge from unfettered speech; the index of free speech is its universality; a cacophony of competing “truths” inevitably attends the trial and error of creating a just world; truths emerging from ruthless criticism cannot undermine justice because justice is grounded in truth—this is the historic legacy of the Labour Party. But it is now under attack as representatives of British Jewry press the Party to adopt a censorial speech code.
Faithful to its libertarian roots, the Labour Party up until recently did not curb speech but only conduct. Its rule book stated: “No member of the party shall engage in conduct which in the opinion of the NCC [National Constitutional Committee] is prejudicial, or in any act which in the opinion of the NCC is grossly detrimental to the party. . . . The NCC shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions.” But in 2017, the Party, acting apparently at the behest of the anti-Corbyn Jewish Labour Movement, transmogrified this rule as it inserted clauses deeply encroaching on speech. The rule currently reads:
No member of the Party shall engage in conduct which in the opinion of the NEC [National Executive Committee] is prejudicial, or in any act which in the opinion of the NEC is grossly detrimental to the Party. The NEC shall take account of any codes of conduct currently in force and shall regard any incident which in their view might reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on age; disability; gender reassignment or identity; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; or sexual orientation as conduct prejudicial to the Party: these shall include but not be limited to incidents involving racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia or otherwise racist language, sentiments, stereotypes or actions, sexual harassment, bullying or any form of intimidation towards another person on the basis of a protected characteristic as determined by the NEC, wherever it occurs, as conduct prejudicial to the Party. The NCC shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions except in any instance inconsistent with the Party’s aims and values, agreed codes of conduct, or involving prejudice towards any protected characteristic. (emphasis added)
None of the notoriously slippery terms in this restrictive speech code—“racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia or otherwise racist language”—is defined, which in itself cannot but cast a pall on free speech: Who is to determine and how is it to be determined that a redline has been crossed? What’s more, the rule bars, as a discrete subcategory, prejudicial “sentiments.” If this denotes nonverbal sentiments (it would otherwise just fall under “racist language”), then Labour is now in the dreary business of controlling not just speech but also thoughts and feelings. If Comrade X refuses to date Asian guys, Comrade Y refuses to date Muslim girls, and Comrade Z only dates Jewish guys (she’s Orthodox), will they be hauled before the NQSC (National Questionable Sentiments Committee)?
Even as the revised code of conduct explicitly outlaws antisemitism, representatives of British Jewry have issued an ultimatum to Labour: it must also incorporate the IHRA definition of antisemitism in all its parts—or else! It is, to begin with, unclear why Jews warrant special treatment. Indeed, of all the protected categories in the rule, British Jews are the richest, best organized, most strategically placed, and least subject to “hostility and prejudice.” If Jewish communal organizations can so openly, brazenly, and relentlessly press this demand on Labour, it’s because of the political muscle they can flex and the political immunity they enjoy. Further, the demand is on the unseemly side, as it implies that Jewish lives are somehow more worthy. It recalls the nauseating ethnic chauvinism at play in the stipulation that The Holocaust must be separated out from run-of-the-mill “other genocides.”
It is yet more disturbing that the proposed definition bears so little on antisemitism per se and so much on Israel. It is often heard from Israel’s defenders that the Jewish state should be treated and judged like every other state; indeed, that not treating and judging it like other states is antisemitic. But no other foreign state is accorded special dispensation in the Labour manual; indeed, no other state is even mentioned. Is British Jewry imposing on Labour an antisemitic coda? It is also cause for intrigue why Israel figures so saliently in a definition the subject matter of which is antisemitism. Consider this scenario. The Afrocentric, Jamaican-based Rastafarians worshipped Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. In the early 1970s, Selassie stood guilty of crimes against humanity as he presided over and concealed a mass famine in his country. If Rastas convened an International Slavery Remembrance Alliance, if this body then contrived a definition of anti-Rastafarianism that proscribed criticism of Ethiopia, would it be so hard to discern that the impetus was not fighting “prejudice and hostility” against Rastas but, instead, immunizing their Holy State from deserved scrutiny?
The IHRA definition reads:
Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
It is widely agreed that this incoherent, illiterate, clunky definition provides nil guidance as to what constitutes antisemitism. It is said to be a “certain perception,” but this certainty turns out not to be so certain as it “may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”—which is to say it also may not be thus expressed. But the fact of the matter is, it’s impossible to define antisemitism. Moreover, even if an intelligible definition were cobbled together, it would be of dubious utility save to be hurled as an epithet of abuse. It and cognate pejoratives do no real work. Put otherwise, their supplemental benefit, value-added is also nil; if dispensed with, no one would be the poorer.
The term antisemitism is commonly defined as “hostility towards Jews as Jews.” But an antisemite would deny he hates Jews as Jews; rather, he would purport it’s because this or that offensive trait—parsimoniousness, clannishness, arrogance—inheres in them. Ditto, the racist who hates Black people. She would undoubtedly object that her loathing springs not from the fact that they’re Black but that they’re robbers and rapists. The question is then empirical. In other words, the accusation cannot be refuted by “you’re a racist.” Such a retort shuts down discussion just at the point when it’s most needed. Wouldn’t it be a dereliction of duty if a teacher abusively labels a student who, for all anyone knows, in good faith utters a politically incorrect opinion? Not the least of a political party’s functions is pedagogical, internally as well as externally. “A man curses,” Malcolm X surmised, “because he doesn’t have the words to say what’s on his mind.” Something similar can be observed about he who reflexively reaches for epithets like antisemite and racist. It’s an impoverished, ignorant, slovenly substitute for rational dialectic. If he is so blessed as to possess the mental tools to engage in such a dialectic, it’s also inexcusable.
It’s probably right that the hard-core bigot is impervious to reason so it’s futile trying to dissuade him. “If you cannot convince a fascist,” Leon Trotsky famously quipped, “acquaint his head with the pavement.” But who is so perfect as not to harbor one or another “local” prejudice? Surely it cannot be correct that irrational belief is by its essence reason-proof. “The antisemitic passion,” Jean-Paul Sartre said, “precedes the facts that are supposed to call it forth.” Were that true, it would be pointless to counter with facts. But Sartre was drawing the internal portrait only of the hard core, for whom bigotry was the poisonous fruit of a “comprehensive attitude . . . and conception of the world” born, ultimately, of a “fear of the human condition.” In the ordinary course of events, among ordinary specimens of humanity, reason retains its persuasive power; or, at any rate, no a priori grounds exist to give up trying, let alone to replace point-counterpoint with wholly and inherently inadequate epithets.
In a refinement of the common definition, British philosopher Brian Klug proposes that antisemitism is “a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.” Still, it turns on an empirical question requiring an empirical answer: whether or not Jews in general are something other than what they’re perceived to be. But there’s another wrinkle in Klug’s definition. It is often alleged by Jews that the antisemite resents them because they’re smarter and therefore more accomplished. In fact, Wilhelm Marr, who coined the term antisemitism, described Jews as “flexible, tenacious, intelligent” (albeit in destructive excess). For all anyone knows, they and he might be onto something: Jews might be superior. The average IQ score of Ashkenazi Jews is significantly higher than that of any other ethnic group in the world. But if, per Klug, antisemitism is the perception of Jews as “something other than what they are,” then the antisemite seething with ressentiment of Jews couldn’t be antisemitic.
The Labour Party’s code of conduct hitherto faithfully honored its libertarian legacy as it allowed every idea, however bizarre or noxious, to be mooted. Prodded by the anti-Corbyn Jewish Labour Movement, the Party’s leadership poured into the code a mass of verbal sludge that polluted the venerable principle of free speech. Now British-Jewish elites are terrorizing Corbyn to accept a purported definition of antisemitism that, one, is and couldn’t but be gibberish, two, exemplifies ethnic special pleading, three, is not just pointless but also stifles vital debate, and, four, has nearly nothing to do with antisemitism and nearly everything to do with shielding Israel from deserved condemnation. The long and short of it is, to detoxify its code of conduct, Labour should junk the revised text, reject as a whole and in all its parts the IHRA text, and return to its radical roots.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism includes 11 illustrative examples. Fully seven of them home in on criticism of Israel. If the Labour Party adopts these taboos, respected scholarship will be suppressed while Israel will become the beneficiary of a pernicious double standard. Consider these examples culled from the IHRA text:
In sum, these examples of antisemitism allegedly hiding behind criticism of Israel comprise factually accurate depictions by Israel’s critics (first bulleted example), factually inaccurate depictions of Israel’s critics by its watchdogs (second bulleted example), and questionable practices of which Israel is as, if not more, culpable than its critics (third, fourth, and fifth bulleted examples). If the Labour Party adopts them, it will become a willing dupe of Israeli hasbara; it will disgrace the Party’s noble traditions; and it will betray Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to set the Party on a new-old path of upholding Truth and Justice, wherever it may lead and whatever the price.
[*] I am grateful to Maren Hackmann-Mahajan, Deborah Maccoby, and Jamie Stern-Weiner for their input.