What does anti-semitic mean? The top three online dictionaries (of a Google search) say:
anti-Semitism discrimination against or prejudice or hostility toward Jews (www.dictionary.com)
anti-Semitism Hostility to or prejudice against Jews (oxforddictionaries.com)
anti-Semitism the strong dislike or cruel and unfair treatment of Jewish people (dictionary.cambridge.org)
Well, that seems simple enough, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Some people want the term antisemitic to cover a lot more than anti-Jewishism. And it’s tearing the Labour party into strips when Britain badly needs a working Opposition to the Conservative government.
So what is the problem? Some people want the Labour party to adopt an “official” international definition of anti-semitism. The definition they have chosen to push is that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Their definition is:
Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
Even this definition isn’t too bad. But the main problem is the examples that go with the definition. These include “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour,” and “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” Basically, criticism of the state of Israel should be viewed as anti-Semitism, as should any equivalence of their racist policies and those of Nazi Germany.
Why should criticising Israel be labelled anti-Semitic? Generally it is accepted that anti-Semitism is wrong. So now criticising Israel is wrong too? That country can do no wrong? And why is it wrong to point out that Israel’s foreign and domestic policies are racist? I mean, those policies are racist, inasmuch as they are hostile to Palestinians. And how exactly does pointing out this racism deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination? Israel is denying Palestinians their right to self-determination… but to point that out is anti-Semitic? My head’s starting to hurt.
The organisation that first drafted this definition, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, recognized it was contentious – it drafted but never adopted the definition. And the UK government, which has adopted the “working definition” and the examples, was warned by the Commons home affairs select committee in October 2016 that in the interests of free speech it ought to adopt an explicit rider that it is not antisemitic to criticise the government of Israel, or to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent (the government sadly ignored this advice).
Unfortunately for the Labour Party and its leader, some party members and supporters of the leader have come out with some awful stuff on this subject. Peter Willsman, for instance, has said some stuff that is just plain wrong and he needs to resign. But the party should not adopt the IHRA definition. And if supporters of Israel don’t like that country’s policies being criticised, maybe they should call for those policies to be changed. To be made less racist. Less likely to be compared to those of that old Nazi Adolf Hitler.