Wide-ranging Home Affairs Committee report on antisemitism stridently criticizes Jeremy Corby, Labour Party and suggests ‘Zionist’ must not be used as derogatory term.
By Jonathan Sacerdoti
LONDON: The influential, cross-party Home Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament has published a report which details failings in the way antisemitism is investigated and dealt with within the UK. The report says that all political parties and media giants must address “pernicious” antisemitic hate.
The importance of this report should not be underestimated. For a long time, many Jews in the UK have expressed deep concern about antisemitism. But previous responses from the authorities have often fallen short of their expectations. This is especially the case when antisemitism is seen to be thinly disguised as criticism of Israeli government policy, when it seems to go unpunished and unfiltered online and when the police and courts do not seem to act decisively. It has also been of concern when antisemitism has taken root in anti-Israel discourse (especially on university campuses) and when it has occurred regularly in British political parties.
The report focuses on several major areas and addresses them robustly as the result of a thorough process of hearings as well as acceptance of written evidence from many different organisations and individuals.
Online abuse and Twitter
The rise of antisemitism online has concerned may Jewish people, including some high profile individuals. Through social media hatred can be openly distributed to the wider world, apparently without any filtering or censure. According to the committee, companies like Twitter have been too slow at responding to these concerns, despite having the technology to deal with such issues.
The report says that “Twitter trolls attempt to use vile attacks to silence the voices that they find unacceptable,” and declares it “disgraceful that any individual should have to tolerate such appalling levels of antisemitic abuse in order to use Twitter.”
The committee calls on Twitter to “devote more resources and employ more staff to enable it to identify hateful and abusive users in a proactive manner,” demanding that “it must introduce more rigorous tools for detecting and filtering abuse.”
Jewish groups have been calling for such filtering for a long time, with may high profile politicians having received thousands of abusive antisemitic messages on Twitter.
The Labour Party
Despite the presence of Labour MPs on the committee, the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership comes in for strong criticism. Corbyn himself is harshly judged, with the committee saying it is “not persuaded that he fully appreciates the distinct nature of post-Second World War antisemitism.” They point to “the Party’s demonstrable incompetence at dealing with members accused of antisemitism” and reference “the saga involving the suspension, re-admittance and re-suspension of Jackie Walker.” Walker is a Labour activist who had previously accused Jews of being the “chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade” and also questioned why Holocaust Memorial Day was not more wide-ranging to include other genocides.
Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone was also interviewed by the committee, after he suggested live on BBC Radio that Hitler had supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” He later repeated this claim several times in subsequent interviews, causing the committee to conclude that “the ongoing membership of Ken Livingstone, following his outbursts about Hitler and Zionism, should also have been dealt with more effectively.”
As a result of these and other incidents, the report says that some now consider the Labour party to be an “unwelcoming place for Jewish members and activists.”
The report is scathing about Shami Chakrabarti, who carried out the Labour Party’s inquiry into antisemitism within its own ranks.
Baroness Chakrabarti only recently joined the party, was then awarded a peerage and given a shadow cabinet role, all within weeks of accepting the job of carrying out an inquiry into Labour Party antisemitism. This came following numerous high profile incidents in which Labour figures were alleged to have made antisemitic statements.
Some dismissed her eventual report as inadequate, saying that it was unduly lenient on the Party. Chakrabarti and Corbyn strenuously deny this. But despite her denials, there have been concerns that her rapid rise to the upper echelons of the party was directly related to the lenient outcome of her investigation. She came under criticism for joining the Labour Party as soon as she agreed to conduct its inquiry, which raised questions about her ability to be independent. Upon publication of her report there was further criticism that it was a “whitewash”, as it failed to define antisemitism and did not engage with any of the specific cases of antisemitism which saw several Labour figures suspended.
Chakrabarti’s report concluded that there was no institutional antisemitism within Labour. But almost immediately after her report was published, she was offered a peerage by Jeremy Corbyn, causing many to ask if her elevation to the House of Lords had been agreed in advance in return for her leniency. Chakrabarti denied any such transactional relationship, but has since been appointed by Corbyn to his shadow cabinet as shadow Attorney General. This has increased speculation that her meteoric rise from being a non-member of the Labour party one year ago, to a baroness and now shadow cabinet member this year, was somehow linked to the outcome of her report. The committee makes specific criticisms of her report, and further notes that she “has not been sufficiently open with the Committee about when she was offered her peerage, despite several attempts to clarify this issue with her.”
The Home Affairs Committee’s report adds fuel to the still-raging fire of the ongoing Chakrabarti controversy.
For many years, there has been debate over what constitutes antisemitism. Many Jewish people have been offended by some anti-Israel public discourse, arguing that while debate about Israeli governmental and military policy is valid, it often seems to be antisemitic in intent or result. Conversely, Israel’s critics have argued that some Jewish people attempt to silence their criticisms of Israel by claiming it is antisemitic. This, in turn, inflames Jewish anger as some say their genuine concerns about racism are being deliberately dismissed as a plot to manipulate and control public discussions.
The Home Affairs Committee has weighed in on the debate over how one should define antisemitism, stating that “it would be extremely difficult to examine the issue of antisemitism without considering what sort of actions, language and discourse are captured by the term,” arguing that specifically concerning the Labour Party’s own inquiry, “defining the parameters of antisemitism [is] central to the question of what should be done to address this form of hate.”
The report is unequivocal when it says that “as a starting point for our recommendations, we decided that we should aim to establish a definition which achieves an appropriate balance between condemning antisemitism vehemently, in all its forms, and maintaining freedom of speech—particularly in relation to legitimate criticism of the Government of Israel.” This is something that many Jewish people and organisations have called for for years.
After examining some popular definitions of antisemitism, the report recommends “that the IHRA definition, with our additional caveats, should be formally adopted by the UK Government, law enforcement agencies and all political parties, to assist them in determining whether or not an incident or discourse can be regarded as antisemitic.” The IHRA definition is one which is widely accepted by many Jewish groups and includes contemporary examples such as “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations; 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; applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”
The two caveats added by the Home Affairs Committee are that “it is not antisemitic to criticize the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent” and “it is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.”
Naz Shah MP
The chair of the Committee declared that the report has been “agreed unanimously and without division by the Committee’s Members, across the parties.” Notably, the committee has within it MPs from the Labour party, including Naz Shah. In April, Shah apologized for online posts which suggested a “solution for Israel-Palestine conflict” in which Israel should be moved to the United States. In another post she also appeared to liken Israeli policies to those of Hitler. She urged her followers to vote in an online poll regarding Israel, as “the Jews [were] rallying.”
Once exposed, and following her suspension, Shah admitted, “what I put out was anti-Semitic” and she voluntarily stood aside from the Home Affairs Committee hearings which lead to the publication of today’s report. She did not, however, resign form the committee. Unanimous approval of the Antisemitism report, complete with its harsh criticism of Labour, therefore implies the approval of Naz Shah herself. Despite her public apology for her antisemitic comments, her continued presence on the committee was controversial.
National Union of Students
The President of the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS), Malia Bouattia, also comes in for specific and strong criticism “for failing to take sufficiently seriously the issue of antisemitism on university campuses”. Bouattia had referred to Birmingham University as a “Zionist outpost” because of its large student Jewish Society, and was also criticized for hearing arguments against commemorating the Holocaust. She was later involved in a move which saw the Union of Jewish Students no longer being consulted on the selection of the Jewish representative on the NUS’s Anti-Racism task-force. The Committee specifically criticizes the use of the term “Zionist” as abuse.
Antisemitism on UK campuses has been a growing problem for some time, with Jewish students complaining about the increasingly hostile climate with which they have to contend. In particular, increasingly militant campaigners against Israel have frequently bothers some Jewish students and even academic faculty members, with some feeling they cannot even speak out against their abuse.
Missing from the report
While the Home Affairs committee has gone some way to recognizing long-held Jewish concerns about antisemitism, it does not mention some important cases. The report does mention former London Mayor Ken Livingstone by name after his comments regarding Hitler and Zionism, and the committee heard evidence from him in person. But no mention is made of another Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, who was recorded by blogger David Collier saying that “Jewish money” had influenced the foreign policy of the UK’s Conservative government in relation to Israel.
In the recording of an event held in the Parliament building, Kaufman is heard telling his audience at a Palestine Return Center event that the Israeli government had “fabricated” the recent vehicle-ramming and stabbing attacks in order to allow it to “execute Palestinians”.
The Home Affairs Committee’s report deals with several very important issues connected to antisemitism in the UK. These issues have long been known about to Jewish people and campaigners, and are concerns that many have felt were previously ignored or dismissed. They will be relived to see this important committee finally addressing their complaints in a more serious way.
Findings of these committees’ enquiries are reported to the Commons. The government then usually has 60 days to reply to the committee’s recommendations. It therefore comes down to the government, political parties, social media companies, student union and others to respond in a way which shows a genuine commitment to actually dealing with the problems highlighted. With concerns about antisemitism increasing across all of Europe, will Britain now develop its own determination to deal with the problem?
Jonathan Sacerdoti is i24news UK and Europe Correspondent
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