The British Labour Party's decision to accept the definition and illustrative examples of anti-semitism championed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is a prudent effort to dampen down a controversy that threatens to undermine the party's credibility and unity as it prepares to form a government. Under pressure from trade union leaders and social democrats its national executive committee has now responded to public criticisms by reversing a previous decision not to accept examples linking criticisms of Israel's origins and policies towards the Palestinians to anti-semitism.
The issue has resonance beyond Britain because racism is a more and more disturbing feature of contemporary European and American politics. Much of it is directed against Muslims and people of colour rather than Jews, especially immigrant communities and those claiming asylum. In this context the public debate in Britain around anti-semitism is a salutary reminder that Jews were the primary focus of racial hatred in Europe, leading to the Nazi genocide in the Holocaust that murdered six million people. In response most of Europe's surviving Jews became part of the successful struggle to create a national home in Israel.
These proper comparisons with other racisms and with Israel's recent record towards Palestinians under a right-wing government relying on West Bank settler parties to stay in power are central to the British Labour Party debate on anti-semitism. Left-wing supporters of its leader Jeremy Corbyn resist efforts to associate criticisms of Israel's policies with anti-semitism, just as the Knesset has amended its Basic Law to proclaim that only Jews have the right to self-determination there. That downgrades Palestinians who are one fifth of its population. Labour has rightly adopted a statement protecting freedom of expression on these issues as part of its new policy.
The party’s anti-semitism controversy has been driven not only by the ebb and flow of the Israeli-Palestinian issue but by hostility between centrist social democrats and left-wing socialists under Corbyn’s leadership. Internal Labour and external Conservative party critics say his record of support for Palestinian rights encourages hostility to Israel and therefore to Jews, fighting a proxy battle over Labour’s shift to the left. In this latest development trade union leaders have worked with a pragmatic faction in the leadership to prevent the issue triggering a wider loss of public support ahead of the conference season.
It is not anti-semitic to criticise Israel’s origins or policies. Most Jews do not live there and many do not accept its proclaimed credentials as their primary national home. Racism falsely sets up ethnic groups as objects of hatred. That is how the issue should be defined and framed.