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#DefyIHRA? No, there’s a better way to show solidarity with Palestinians

Contrary to popular belief, the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the UK Labour Party does allow legitimate criticism of Israel

The state of Israel was born through deliberate, ethnically targeted violence, designed to terrify Palestinians and put them to flight. Today, Israel oversees the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza through a racist system of control that differs from apartheid South Africa most clearly through its greater level of violence. 

I have seen checkpoints flanked with cages, children choking on teargas and shot in the street, and bullet-riddled ambulances. Trying to understand what I saw in the West Bank and Gaza more than a decade ago is what made me a socialist.

I’m now a member of the Labour Party. Will I be expelled for these views?

Defining anti-Semitism

Many Palestinian solidarity activists in Labour believe I could be, and view the party’s recent adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) text on anti-Semitism as a defeat. 

They are particularly worried about the seventh example of anti-Semitism included in the text: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” Some took to tweeting under the hashtag #DefyIHRA.

What’s more, some anti-Palestinian activists agree with this movement. For them, the IHRA decision was a victory that sets the stage for a round of suspensions and expulsions of left-leaning Palestinian solidarity activists.

I think both groups are wrong. The text is undoubtedly vague, and its ambiguities offer opportunities to those who want to suppress the Palestinian experience - but that very vagueness also permits interpretations that allow every reasonable criticism of Israel.

Racism of the state

The potential for both confusion and clarification was signalled two days after the IHRA decision by contradictory comments from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. At first, McDonnell appeared to say that a number of posters that have been pasted around London, reading “Israel is a racist endeavour”, violated the adopted code.

Then, apparently having received advice, he clarified, tweeting: “IHRA says ‘a state of Israel’ not ‘the state of Israel’. So, to claim any state for Jewish people would be a racist endeavour would discriminate against Jewish people. But to criticise the Israeli state, as it was historically constituted or its policies and practices, does not.”

The right of peoples to self-determination is established in international law, but it doesn’t necessarily take precedence over other rights

In other words: it’s acceptable to say that the actual state of Israel, as it has come to exist historically through the expulsion and suppression of Palestinians, is racist. What you shouldn’t do is say that, abstracted from historical circumstances, a Jewish majority state would necessarily be racist due to some special nature of Jews. 

That distinction rests on the difference between “a state” and “the state”. Saying “Israel is a racist endeavour” - if the context makes it clear that the existing state is in question, is acceptable - although it’s odd to describe something that’s 70 years old as an “endeavour”.

The force of this distinction is bolstered by reading the seventh example as a whole. Saying a state of Israel is racist would only be anti-Semitic if it represented a general denial of the Jewish “right to self-determination”.

The right of peoples to self-determination is established in international law, but it doesn’t necessarily take precedence over other rights, such as the right to life, the right of refugees to return home, or the right of other peoples to that same self-determination. When rights conflict, there are no easy answers.

Continuing controversy

If all this sounds abstract and legalistic, it is - we’re talking about the conjunction between international law, a major geopolitical conflict and a party rulebook. 

What matters is that the interpretation allowing us to describe the state of Israel and its foundation as racist now has the backing of one of Labour’s most senior figures. The party is unlikely to expel anyone who draws on the same logic as the shadow chancellor.

Furthermore, the party’s consultations remain open, and it is likely that the incoming executive will consider proposals to explicitly adopt an interpretation that legitimates Palestinian free speech. This implies that the controversy is not yet over.

Labour's Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell had to clarify his comments on the IHRA text (AFP)

There is no need to defend the text as such: rminent scholars of anti-Semitism have argued that it is unfit and should be replaced. But for now, activists should focus their energies on calling for a supplementary code that explicitly distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate speech on Israel in more detailed terms. There is no need for protection of the rights of Jews to come at the expense of Palestinians. This means guidance, set down in black and white, upon which Palestinians can rely.

Like it or not, the IHRA text has become a touchstone for many British Jews. As anti-racists, it must matter to us that parts of that community, well beyond a few right-leaning leaders, are now sincerely worried about Labour. Accepting it as the basis for discussion signals empathy; rejecting it signals contempt. It’s the beginning, but not the end, of rebuilding trust.

The #DefyIHRA route will only further alienate many Jews and foment divisions between activists and trade unions who view the debate as a distraction. This will make more remote the prospect of a Labour government that could impose sanctions on Israel and extend real solidarity to Palestinians.

Precise interventions

For now, we need confident, precise interventions to interpret the IHRA text in a way that allows Palestinians and their supporters to speak the truth confidently.

As the Jewish group Jewdas advises: “Stick to your guns and don’t generalise.” Be precise. The racism of the state of Israel has nothing to do with Jews as Jews, and everything to do with the historical circumstances of its creation, as the imposition of a colonial power in majority-Arab Palestine. Many early Zionist leaders embraced the idea of the forced transfer of Palestinians; for them, the implicit racism of the project was conscious. 

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Israel is far from the only state created as a colonial imposition. Its racism is just more obvious because it was born at a time when colonial powers were receding elsewhere. None of this precludes empathy for the Jewish refugees from Europe who grasped at that fearful time for what seemed like the promise of safety.

In adopting the text, Labour’s ruling body asserted: “This does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.” We need to make sure that is borne out in practice.

- Tom Dale is a writer who has reported from Libya, Egypt and Syria in the years since 2011. He tweets @tom_d_

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Demonstrators hold placards as they protest outside the headquarters of Britain’s opposition Labour party in central London on 4 September 2018 (AFP)