I don’t usually blog about political events – I have other outlets for my rants. But as a paid-up member of the wordcraft folk, I’m going to break the tradition to comment on a storm in teacup over words. Words and their precise use are my business.
Readers outside the UK may not be aware that over the past couple of weeks there has been a flurry of accusations of anti-semitism in the opposition Labour Party. A Labour Member of Parliament, Naz Shah, and a prominent member of their National Executive, Ken Livingstone, have been suspended by the Party. The leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been accused of foot dragging.
Let’s be clear first, what anti-semitism is and is not. There is no agreed definition. But the US State Department in 2005 identified it as “hatred toward Jews—individually and as a group—that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity.” There are some for whom it is convenient to label criticism of Israel as anti-semitic (not least, the Israeli government). But the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia said clearly in 2005 “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
Nothing that either Ms. Shah or Mr. Livingstone said fitted the definition of anti-semitism. Ms. Shah did criticise Israel. She published a map, superimposing Israel on the outline of the US, jokingly proposing the Israel/Palestine conflict could be resolved by relocating Israel to the US. If you want to see the joke, you can find it here . The website belongs to Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish American political scientist. He published the map, later shared by Ms. Shah, because he found it funny. Finkelstein, the son of parents who survived the Nazi concentration camps, has said he finds the Labour Party row “obscene”
Mr. Livingstone made a bizarre and ill-judged attempt to defend Naz Shah. He claimed (correctly) the Nazis soon after coming to power collaborated with Jewish organisations to relocate German Jews to Israel.
It’s clear that the statements of both politicians have offended many Jews. But that’s not really the point. Being offensive doesn’t make them anti-semites. There is, within limits, a democratic right to cause offense. The furore has been manufactured. Some suggest that it is an attempted coup against Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Certainly it is odd. And even odder that the Labour leadership has not dismissed the claims of anti-semitism with the derision they deserve. Someone has put the frighteners on.
Israel is a state, and like all states, is open to legitimate criticisism. Criticism of the Kremlin doesn’t make anyone an anti-Russian racist. It may be offensive to some Israelis to say Israel is a racist state, but Israelis are not entitled to throw the label of racism back at the critic. Criticism of Israel could only be meaningfully described as anti-semitism in two special cases. Either, a denial of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination with their own state. Or holding the Israeli government to standards that apply to no other country.
Neither of these tests is met. Please, let’s use words appropriately. The ellipsis that equates anti-Zionism with anti-semitism is a perversion of language, sense, and democracy. It is also politically dangerous in hiding the real problem of racism. In 2005 the Chief Rabbi told a Parliamentary committee “If you were to ask me is Britain an antisemitic society, the answer is manifestly and obviously no. It is one of the least antisemitic societies in the world”. There is clear evidence that anti-semitism has been on the rise in the UK since then. However, most such attacks and incidents are associated with the far right, not the left. At the same time, there has been a rise in attacks and hate speech directed at Muslims. The Muslim community has not succeeded in holding British society to the same standards of concern as has the Jewish community.
We need to concentrate on the real challenge of rooting out racism and xenophobia from our societies, and prevent squabbles between rival political party factions cloud the issue.