The Code of Conduct for Antisemitism: a tale of two texts

Ironically, it is the drafters of the Labour party’s NEC Code, not their critics, who have grasped the meaning of ‘working definition’.

Brian Klug
17 July 2018
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Jennie Formby, Labour NEC member and South East Regional Secretary of Unite the Union, at the 2016 Labour Party Conference in Liverpool.Wikicommons/Rwendland. Some rights reserved.

How to deal with antisemitism while at the same time protecting free speech in the political debate over Israel and Palestine? This conundrum lies at the heart of the argument (to use a polite word) in the public square over a new Code of Conduct for Antisemitism proposed by the Equalities Committee, a sub-committee of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party. The proposal is due to be formally endorsed by the NEC on 17 July. I shall refer to it as ‘the NEC Code’.

The argument revolves around the relationship between the NEC Code and a document that was issued in May 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental body to which thirty-one countries, including the UK, belong. One edition of the document on the IHRA website has the title ‘The Working Definition of Antisemitism’ and this is the name by which it is widely cited. (Another edition does not.) This title, as we shall see, has given rise to confusion, so I shall refer to the text as ‘the IHRA document’. The IHRA working definition has been widely adopted by national governments (UK included) and other public authorities.

According to Jennie Formby, General Secretary of the Labour Party, the NEC Code takes the IHRA Working Definition and supplements it “with additional examples and guidance”, thus creating “the most thorough and expansive Code of Conduct on anti-Semitism introduced by any political party in the UK”. Similarly, Jon Lansman, a fellow member of the NEC, calls the Code “the new gold standard” for political parties, “stronger than anything of its kind adopted by any political party in this country”. The Code, he says, “fully adopts the IHRA definition, and covers the same ground as the IHRA examples” but goes further, making it more workable. That is the view from the inside.

Wholesale indictment

Those who oppose this view tend to dismiss the NEC Code out of hand rather than seeking to amend it. This itself tells you something about the nature of the ‘argument’ in the public square: it is not exactly amenable to nuance. While there are specific points of criticism, critics typically take the position that Labour should simply adopt the IHRA document in its entirety. This is usually accompanied by a wholesale indictment of the NEC’s initiative or of the entire Labour Party or of the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, as this sample of comments from the week following the Code’s appearance illustrates:

“Labour’s new guidelines show it is institutionally antisemitic”. The NEC Code is a “toothless document that will only encourage Jew-hate in the Labour Party to flourish further, unchallenged and unpunished”. “It seems Labour found [the IHRA] definition too stringent – it prohibited anti-Jewish expression that Labour wants to allow.” This is an “attempt to weaken the guidelines around how and when criticism of Israel can stray into territory that is obviously antisemitic”. Labour’s “IHRA rejection … represents and repeats the same far left ideological, emotional and systematic rejection of our concerns that we have faced for decades.”

These comments were all made by people who, either in their own right or in the context of Labour’s approach to dealing with antisemitism, are prominent figures. Their comments might strike some readers the same way as they strike me: over the top. But in two cases – no purpose is served in identifying them by name here – the person is someone I have known and respected for many years. I cannot simply dismiss what they say as false or wrongheaded, even though I believe it is.

There is a complex historical and political background to the current debate. In part, this lies in conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism. Partly it consists in hostility to Labour from the outside or opposition to its left wing from within. But there is another piece: the sense that some of us have who are Jewish (I include myself) that something has been awry in the discourse about Zionism – and even about Jews in general – in certain sections of the left for many years (as I argued last year). This grievance has festered, as grievances do when they go unheeded. I detect the effects of this unheeded grievance under the surface of some (though by no means all) of the cynicism about Labour and the NEC Code. Which is why I cannot simply dismiss it.

By the same token, cynicism, even when it is well-founded, can become a habit. It is liable to impair our ability to make rational, measured judgments and to recognise when the very thing we want comes about. How ironic if, just at the moment when Labour wakes up to the need to deal with antisemitism in its midst, it is shouted down because of its failure to deal with it in the past! This is, I believe, part of the explanation for the hostility to the NEC Code. A legitimate grievance has sunk in so deep that it is impossible to accept that possibly – just possibly – this grievance has at last been taken on board by the party and that it is being dealt with responsibly. For those readers of this article for whom the cap fits, I urge you to try to keep an open mind about this possibility – which I believe is the reality – as you read on.

‘People of goodwill’

I shall come to specific objections to the NEC Code in due course. I think these objections are largely (if not wholly) misplaced. In a short piece, however, it is not possible to take up each and every criticism and to give a point-by-point refutation. My concern in this article is not primarily with the validity of particular criticisms but with the general stance taken by critics who, on the one hand, reject outright the NEC Code and, on the other hand, embrace unconditionally the IHRA document – as if the one were anathema and the other sacred. I shall seek to show that this stance is an impediment to what people of goodwill want to achieve. By ‘people of goodwill’ I mean people who are sincere in wanting to solve the conundrum I mentioned at the outset: how to deal with antisemitism while at the same time protecting free speech in the political debate over Israel and Palestine. These people are my intended audience. I have nothing to say to those who pretend to be concerned about both desiderata but actually are interested only in grinding a political axe.

Since the current argument revolves around the relationship between the NEC Code and the IHRA document, the first hurdle that critics have to clear is knowing what each text says. I am not convinced that everyone who takes the stance that I am critiquing – treating the IHRA text as sacred and the NEC Code as anathema – has cleared that hurdle. The analysis that I am about to give is based on comparing the texts in relevant respects. My comparison will not be exhaustive. I urge readers to go back to the two primary sources so as to check my analysis and to judge for themselves whether the NEC Code is an advance on the IHRA document in solving the conundrum or not.

A word about the structure of the two documents. There are three parts to the IHRA text: a preamble, a “working definition of antisemitism”, and a discursive explanation that includes, inter alia, a bullet list of eleven “examples”. The NEC Code comprises sixteen numbered paragraphs divided into three sections: Introduction (pars. 1 to 4), principles (par. 5 to 8), and guidelines (par. 9 to 16). Par. 9 contains a list of seven “examples”, (a) to (g).

Perhaps the most insistent criticism of the NEC Code is that Labour has rejected the IHRA definition, replacing it with something new. So, for example: “The IHRA definition of anti-semitism is the only globally accepted one, and it truly beggars belief that the Labour Party thinks it can or should try to cook up its own. What the hell is going on?” Sometimes the words “in full” are added after “definition”, which, as we shall see, is a clue to the confusion underlying this criticism.

The “working definition”

Has Labour tried to “cook up its own” definition? Here is an extract from par. 5 of the NEC Code: “To assist in understanding what constitutes antisemitism, the NEC has endorsed the definition produced by the [IHRA] in 2016”. There follows the definition, reproduced from the IHRA document: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” In the IHRA document, this form of words, described as  a “non-legally binding working definition”, is set off from the rest of the text by appearing in bold and being placed in a box – thus leaving no doubt that this – these two sentences – constitutes the “working definition”. Likewise, in the NEC Code the (identical) definition is set apart by appearing in bold, though indented rather than boxed. No cooking of the books here. The NEC takes the IHRA “working definition”, in its entirety and without altering it one iota, using it as the foundation on which the Code is built: that is “what the hell is going on”.

As definitions go, this one is, to say the least, somewhat vague. Accordingly, the drafters of the IHRA text provide “examples” which, they say, “may serve as illustrations” to “guide” IHRA in its work. Similarly, the NEC Code includes “guidelines” to assist Labour in its work, including a set of seven “examples”. Here is where there is a degree of variation from the IHRA text; and this is where the confusion arises. For, when critics say that the NEC has not adopted the IHRA definition (“in full”), they allude to these variations.

They thus confuse the definition and the examples that are meant as illustrations only. The examples are precisely not intended to be definitive. The definition itself might be vague, but nothing could be clearer than this distinction – between the definition proper and ancillary examples – in the body of the IHRA text.

This confusion is compounded by the fact that (as I mentioned earlier) the IHRA document as a whole is often referred as ‘The Working Definition of Antisemitism’. It is not unusual for the title of an article or a position paper (which effectively this is) to be taken from a part of the text that it names. In this case, however, the title helps sow confusion. Nonetheless, no title has the magical power to obliterate an analytical distinction. To repeat: the definition is one thing, the examples another.

To sum up so far: it is not true to say that the NEC rejects the IHRA “working definition”. On the contrary, it endorses it and incorporates it – prominently – in its Code. It does, however, depart from the IHRA document in certain other respects, including the “examples” it gives. In order to evaluate the Code, we need to take stock of these differences.

Two sets of examples

Let us begin with the two sets of examples. Five of the eleven IHRA examples are taken over bodily – word for word – into the NEC code where they reappear as examples (a), (b), (c), (e) and (g). Example (d) in the NEC Code is identical to the corresponding IHRA example except for substituting ‘Nazi’ for ‘National Socialist’ (a difference without a distinction). One of the IHRA examples is “Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis”. The NEC Code incorporates this as example (f) and expands on it: “Classic antisemitism also includes the use of derogatory terms for Jewish people (such as ‘kike’ or ’yid’); stereotypical and negative physical depictions/ descriptions or character traits, such as references to wealth or avarice and – in the political arena – equating Jews with capitalists or the ruling class”. Not only is this a valid addition, not only does it plug a hole in the examples given by IHRA, but it picks out discourse that, in the British context, Labour needs to be cognizant of for the purpose of conducting its educational and disciplinary work.

This is not the only respect in which, in terms of dealing with antisemitism, the NEC Code improves upon the IHRA document. Thus, par. 10 says: “To those examples [in par. 9] the Party would add the making of unjustified reference to the protected characteristics of being Jewish”; in other words, the equivalent of referring to a ‘black mugger’ when the racial or ethnic identity of the mugger is irrelevant or would not be mentioned if the mugger were white. (An example that springs to mind: ‘Jewish banker’.) There is a further addition in par. 14, which says “it is wrong to apply double standards by requiring more vociferous condemnation of such actions from Jewish people or organisations than from others …”. This speaks to the actual experience of some Jewish people on the left, as I know from the testimonies of people close to me.

All these points significantly enhance the IHRA text. But I have not yet come across a critic of the NEC Code – I mean a critic who places a premium on combating antisemitism – who acknowledges them, let alone welcomes them as the enhancements that they are. They are passed over in silence, as if the IHRA document were a sacred text whose words may not be tampered with – not even if the text can be improved. (This implies a fundamental failure to understand the status of the IHRA document, a point to which I shall return at the end.)

Strengthened guidelines

Four examples from the IHRA list do not figure in the NEC list in par. 9. They are as follows: “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 [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” Critics point to the fact that these examples are absent from the list in the NEC Code.

They are not, however, absent from the Code altogether. Clearly, the drafters of the Code saw these four examples as potentially problematic, partly with an eye to the second part of the conundrum: how to protect free speech in the political debate over Israel and Palestine. Accordingly, in subsequent paragraphs they discuss these examples, along with other tricky issues, and recommend what they see as appropriate guidelines to assist people who have to apply the IHRA working definition. Whether they have ‘got it right’ or not is a question on which people of goodwill might disagree. But the drafters of the Code are surely right to see the need to discuss the complexities with these four examples; and I have yet to see a single critic acknowledge this or wrestle with these complexities themselves.

Furthermore, the NEC Code actually strengthens the role the examples play. This point has been overlooked in the public debate, but it makes a significant logical difference. Consider, first, the IHRA document. When the text introduces the list of examples that “may serve as illustrations”, it says: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel …” (emphasis added). In a similar vein, we are told: “Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include …” (emphasis added). Thus, the IHRA examples are not intended to be examples of actual antisemitism but only of possible antisemitism. Mere possibility has limited value as a guide to making judgments. In contrast, the NEC Code says (in par. 9) that its examples “are likely to be regarded as antisemitic” (emphasis added). This renders them more serviceable as guidelines. By the same token, the criterion of likelihood raises the bar for determining which examples qualify for inclusion in the list and which call for discussion separately.

The four IHRA examples that do not make it into the list in par. 9 of the NEC Code are not simply waved away. Take the ‘loyalty’ example (the first of the four). This reappears in par. 14  of the NEC Code in the following form: “it is also wrong to accuse Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” This goes beyond mere possibility (IHRA list of examples) and even probability (NEC list of examples). This is a categorical assertion. No ifs and buts; not even the stipulation that such accusations are inadmissible if and only if they are deemed to be antisemitic. This affords a greater degree of protection than any of the examples in the IHRA document. With equal finality, par. 15 says: “it is not permissible to use ‘Zionist’ (and still less any pejorative abbreviation such as ‘zio’ which the Chakrabarti report said should have no place in Labour party discourse) as a code word for ‘Jew’.” Not permissible, full-stop. Once again this provision gives important guidance that is missing in the IHRA text.

The IHRA Working Definition

Which brings me to the question of the status of that text. Even as they refer to the IHRA document as a ‘Working Definition’, critics seem to forget the adjective ‘working’, as if it did not qualify the noun. But it does. A working definition is, by definition, a work in progress; it is not the last word. And if this applies to the definition proper it applies all the more to the “examples” that are meant to serve as illustrations of that definition. In short, the IHRA text is a ‘living document’, a document that is subject to revision, continually in the process of being developed. This is the spirit in which the drafters of the NEC Code have approached the document. They keep it alive precisely by altering it and adding to it where they see a need to do so. Their critics, in contrast, treat the text as frozen in time and immune from all  change. Ironically, it is the drafters of the NEC Code, not their critics, who have grasped the meaning of ‘working definition’.

This is not to say that all the changes they have made are necessarily for the better. But, as I have demonstrated, some of them certainly are significant improvements. The way forward for people of goodwill who genuinely want to solve the conundrum with which this article opens – combating antisemitism while protecting free political speech – is to welcome the NEC Code as the latest incarnation of a living document that constantly requires work. As making this case has been my primary aim, I shall refrain from taking up other criticisms of the Code, though they deserve to be addressed and, in my view, can, for the most part, be answered.

Sacred text

But, even in making the case, a part of me feels the hopelessness of appealing to reason, a sense of swimming against a mighty and unmindful current of opinion. Just now I have had sight of a letter in the Guardian signed by sixty-eight British rabbis, including individuals for whom I have the highest regard (not to say affection), rallying around the IHRA text, “full and unamended … including its examples”, as if it were the eternal word of God. But in the Judaism in which I was nurtured and educated, there is only one text whose status is sacred; and it was not written by a committee of the IHRA.

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