Why Labour’s NEC adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism won’t draw a line under anything

By Oliver Wilson

Jeremy Corbyn had the correct political judgement at Labour’s NEC

The events at Labour’s NEC on 4 September which discussed the IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism will fail to ‘draw a line’ under entirely false attacks on Labour and Jeremy Corbyn – for reasons analysed below. However, because this lying attack on Jeremy Corbyn for ‘antisemitism’ involved such a massive and coordinated assault on Labour, it revealed the intention and nature of most forces in British society. It is therefore crucial to understanding the course of the next period of British politics, and for the advance of the Labour left, to analyse these forces.

What the NEC discussion revealed

The NEC discussion on the IHRA definition and all its purported examples of antisemitism demonstrated in the first place two things both of which have major implications for the future.

  • First, why Jeremy Corbyn was twice elected by overwhelming majorities as leader of the Labour Party and why he is deeply respected and supported by Labour members.
  • Second, that adopting the IHRA definition and examples is intended to stop criticism of the basis of the massacres, ethnic cleansing and racism carried out by the Israeli state.

These events also showed that Jeremy Corbyn, not those who criticised him or failed to support him on this question, has the correct estimate of the political situation.

This last point starts with the huge asset of Corbyn’s fundamental and transparent human decency – a direct reason Labour Party members support him and why he was so spectacularly successful in the last general election campaign. Corbyn is someone who transparently believes what he says, therefore progressive people rightly simply do not believe for a minute that someone who has campaigned against racism for his entire political career is a closet ‘antisemite’. They understand immediately this is a slander made up by the Tory mass media.

Many also realise that behind what is taking place is a lying campaign deliberately organised by the Israeli state because of Corbyn’s support for the Palestinians – labelling anyone who criticises Israel’s massacres of civilians or its ethnic cleaning as an ‘antisemite’ is standard Israeli government operating procedure.

Furthermore, Labour members, and a large part of the electorate, contrast Jeremy Corbyn’s human character immediately and favourably with such people as Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq and other wars, his personal pursuit of wealth, Margaret Hodge’s and other Labour right wingers’ direct damaging of Labour electorally etc. They know that Jeremy Corbyn’s entire time in politics shows he is dedicated to supporting the causes and principles he stands for, not to promoting his own career – a welcome contrast to numerous right-wing politicians. Jeremy Corbyn’s human qualities are a very direct political factor in dealing with slander campaigns.

Jeremy Corbyn’s accurate analysis of the political attacks on Labour

But the NEC discussion also showed again that Jeremy Corbyn has a realistic estimate of the political situation and forces at play. His actions at the NEC showed he rightly judged that there was never any chance that even if the NEC adopted the false IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism in full, with no changes or comments, the attacks by the Tory media, by Israel, or by the Labour right would stop. This is because their campaign is not to eradicate ‘antisemitism’ at all, but to remove a leader of the Labour Party who opposes attacks on living standards of ordinary people in Britain and who opposes racist policies carried out by the Israeli state.

Therefore Corbyn’s judgement was correct that even if the whole IHRA definition was adopted, he would still face a lying offensive. The anti-Corbyn Press, ranging from the Daily Mail to the new neo-con Guardian, would merely make up another pretext for attack.

The accuracy of this judgement was confirmed immediately after the NEC when the BBC and other media, judging that endlessly repeated attacks on Corbyn over antisemitism were boring their readers and viewers/listeners, instead decided to temporarily switch topics to another issue…. Tony Blair attacking Jeremy Corbyn!!

Therefore, given that unfortunately some people in Labour did not understand these realities, and falsely thought that by adopting the erroneous IHRA examples of antisemitism a ‘line could be drawn under the issue’, and attacks on Labour would stop, Jeremy Corbyn rightly judged it was necessary to adopt a clear statement saying free speech and the right to criticise the state of Israel would not be prevented.

Not misunderstandings or lack of dialogue

Given this reality, those who claimed that the attacks on Corbyn, such as by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, were due to ‘misunderstandings’ were either deluding themselves or objectively giving a credibility to such attacks. Those making such attacks in fact perfectly accurately understand Jeremy Corbyn’s positions opposing Israel’s ethnic cleansing and massacres – they do not attack him because of ‘misunderstanding’ but because they understand only too well what his positions are. Their aim is to prevent any accurate understanding of the real nature of Israel and its policies.

Similarly, one-sided emphasis on the need for ‘dialogue’ with the majority of those attacking Corbyn was naïve. The majority of the forces making such attacks are not interested in an honest dialogue with Jeremy Corbyn or coordinating the best way to combat the real evil of antisemitism. They are only interested in removing Corbyn as Labour leader to protect the interests of the rich, or the policies of the Israeli state, or both. A more accurate understanding of the situation was by Steve Bell in his Guardian cartoon which showed Tom Watson, Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock and other right wingers proposing to Corbyn ‘Remove your own head, put it on this pole… then we can talk.’

Failing to clearly point out what is really happening is politically damaging – because the policies of Israel, which is really behind the attacks on Corbyn, are not popular in Britain. Indeed, Israel’s policies become less popular with every massacre it carries out. This is contrast to the Jewish community in Britain which, rightly, enjoys sympathy in progressive opinion because of the disgusting centuries-old discrimination against and persecution of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, and the real (as opposed to fake) antisemitism which exists in parts of British society – that antisemitism being concentrated historically in the Tory Party.

By falsely allowing the issue at stake to be posed as between Labour and the Jewish community in Britain, instead of between Labour and the policies of Israel, some sections of Labour placed it on a weak as opposed to a stronger political terrain. That is why Jeremy Corbyn was quite right to strictly distinguish between Judaism (a specific religious belief) and Zionism – a political movement supported by both Jews and non-Jews and opposed by both Jews and non-Jews. Judaism and Zionism are therefore quite different things. Labour should take direct measures to exclude all antisemites – those who ascribe negative characteristics to Judaism or those of Jewish origin – and also support full right of free speech on Zionism – that is to allow expression of support or opposition to Zionism by both Jews and non-Jews.

In reality the forces attacking Jeremy Corbyn today over false claims of ‘antisemitism’ were historically among the centres of real antisemitism – the Daily Mail’s support for Mosley’s fascists being merely one example. Today these forces actively promote other forms of racism such as Islamophobia – as does the Tory Party. These facts show clearly such forces have no real position opposing antisemitism, their real intention is to use this issue to protect the things they really care about – the wealth and privileges of the rich and ensuring that any problems in society are blamed on ordinary people and in particular the least well-off.

The catastrophe facing Labour and the trade unions if the right takes control

Having an accurate understanding of the real forces attacking Corbyn is not of academic importance but a vital, almost literally a politically life and death issue for the Labour Party and the trade unions.

The evidence from all across Europe is that in the present economic situation socialist parties pursuing right-wing policies are being electorally crushed due to their cooperation with attacks on the living standards of ordinary people – this is the unequivocal lesson from France, Holland, Germany and other countries. Furthermore, if Labour adopted right-wing policies not only would it face a crushing defeat, but it would lead to a further assault on the trade unions.

This is why the policy of right wing trade unions opposing Jeremy Corbyn, such as Unison or the GMB, is literally suicidal for the Labour Party and trade unions. Only the policy of left wing unions supporting Corbyn, of which the largest is Unite, can defend both the Labour Party and trade unions.

In Europe, only where socialist parties have oriented to the left are they either in with a realistic chance of forming a government, as with Corbyn’s Labour, or already able to do so – as in Portugal and Spain where Socialist Parties are supported by parties further to their left.

The removal of Jeremy Corbyn by the right would therefore unleash a carnival of reaction against the Labour Party, against the trade unions, and most important of all against the living standards of ordinary people.

For exactly the same reason, for other social forces it is absolutely vital to remove Corbyn. Their programme is to attempt to preserve the interests of the rich at the expense of the majority of society – and in particular at the expense of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society. They are also the real centres of racism in all its forms of Islamophobia, antisemitism, and any other policy they can think up to divide the majority of the population and to convince them that the problems of society are created not by the rich and powerful who hold power, and therefore shape society, but by the weak, powerless and underprivileged who have never had the power to control society and therefore have not created its problems.

Role of liberals and The Guardian

Within this framework the role of liberals such as The Guardian is its habitual one – to condemn any serious fight back against attacks on the mass of society. The same reasons and approach that led The Guardian a century and a half ago to condemn Abraham Lincoln for his relentless fight to destroy slavery in the US today lead The Guardian to spend its time attacking Corbyn and spreading lies about his (non-existent) antisemitism. At present all that has really occurred is that as social polarisation has deepened, more and more people in the Labour movement see through the fakery of The Guardian in the way that they have always seen through the open Toryism of the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph etc.

The key forces opposed to Corbyn support the massacring, ethnic cleansing and racist policies of Israel – which is determined to remove Corbyn as Labour Party leader, because it would be unacceptable to have a British Prime Minister who condemned in clear terms the Israeli army shooting of unarmed Palestinians and explained the roots of why this is occurring. The ‘liberal’ Guardian in reality is prepared to give a cover to this – the Guardian’s real priorities are shown in it carrying tens of times more articles attacking allegedly ‘intolerable’ speeches of Jeremy Corbyn than in condemning the regular massacres carried out by the Zionist state, or the ethnic cleansing which started at the origins of the Israeli state, and continues almost daily with its ‘settlements’ in the West Bank. As the weight of its coverage shows, for ‘liberals’ of the Guardian, verbal insults to Margaret Hodge are much more important than the shooting of Palestinian children.

The big political issues

The struggle around the IHRA also confirms another key issue – that while mass campaigning is crucial, the most important terrain of all for defending Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is to have the correct position on the biggest political questions, as these precisely involve the most powerful social forces.

The attempt to smear Corbyn over antisemitism gained unnecessary traction because, before Jeremy Corbyn took the issue directly in hand at the last NEC, confused political formulas had come out of the Labour Party allowing the smear campaign to gain entirely unwarranted credibility. In particular, by not clearly explaining the distinction between antisemitism and opposition to the policies of Israel, confusion was created. Repeated ‘apologies’ for alleged antisemitism, when in many cases what was actually involved were attacks on Zionism and on Israel’s policies and not on Jews, did nothing to stop the attacks on Labour. This was because, as already seen, opposition to antisemitism was not the reason these attacks were launched, but such repeated ‘apologies’ appeared to exaggerate and give spurious credibility to the entirely false claim that Corbyn was antisemitic.

There are some indeed antisemites in the Labour Party, which reflects the fact that antisemitism exists in parts of British society, who should be booted out. But in fact Labour has historically had less of a problem with antisemitism than right wing parties – according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR), antisemitic ideas can be found at varying degrees of intensity across 30 per cent of British society, but as the IJPR points out, in the sphere of politics the extent of antisemitism is highest on the far-right, not on the left.

A supplementary source of political confusions and problems, which were naturally taken up by anti-Corbyn forces, was created by some people who are not necessarily antisemitic but who are simply wrong. Examples of those are people who attempt to equate Israel to the Nazis or accuse Israel of ‘genocide’. The Nazis were characterised by a systematic attempt to physically annihilate Jews – genocide in the real sense. There is no evidence at all that Israel is attempting to physically annihilate the Palestinian people – Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing, it is guilty of disgusting attempts to break the will and human dignity of Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere, but it is not guilty of genocide. Shooting unarmed civilians in Gaza is disgusting itself, however it is not the same as Auschwitz and there is not the slightest evidence Israel is attempting to construct death camps to exterminate Palestinians. Those who make claims Israel is equivalent to the Nazis, or is attempting genocide, in reality: (i) prettify the Nazis; (ii) by their incorrect claims and rhetoric confuse the discussion of Israel and therefore hinder clarification of the Israeli state’s real nature – that is, they objectively aid covering over Israel’s policies. The Israeli state has quite enough real crimes not to need to invent imaginary ones and make false claims.

No line has been or will be drawn under anything

The political confusion created by the NEC adopting the false examples of the IHRA examples of antisemitism was in fact foreseen by Kenneth Stern, their key author, when he informed the US Congress in 2017 the IHRA definition was never intended to place restrictions on expression of views or for punishing political speech. He also explained why he opposes the misuse of the definition and drew attention to the damage this misuse does. It is clearly not appropriate for inclusion in any code of conduct. But because there was no clarity over the issues involved, Labour suffered unnecessary political losses on this issue. Adopting the IHRA definition and examples won’t draw a line under anything, because in fact the Israeli state has pursued racist policies since its inception. Attempts to say that saying this is ‘antisemitic’ will inevitably be contradicted because people will point out that this is a fact which started with the ethnic cleansing by Israel when it was created. That is why the adoption of all the IHRA examples without exception is an attempt to suppress free speech on Israel.

Finally, all the above issues make clear why the NEC adopting the IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism won’t ‘draw a line’ under anything – because the attack on Jeremy Corbyn over his (non-existent) antisemitism it is merely a pretext for an attempt to remove him as leader of the Labour Party. As this issue was merely a pretext, no ‘line’ stopping such attacks will be drawn.

But this attack on Labour does show the entire pattern that is occurring and will continue over the whole coming period. The attacks on Jeremy Corbyn will come, and are therefore most dangerous, around the key issues of politics – austerity, racism, attacks on women, climate change, Brexit, Syria, the US trade war with China, Palestine. The future of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party will be successful or be defeated over the most important issues of politics. This is why clarity on these, and dealing with them accurately, is the most important issue for the success of the Labour left and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Key issues

Finally, errors in how to deal with the false attack on ‘antisemitism’, before Jeremy Corbyn took the issue in hand at the NEC, and also a continued failure to understand what is involved and to support Corbyn by some people, undoubtedly unnecessarily lost Labour some support. However, it is also clear from the opinion polls and recent election results that no major degree of Labour support was lost despite the all-out media attack on Corbyn for alleged ‘antisemitism’. Polls continue to show Labour neck and neck with the Tories – and Labour has a proven advantage during an election campaign itself as it can focus its resources on this.

There was a clear reason for why the polls did not move significantly despite the frenzied media attacks, and it is crucial to learn the lessons of this. The most typical form of distortion by the media is not ‘fake news’, that is, purely invented information (e.g. claims the Pope endorsed Trump for President), but what might be termed ‘fraudulent news’ – that is, distortion of the weight and significance of factually true pieces of information to distort the overall situation. So, for example, if Margaret Hodge is sometimes subject to personal abuse (which is entirely wrong) this is magnified by newspapers such as the Guardian or Daily Mail to the point where it is treated as vastly more important than the shooting of unarmed demonstrators, including children, by Israel. Great exaggeration of the weight of individual true events, and systematic playing down of the weight of truly significant facts, is the typical method used to whip up media hysteria.

But the very fact that what is involved is exaggeration of the weight of something means it actually does not have a decisive impact. The public rightly simply does not believe, for example, that (deplorable) personal abuse of Margaret Hodge is the most important issue confronting society. Therefore, they do not shift their opinion on Labour because of this.

It is when Labour gets an issue which is genuinely extremely important wrong that it leads to a serious fall in support. For example, John Smith’s tax plans in the 1992 general election almost certainly handed victory to the Tories; Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq war led to a haemorrhaging of support, particularly to the Lib Dems who opposed the war, which lost Labour millions of votes; the right wing socialist parties in Europe are being electorally devastated because of their support for austerity. But false charges of antisemitism, or small issues compared to other things such as the abuse of Margaret Hodge, fail to move the electorate in large numbers. That is, the very nature of such media campaigns, attempting to magnify issues beyond their real importance compared to others, means that they do not have a great effect on Labour’s support.  That is why it was wrong for some in Labour to become panicked by the fraudulent campaign on Labour ‘antisemitism’ – precisely because it was fraudulent, it failed to move large numbers of voters.

But, of course, it is necessary to avoid any unnecessary losses of support at all. There will be numerous continuing attacks on Labour from those dedicated to defending the privileges of the rich and making sure ordinary people pay the price of the economic crisis. The lying attack on Labour and Corbyn’s ‘antisemitism’ was just the latest and most concentrated of many that are to come. Accurate analysis of the forces attacking Labour, and how to deal with them, is therefore vital.

Marxism is the indispensable guide in making such an analysis. The frenzied nature of the attacks on Corbyn and Labour demonstrates to a steadily increasing number of people every day that the analyses of Marxism are correct – that there is not a ‘free press’ but that the media in capitalist society is controlled by the capitalist class, that the state is not neutral, that the capitalist class is utterly ruthless in pursuit of its interests, and many other lessons. It is Marxism, therefore, which will be shown to be the best guide in repelling the attacks on Labour and Corbyn. It is Marxism which will also provide the best guide to foreseeing the course of events.

Dealing with the attack on Labour and its leadership regarding false claims of ‘antisemitism’ is therefore a vital practical task. It is simultaneously a lesson in the truth of Marxist politics.