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Alan Johnston: Labour members can criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic... Clare Short is spreading a poisonous myth

Party issues: Clare Short claims the real problem is not anti-Semitism, but the stretching of its definition to include all ‘criticism of Israel’
Party issues: Clare Short claims the real problem is not anti-Semitism, but the stretching of its definition to include all ‘criticism of Israel’

By Alan Johnston

Clare Short is helping to spread a myth that stops the Labour Party from getting to grips with anti-Semitism.

The former Labour Cabinet minister claimed on Newsnight on Tuesday that the real problem was not anti-Semitism, but the stretching of the definition of anti-Semitism to include all "criticism of Israel".

David Hirsh, author of Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism, coined the term "the Livingstone Formulation" to sum up what is going on when someone spreads the "you can't criticise Israel" myth. He named it after Ken Livingstone, who once said: "The accusation of anti-Semitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government."

Hirsh pointed out that this formulation is, first of all, flatly untrue. The party members complaining about anti-Semitism in Labour today themselves usually have a record stretching back decades of public criticism of many aspects of Israeli government policy.

More than that, the formulation is poisonous, because, for Hirsh, it involves "refusing to engage with an accusation of anti-Semitism", instead making "an indignant counter-accusation, that the accuser is taking part in a conspiracy to silence political speech".

And it reduces all discourse about Israel, Hirsh observes, some of which may, indeed, be demonisation of Israel, or actual anti-Semitism, "into the legitimate category of 'criticism'".

Worst of all, the formulation involves a conspiracy theory: the idea that "those who raise the issue of anti-Semitism are doing so as part of a common secret plan to silence such 'criticism'". But it's all a big lie.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, adopted under pressure by the Labour Party leadership in 2018, says "criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic". None of the most frequently heard criticisms of current Israeli government policy fall foul of the IHRA definition. To criticise Israel's occupation of the West Bank, call for its immediate withdrawal and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is not anti-Semitic. Nor is criticism of the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Not a single person has been suspended, or expelled, from the Labour Party for making these kind of sharp criticisms of Israel. And nor should they be.

What is causing a crisis in the party is not "criticism of Israel", but hate-filled demonisation and dehumanisation that echoes classic anti-Semitism.

We have seen a local party vote down a resolution condemning the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre, because it had heard enough of "anti-Semitism this, anti-Semitism that"; Jewish Labour councillors have been compared to Goebbels and Jewish Labour MPs have been called "the enemy within".

Details of these and over 100 other cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism-denial and victim-blaming in the party can be found in the 2019 Fathom report Institutionally Anti-Semitic: Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party.

The hour is late. Unless the "you can't criticise Israel" myth is seen for what it is, a form of anti-Semitism denial, the party may be finished.

The party is now "institutionally anti-Semitic" in exactly the sense given that term in the Macpherson Report: guilty of a "collective failure... to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin".

It has failed to understand contemporary anti-Semitism, failed to prevent the party becoming host to anti-Semitism, failed to develop "appropriate and professional" processes to deal with anti-Semitism, or safeguard members, and failed utterly to eradicate the party's culture of anti-Semitism denial and victim-blaming.

Whatever her intentions, Clare Short has reinforced that culture with her comments.

Prof Alan Johnson is a Labour Party member and editor of the online journal Fathom, which encourages a deeper understanding of Israel

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