New anti-Semitism definition denies Palestinians’ right to challenge oppression

Those attacking the UK Labour party for its newly adopted definition of anti-Semitism are contributing to the silencing of Palestinian voices, the potential criminalization of their struggle against racist Israeli policies, and the negation of their demands for freedom and equality.

By Laila Naheel and Hussein Samih

Illustrative photo of pro-Palestine protesters in London, June 10, 2018. (Alisdare Hickson/ CC BY-SA 2.0)
Illustrative photo of pro-Palestine protesters in London, June 10, 2018. (Alisdare Hickson/ CC BY-SA 2.0)

A furor over a newly adopted definition of anti-Semitism has erupted within the British Labour Party and UK media in recent weeks, with Jewish groups alleging that the definition does not go far enough because it omits certain criticisms of Israel as constituting examples of anti-Semitism.

Absent from these discussions, however, is a crucial voice: that of Palestinians. And as a result, Palestinians are once again being denied the means to express their opposition to the brutality of Israel’s policies and practices.

Anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, remains a significant problem in British society and must undoubtedly be addressed head-on by the Labour party.  It runs completely counter to any fight for liberty, justice and equality. This is well understood by Palestinians, whose struggle is intrinsically tied to the fate of all oppressed communities including, and especially, the Jewish people.

As has been widely-written, the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) — which is the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) — and its examples of anti-Semitism suffer significant problems and shortcomings. Despite this, and contrary to claims made against the party, the NEC endorsed the IHRA’s definition in full, but only excluded four of the eleven examples of anti-Semitism that accompany it.

The four omitted examples relate to: 1) Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel; 2) Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; 3) Applying double standards to Israel by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; and 4) 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.

There is little dispute as to the accuracy or utility of the first two examples – something which is reflected in the new Labour party guidelines. Yet there is arguably still some debate to be had as to whether these in themselves, without knowledge of intent, can always be defined as anti-Semitic. While it is at the discretion of the Labour party to determine how these examples are treated, for defenders of Palestinian rights, such statements are only harmful to their struggle.

In relation to the third example: the issue is not whether Israel is held to different standards compared to other democratic states, but rather that it is held to any international legal standard at all. Israel has been criticized and condemned by numerous international bodies and foreign governments, yet there has been absolutely no sanctions or consequences for its illegal actions.

There are legitimate concerns regarding the double standards shown towards Israel, in that it constantly acts above any notion of international humanitarian or human rights law, while receiving consistent diplomatic and financial support from the UK and other governments. Israel cannot insist on being a democracy while refusing to be held accountable like one.

The fourth example is particularly problematic, and this has arguably attracted the most attention from both critics and supporters of Israel. For Palestinians, the idea that claiming the “existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is in itself anti-Semitic is disconnected from the history and nature of Israel’s founding and ongoing policies.

As British-Palestinian author and academic Ghada Karmi wrote last week, Israel, which was established on the land of 750,000 Palestinians that it forcibly expelled in 1948, is “a state that was founded on discrimination towards Arab people on the basis of religion and ethnicity. If that’s not a racist endeavour, I don’t know what is. And I should have the freedom, as the victim of that racism, to say so.”

Jewish activists worldwide have also pointed out that criticism of Israel and its creation is not in itself anti-Semitic. Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote recently that “perversely labeling critics of this racism ‘anti-Semitic’ also silences Palestinians who object to Israel’s historic and ongoing takeover of their land.”

The ironic timing of the debate around the anti-Semitism definition is not lost on Palestinians. This month, Israel punitively closed a vital crossing for goods to enter the Gaza Strip, whose population of 1.8 million have been living under a crippling blockade for 11 years, and intensified its bombings in the area. This follows months during which Israel’s army opened fire on thousands of Palestinian civilians participating non-violently in the Great March of Return.

Furthermore, last week, the Israeli Knesset passed the “Jewish Nation-State Law” which, according to the legal center Adalah, “guarantees the ethnic-religious character of Israel as exclusively Jewish and entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism and systematic inequality.”

In other words, this legislation institutionalizes the exclusionary principles on which Israel was created and enshrines in law the historical and ongoing erasure of the native Palestinian population.  At the same time, it explicitly denies the right to self-determination of Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian citizens, as well as those Palestinians it controls in the Occupied Territories, which is a fundamental rejection of Palestinian rights.

It is difficult to ascertain the motives behind those currently attacking the Labour Party. But what is clear are their direct consequences: the continued silencing of Palestinian voices, the potential criminalization of their struggle against racist Israeli policies, and the negation of their demands for freedom and equality.

As the new Labour party guidelines point out, the Jewish people have a right to self-determination as enshrined in international law – Article 1(2) of the 1948 UN Charter – and this principle equally applies to the Palestinian people. But the right to self-determination of the Jewish people does not entail the right to oppress another, and it cannot come at the expense of the Palestinians’ right to speak up and act against a state that continues to subject them to occupation, fragmentation, violence, and exile.

Laila Naheel (Palestinian-American) and Hussein Samih (British-Palestinian) are human rights advocates living and working in London.