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U.K. Scandal Shows Anti-Semitism Needs Defining

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The Labour Party in the U.K. is embroiled in an anti-Semitism scandal. It has resulted in the suspension from the party of a member of Parliament, a former London mayor, and several local legislators. And those are just the public suspensions; Labour has reportedly suspended 50 members in the last two months over racist and anti-Semitic comments. It’s damaging, and it highlights the need for a clear definition of the modern incarnation of anti-Semitism.

The scandal broke out over a Facebook post Naz Shah, a newly elected Labour legislator, had written before winning her Parliament seat. It suggested “relocating Israel into United States,” arguing the transportation would cost less than three years of U.S. defense aid to Israel and that the “whole world will be happy” as a result. Though Shah apologized for the post in Parliament, saying “anti-Semitism is racism,” she was suspended from the party the day after the post surfaced.

The same fate awaited Ken Livingstone, who served as mayor of London for eight years before the former mayor, Boris Johnson. Livingstone tried to defend Shah, saying her remark was not anti-Semitic -- and then launched into a bizarre tirade in which he claimed, among other things, that “Hitler supported Zionism” in 1932 before going “mad and killing 6 million Jews.” That got him suspended and sent off to tend his beloved newts.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says he is determined to weed out every possible form of racism, including anti-Semitism, from the party, and he’s set up an independent inquiry to help him with that. So far, three local councilors have been suspended: one for reposting the same Facebook message that got Shah in trouble, one for blaming Islamic State terror attacks on a “Zionism game being played,” and a third for tweeting to Israeli soccer player Yossi Benayoun: “You and your country doing the same thing that hitler did to ur race in ww2.” All three councilors are of Middle Eastern extraction.

I am Jewish, and I am not equally offended by the statements for which all these Labour officials have been suspended. In some of these cases, I think, their right to free speech should have been better protected.

I don’t believe Shah was seriously proposing the forced removal of Israeli Jews to the U.S. I think she was expressing the view, common among Muslims, that Israel is an impostor in the midst of a Muslim region. I disagree with the view, and my sympathies in the matter lie with Israel, but I think the argument about its role is political and to some extent religious rather than racial. This is not about the hatred of Jews as a people; I’m pretty sure Shah was scandalized when accused of racism, if only because she is of Pakistani origin and probably knows first-hand about xenophobia.

Opposite sides in conflicts -- at various points in recent history, Serbs and Croats, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Georgians and Abkhazians, Russians and Ukrainians -- tend to have an unfavorable view of each other. It’s unfortunate but natural, and it usually has nothing to do with racism. I have talked to Palestinians in the West Bank, whose hatred of Israel runs deep, but it’s not necessarily the hatred of Jews, though in some cases it is. It’s the losing side’s animosity toward the winner.

Livingstone’s defense of Shah is not anti-Semitic either, as far as I’m concerned, though it is misguided. Hitler, of course, never supported Zionism -- he just authorized a program that allowed German Jews to emigrate to Palestine while keeping part of their assets. He wanted them out, and he remained firmly opposed to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine or elsewhere. I’m willing to forgive a politician his shaky knowledge of history: It’s a common affliction. Yet Livingstone didn’t say anything I could interpret as racially charged. In fact, he correctly described the Holocaust as a mad enterprise on a huge scale.

Of the whole bunch of “offensive” statements that caused the suspensions, only one was openly racist -- the one that lumped Benayoun with what the writer, Shah Hussain, described as Israel’s Hitler-like policies, simply on the basis of his nationality.

All these remarks, however, would qualify as anti-Semitic under the 2005 “working definition of anti-Semitism” by the now-defunct European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). Among other things, comparing Israeli policies with those of the Nazis or questioning Israel’s existence (including seeking to “move” Israel somewhere else) were both considered to be anti-Semitic under that definition.. 

There’s a reason the European Union’s Fundamental Right Agency (FRA), the EUMC’s  successor, has not been using this definition since 2013. It is too restrictive; it tells one side in a long-standing conflict that its political and territorial gripes are racist and therefore illegitimate -- and that isn’t the case for any of the other such conflicts.

In 2014, the FRA issued a summary of all available data on anti-Semitism in Europe without attempting to define the phenomenon at all. That’s akin to hiding one’s head on the sand. A good, detailed, official definition is urgently needed, both to serve as a framework for efforts such as the one Labour is undertaking now and to show Europe’s growing Muslim population the line that shouldn’t be crossed if Europe is to be a peaceful home to diverse ethnic and religious groups.

What’s happening in the absence of an official definition of anti-Semitism is a convergence of two distinct phenomena -- broadly, the animal hatred of Jews that exists on the far right and the condemnation of Israel and its policies that has existed on the left ever since the Soviet Union started propagating it in the late 1940s. 

The right-wing anti-Semitism is clearly and undeniably offensive: witness, for example, the recent attack on Russian-Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe following her less-than-flattering profile of Melania Trump. The “anti-Zionism” of the left is supposedly all about Israeli policies vis-a-vis Palestinians and neighboring Muslim nations, and thus legitimate from a free speech perspective. It is, however, reinforced by the influx of Muslim immigrants the left welcomes and integrates into its political structures. Their rhetoric is often stronger than the traditional, Soviet-inspired anti-Israel discourse. When a certain invisible line is crossed, and the left-wing and right-wing varieties of Jew-hate merge, it becomes unsafe to wear a kippah (the skullcap worn by Jewish men) in certain areas in Europe, synagogues need to be guarded by police as they are in Germany, and Jewish stores become targets for terrorists, as in France last year. 

It’s important to tell Muslims and their leftist allies exactly where the line is so they understand this is not about the suppression of free speech but about keeping people safe from ethnic and religious violence, something in which they, too, have a strong interest.

Professor David Feldman, who heads the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at London’s Birkbeck University, proposed a useful approach to formulating a definition in a 2015 report for a U.K.  parliamentary committee, based on two pillars: discourse and discriminatory practices. In the first area, anti-Semitism consists in stereotyping Jews as malign figures, for example, a “cohesive community dedicated to the pursuit of its own selfish ends.” In the second, anti-Semitism is about disadvantaging Jews compared to others. The two don’t necessarily have to go together, Feldman wrote, but of course they often do.

These two principles apply to any kind of racism, not just to anti-Semitism. So they should be easily understandable to anti-Israel Muslims. Feldman, who is Jewish but reviled by some Jewish activists for refusing to equate anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment, is part of Corbyn’s independent investigation. He’s likely to be able to separate political gripes from racist ones, but that won’t matter if the entire anti-Semitism scandal is ultimately a plot aimed at getting rid of Corbyn, of which there is already plenty of evidence. In the absence of clear rules, it’s all a matter of skillful spinning -- a dangerous situation when racial tension is at issue.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net