Buried in Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s dismissal as a ‘mendacious fiction’ of the Labour Party’s claim that it is ‘doing everything’ it can to tackle anti-Jewish racism in its ranks, are some mendacious fictions of his own. Take his protestation that ‘we have endured quibbling and prevarication over whether the party should adopt the most widely accepted definition of anti-Semitism.’ The definition that he refers to is that offered by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Labour faced criticism from some Jewish groups after it adopted the definition, but left out one of the eleven examples that followed it, which said that it would be antisemitic to claim ‘that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’.
Cast your mind back to July 2018, when the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph attacked the Party’s decision not to adopt the definition in full. In that month, the Israeli Knesset passed a Basic Law explicitly declaring Israel to be a Jewish state and restricting the right of national self-determination in Israel to the Jewish people. In response, an editorial in the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz branded Benjamin Netanyahu ‘the apartheid prime minister’ and critical Israelis such as Daniel Barenboim had no difficulty describing the law as ‘racist’. Yet the example in question in the IHRA’s definition would have us brand these voices anti-Semitic. Mirvis’s ‘widely accepted definition’ might not command full assent even in Israel. You might say that the example does not preclude a criticism of the actually existing State of Israel as racist, only the more extreme position whereby a (i.e. any) State of Israel would be considered racist. But here it would seem that it is the very ambiguity of the definition that invites ‘quibbling and prevarication’. Indeed this is why Geoffrey Robertson, QC, argued in an independent opinion that the definition was ‘not fit for any purpose that seeks to use it as an adjudicative standard’ on account of being ‘imprecise, confusing and open to misinterpretation and even manipulation’.
It is undoubtedly the case that some members of the Labour Party have criticised Israel using anti-Semitic tropes. And as senior figures have now acknowledged, the Party was too slow to respond to these cases with the seriousness they deserved. Corbyn has done the Party no favours in failing to reiterate earlier apologies for these missteps till one was squeezed out of him. But the question of Palestine—a word that is conspicuous by its absence in discussions of Labour’s anti-semitism ‘problem’—and of Israel’s treatment of it, is too important to be held hostage to the incompetence of a sclerotic party bureaucracy. And Mirvis is disingenuous in characterising the issue ‘as a human problem rather than a political one’.
No sooner had the Chief Rabbi questioned Corbyn’s fitness for high office than the Hindu Council UK jumped on the bandwagon to pronounce Labour both anti-Semitic and anti-Hindu. The Council has not exactly distinguished itself as a champion of equality and anti-discrimination, having lobbied vociferously against the demand of Dalit groups in the UK for caste to be treated as a protected characteristic under UK equality law. Fuelling its animus against Labour is the Party’s autumn resolution condemning the Indian government’s abrogation of article 370 (which guaranteed Kashmir a measure of autonomy) and endorsing the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people.
In representing Labour’s criticism of the Indian government as ‘anti-Hindu’, the Hindu Council’s response is ironically homologous with the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that both careless critics of Israel and its fiercest defenders perpetrate. And in making common cause with Mirvis, it echoes broader geopolitical alignments of our time, evident in increasingly close relations between India and Israel. Indian policymakers have been explicit about their desire to emulate Israel’s treatment of Palestine in their administration of Kashmir. The Indian Consul General in New York recently argued that India should adopt the Israeli settlement model to facilitate the return of displaced Kashmiri (Hindu) Pandits to the Valley. Whatever the merits of the criticisms that religious figures have recently levelled against the Labour Party, let us not forget the two places that these criticisms intend to obscure and on the backs of which they converge—Palestine and Kashmir.