In recent weeks there has been a lot of debate about the Labour Party’s NEC decision on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-semitism and how that marries with our working code of conduct.
I have had many frustrations about this debate but principally I am concerned that if we cannot discuss the ongoing issues with good faith, we will not be able to move forward.
Often National Executive Committee (NEC) meetings are portrayed as hostile forums of disagreement. Sometimes this is the case, but not on this occasion where the discussion was constructive and thoughtful. There was a complete agreement by all sides that all the work put in so far has been done in good faith with a genuine attempt to get this right. We all recognised that the Labour Party has an issue with anti-semitism that we have to eradicate. There was also recognition that the process we have had has been flawed as it has not had buy-in from too many in the Jewish community.
I have never been in any doubt that the Labour Party and its leadership is committed to tackling anti-semitism in our own party and in society but our internal processes have - up until recently - not been fit for purpose. Cases were dealt with too slowly and victims lost faith in the system. Our new General Secretary, Jennie Formby, was tasked with ensuring the party was able to deal with anti-semitism properly and at the last NEC meeting I commended her in the work she has already put in.
The progress made has included a wholesale overhaul of our disciplinary procedures with a recognition they were letting the party down. The party has also introduced a national education programme. The introduction of a code of conduct was part of this.
Unfortunately we have seen too many cases of anti-semitism in recent months. Some cases are clear and there is no need for discussion. However, some are more complicated and there was recognition that we needed guidance to ensure continuity in our processes. The IHRA definition was adopted and a code of conduct was created to build on the IHRA’s illustrative examples.
We did not create a new definition of anti-semitism and did not seek to redefine anti-semitism.
I have been a victim of anti-semitism, both in its most traditional and obvious forms through to being singled out as a Jewish woman and held to a different standard. I was very clear that we need a code of conduct robust enough to deal with anti-semitism in all its forms. I believe that Labour’s code of conduct – by accepting and building on the IHRA definition – provides a strong set of guidelines that does just that.
There are some main issues that have come out of the NEC decision. The first is about ‘intent’ – that Labour’s code of conduct requires a higher level of intent than the IHRA or even criminal law. I believe that this is a fundamental misreading of the code of conduct which in fact has a lower bar and includes intent that isn’t manifested in ‘typical’ anti-semitic behaviour.
The main controversy has come from the omission of only one half of a clause in the IHRA examples regarding “a state of Israel being a racist endeavour”. Labour’s code is clear that any denial of Israel’s right to exist or the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is a form of anti-semitism and that we will not allow discriminatory double standards to be applied.
The reason for this decision is that this clause is open to misinterpretation and could be seen to limit debate on issues related to any actions of the modern State of Israel that some may deem unacceptable and want to criticise. The code of conduct wanted to ensure that not only is there zero room for anti-semitism but that those lines are also clear when it came to discussion around the issue of Israel and Palestine.
However, whilst I will passionately defend the code of conduct there is no point denying there is a fundamental flaw – that of not having support from the too many sections of the Jewish community. The level of engagement and consultation has not been sufficient and we have to do better which is why the NEC decided to reopen the process.
Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard are fully committed to eradicating prejudice in whatever shape and form it takes and so it now falls on our party to improve our processes, engage more meaningfully and ensure we once again have the trust and confidence from the Jewish community.
Rhea Wolfson is a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee and Scottish Labour parliamentary candidate for Livingston