Just after dawn on the morning of 16th March 1968, when the peasants were starting off to tend their paddies and the children were starting to have their breakfast, the quiet of the spring morning was broken by the arrival of US helicopters firing into people’s homes. This was soon followed by the arrival of troop carrying helicopters who also started to fire indiscriminately at anything that moved. Four hours later, by the end of this ‘military action’ 504 Vietnamese civilians were killed and soon after a village structure that had existed for hundreds of years was wiped out. The Vietnamese knew this group of villages as Song My, the rest of the world, when the news finally broke 18 months later, were to know the site of this massacre as My Lai.
My Lai Massacre
Earlier that year the US invading forces and their South Vietnamese lackeys had been taken by surprise by the Tet Offensive. This began on the night of the 29/30th January when units of the Vietnamese People’s Army (from the North Vietnam) and guerrilla units of the National Liberation Front (the NLF from the South) simultaneously attacked numerous military bases and cities in the south of the country, even coming out of the ground in the middle of Da Nang, the principal close to the border with the People’s Republic of the North.
The action didn’t achieve any lasting military objectives but the very fact that it could have been organised on such a scale in the first place started to create the realisation amongst the American imperialists that they wouldn’t be able to win the war. It would be another seven years before the panic-stricken Yankees and their hangers-on (literally as the last helicopters took off) fought tooth and nail against each other to get on the last helicopters from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the compound gates.
But like a wounded animal, knowing it is about to die, the Americans lashed out with the aim of causing as much damage and suffering as possible. The cost of defeating the most powerful military nation on the earth would have to be paid for at a high price.
The area which encompassed Song My was considered to be more than just sympathetic to the NLF and was known by the Americans as ‘Pinkville’. The guerrilla units in the south followed the military principals of People’s War, developed by Mao Tse-tung in China in the war, first, against the Japanese Fascist invaders and then the reactionary, Western Imperialist supported, Nationalist Kuomintang.
Mao coined the phrase of the guerrilla army ‘swimming like fish amongst the people’ and the Vietnamese followed this lesson well. However, not only do revolutionaries learn from the experience of those who have gone before them. Reactionaries also learnt and decided that if the revolutionaries were swimming amongst the people then they would deny them the water. The fact that many innocent people would bear the cost of this approach wasn’t (and still isn’t – witness what has happened in the last 14 years with the imperialist wars of intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East) of concern to the American commanders in Vietnam nor their political masters in Washington. As far as they were concerned ALL the ‘gooks’ (their racist term for the Vietnamese) were guilty, if not for crimes of commission then for crimes of omission, even babies only a matter of a few weeks old or those yet to be born.
My Lai Massacre
It’s difficult to imagine what went through the minds of those soldiers who carried out the massacre that covered three separate hamlets in Song My. There were no reports whatsoever that these brave troops came under any sort of enemy fire. In fact there was only one casualty amongst the G.I.s – and his wound was self-inflicted in an effort not to indulge in the blood lust.
My Lai Massacre
Most of the troops involved were relatively new to the country and therefore couldn’t really argue that they were battle weary and bitter from what they had seen happen to their fellow conscripts – although I have heard one soldier argue that case. Neither could they use the excuse given in Northern Ireland by the British Paratroopers after the murder of Irish Republican demonstrators on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972 when one reason given for them opening fire was that these ‘elite’ troops were frightened by being shot at.
My Lai Massacre
The majority of US troops in Vietnam by this time of the war were conscripts. The majority of them were in their late teens or early twenties. The majority of them were from poor, working class backgrounds. A disproportionate number of them were poor working class black Americans (in a tableau in the My Lai museum they are given equal status to the whites in killing women and children), living in a society that was even more racist and segregationist than it is now. Yet these working class boys, under the orders of officers with little more stake in US society than the soldiers under their command, just went wild.
My Lai Massacre Museum
Shooting at everything that moved, regardless of age or gender; burning of buildings, sometimes with people inside alive; destroying all foodstuffs including domesticated animals; trapping people in confined spaces and then throwing in fragmentation grenades; gang raping of the women regardless of age and even those in late stages of pregnancy; killing babies only a few weeks old; mutilating the bodies of their victims including cutting out tongues, cutting off hands, disembowelment and taking scalps; pulling out unborn foetuses from pregnant women; shooting the wounded if they made the mistake of lettering their murderers know they were still alive; this orgy of death and destruction went on for hours until they had killed all that they thought was alive.
My Lai Massacre
There was little evidence of any of the soldiers making any effort to put a stop to all this or to try to bring some element of civilisation back into their mission – although a few are said to have ‘not participated’ (but that begs questions about crimes of commission or omission). Apart from one exception. The three-man crew of one of the support helicopters put their machine between a group of G.I.’s and their intended victims. Whilst the gunner held his heavy machine gun on soldiers from his own side a handful of villagers were able to be escape the mayhem. One of the helicopter crew was killed soon after (in combat) but the two that survived were invited to the thirtieth anniversary commemoration at the Quang Ngai General Museum in 1998.
Even though the trials at Nuremberg (after World War Two) had, supposedly, rejected the argument of ‘just obeying orders’ as being no excuse or vindication for committing such atrocities this was the case put by many of those who attended (many didn’t) the Peers Commission that was set up more than 18 months after the event. Whatever orders might have been given that doesn’t excuse what these teenagers did, many of them going way above and beyond the ‘call of duty’, their obvious enjoyment of the opportunity to kill and maim with impunity being proof of that.
My Lai Massacre
(This wasn’t the first time American soldiers had been given orders by their officers and then executing them with a gusto that bordered on fanaticism. On November 29th 1864 the American army carried out a similar massacre against, mainly, unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek in Colorado. The film ‘Soldier Blue’, released in 1970, making a clear parallel between the two events separated by just under a hundred years.)
My Lai Massacre
So those who actually did the killing have no excuse (and shouldn’t be excused) but what were their orders? The same that had been given to other units before them, that is to go out and ‘search and destroy’ in what was designated as a ‘free fire zone’. This gave a virtual carte blanche for the soldiers to do whatever they wished and they would not be held responsible. This had been happening throughout the country for a number of years causing widespread devastation, through acts of the military on the ground, artillery bombardments, the widespread use of napalm and defoliation with chemicals such as Agent Orange. Therefore the idea of a ‘free fire zone’ was basically part of the philosophy of the American military and this would have been known by even such rookie troops as those that were sent into the Song My area.
My Lai Massacre
At the same time the military did not act totally under their own volition and were under the control of the politicians in Washington. Even if the rest of the world wasn’t aware of what was happening in Vietnam those in the White House and the Pentagon certainly did. And the fact that the very villages were bulldozed soon after the massacre indicates that the commanders in the field knew that things had gone slightly to far.
My Lai Massacre
So what made the My Lai Massacre different? It seems that news of what had happened was circulating very soon after the event. Although the murder of civilians and the destruction of their homes wasn’t new at Song My the Americans had taken their task of murder into a new league and it would have been impossible to have completely suppressed the news. At the same time the military would have wanted this news to have spread throughout the south of Vietnam as a warning, threat and promise to those Vietnamese who supported the NLF and the North Vietnamese.
My Lai Massacre
The reports and letters that went around, both the military structure in Vietnam and the offices of politicians and newspapers in the United States were only words. By 1968 it was images that were to make the difference. Anyone who was of an age to watch and understand the TV images being shown everyday throughout the world in the late 60s and early 70’s will understand the importance of images. TV news programmes showed, daily, American wounded and dead being collected from the battlefield as well as the scenes played out on the streets of Saigon (such the summary execution by a bullet to the head of a Vietnamese guerrilla or the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk). The power of those images is the reason why, ever since, photographers and journalists are ’embedded’ – read controlled – by the US, UK or NATO armies.
My Lai Massacre
Ron Haeberle, an army photographer, had only just started his tour of duty when he was sent to Song My. Although not believing what he saw he continued to take photos during the morning. After the massacre he handed in 40 black and white pictures to the military but kept 18 in colour. It was those pictures which were to make the written reports even more potent.
Wisely, for self-preservation reasons, Haeberle didn’t release those pictures until he had returned from Vietnam – war zones are very easy places to get yourself killed. Even though the extent of the furore after the release of his photographs was worldwide, to the best of my knowledge none of the other pictures he took that spring morning have ever been made public. However, it’s difficult to believe that any other pictures would tell us much more about what happened. The suppression, or destruction of his other pictures only goes to demonstrate the lack of openness of governments when caught out doing the direct opposite to what they say. (Most of the pictures on this page are from among those Haeberle kept to himself for the best part of 18 months.)
The Report of the Peers investigation set up when the news of the massacre was too widespread to be ignored seemed to give the impression that this was a ‘one off’, an aberration and not a matter of policy. However, the widespread deployment of ‘search and destroy’ missions, the ‘Strategic Hamlet Programme’ – whereby villagers were gathered together in virtual concentration camps in order to make contact between the ordinary peasants and the guerrillas that much more difficult – and the designation of huge swathes of the country as being ‘free fire zones’ meant that the lives of the Vietnamese people held no value in the minds of the occupation forces.
Atrocities carried out by the Americans and the South Vietnamese Army were not new, only the scale was different. Eighteen months before My Lai the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had produced a pamphlet, with photographs, of examples of war crimes committed by US troops and at about the time of the My Lai Massacre they produced evidence (presented to Bertrand Russell International Tribunal) claiming genocide on the part of the Americans. There’s no significant difference between the pictures in these pamphlets from those of Haeberle taken in March 1968.
After all the fuss, all the publicity, all the demonstrations on the streets throughout the world, all the words spoken, all the investigations carried out, all the crocodile tears of politicians, no one was held accountable for what happened at Song My/My Lai. A junior officer (Calley) was chosen as a scapegoat (which doesn’t mean him any less culpable) and found guilty but later given a Presidential pardon by Richard Nixon. The Peers investigation report was even told not to refer to it as a massacre and described it as an ‘incident’. Ultimately no one was held responsible.
And nothing has really changed in the policies of the American nor any other country that considers it has the right to enter in the internal affairs of another country. My Lai wasn’t the first of such massacres, neither was it the last.
For a period after defeat in Vietnam the US ‘sub-contracted’ the killing of innocent villagers, although really the concept of ‘innocence’ seems now to have been lost. In Latin America the fascist, right-wing murder squads ran amok throughout the 70s and 80s from Mexico down to the Tierra del Fuego. If these killers needed training they received that at the ‘anti-communist insurgency’ School of the Americas at Fort Benning. To keep their eye in the US invaded Granada and Panama, on both occasions civilians got in the way.
In the Middle East surrogates kept their populations quiet with the use of terror. Some of these lost the support of the US and have fallen. Others still carry out the will of the US although they would maintain they are independent nations. Sometimes things don’t need to be said for them to happen. Israel continues to murder Palestinians and destroy their homes. Indeed Israel was in the game of massacres before it was even established as a state, killing indiscriminately Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin on 9th April 1948. The Zionists then sub-contracted the killing to the Christian militia in Lebanon and over two days in September 1982 they murdered thousands in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
Since the beginning of the 21st century the US has again got more directly involved and thousands have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East following western government attempts at ‘regime change’. The Americans, and their allies, got around the embarrassment of large numbers of civilians being killed by not actually counting them, as they did in Fallujah.
And presently in India, the present and previous governments, since 2009, have been pursuing what they call ‘Operation Green Hunt’ against the dalits and adivasis (the ethnic and tribal groups) who in some of the most mineral rich areas of the country. However, in India the people are not just accepting this and are fighting back under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
If people thought that the massacre at My Lai was an aberration they should think again.
The voices of those who killed
On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the massacre in 2008 the BBC’s Radio Four broadcast a programme in its Archive Hour slot which includes interviews with some of those involved in the murderous attack. Personally, I don’t have any sympathy whatsoever for those young soldiers who have subsequently suffered from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder for what they did that day so long ago.
Here is a recording of that programme, entitled The My Lai Tapes is presented in two parts, Part 1, Part 2.
UK Budget 2021 – relief for business; suffering for the poor
The vaccination programme in Britain continues to go well (especially when compared to the experience across the Channel in the European Union – but, then, what can you expect from ‘Johnnie Foreigner’), infections are falling as are deaths. Capitalism in Britain breathes a sigh of relief – as does their present puppet – the Buffoon.
It seems like they have got away with it.
Totally unprepared at the beginning, lacking any semblance of a strategy – even a year after the pandemic hit the sceptred isle – ‘science’ has pulled them out of the mire by being able to produce a vaccine that seems to work. (Let’s not talk about how much the British government, i.e., the British people, paid for that vaccine programme. Pumping gold into peoples’ arms would probably have been cheaper.)
Despite the ineptitude, the incompetence, the lies, the corruption, the arrogance of the rich and powerful, the U-turns, the confusion and fear levels going through the roof the Buffoon is coming out Okish, if not smelling of roses.
Even after showing their contempt for the ‘heroes’ of the National Health Service with the derisory pay increase (not forgetting that all the ‘heroes’ in the other public services will get nothing at all) there doesn’t seem to have been any great condemnation of the present government.
And even if people had gone to the streets – the only real way to show anger in any society – then that would have been turned against the demonstrators as they would be ‘putting other people’s lives in danger and would be undermining all the sacrifices of the past year’. You have to admire them – they place the blame for the crisis on the victim and shrug off any responsibility.
So it’s back to business as usual with the Budget of 3rd March 2021.
Money continues to be given to businesses that probably won’t exist by the end of the year – and shouldn’t all these entrepreneurs and petty minded petite-bourgeoisie refuse such state support as it goes against the grain of neo-liberalism?
Money gets thrown at first time house buyers – trapping them in the iron grip of debt – but offering no relief to those who have no other option than to rent. Companies will have to pay increased corporation tax (but not until 2023 – and perhaps not even then if the memory of the British population in the past is anything to go by) yet at the end of summer this year the poorest in society will be faced with a huge financial break with the withdrawal of the extra £20 per week that has been paid (temporarily) to raise the level of Universal Credit – an already totally inadequate system whose flaws still exist even if not now being highlighted.
And after almost a year where there seemed to be no limit to the amount of money that was available to pull capitalism out of the crisis it itself had created the tap is to be turned off and there will be more ‘belt tightening’ and a virtual return to austerity.
As with the financial crash of 2008 – yet another capitalism created crisis due to greed and arrogance – the cost of the pandemic will again fall upon those who were completely innocent and of its causes.
Perhaps not completely innocent. The crime of omission in allowing the capitalist system to continually play fast and loose with the lives of billions of people is just as pernicious as the crime of commission of the perpetrators.
One of the problems of many workers in the British National Health Service (NHS) – especially the medical staff, the nurses and the junior doctors – is that it has taken them the best part of 75 years to recognise they are actually ‘workers’.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, even though the NHS was under almost constant attack by various British governments, the idea that such medical workers would go on strike was received with shock and horror. This was to defend their own pay and conditions let alone to support those other workers who were facing the destruction of their jobs as successive governments presided over the the de-industrialisation of the United Kingdom.
At that time there was even a television soap opera called ‘Angels’ (which ran from 1975 to 1983) which perpetuated this myth that workers who took care of others were not the same as those who worked in any other industry. Too many heath workers took in that propaganda and their conditions and workload got worse each year as a result.
With the arrival of the covid pandemic at the beginning of 2020 the NHS was found to be in a sorry state – desperately short of staff, underfunded and led by managers whose main concern was the balance sheet rather than the best care of those in the time of their greatest health need.
No surprise there. Whatever social welfare function the NHS had at the end of the 1940s had been stripped away and was being converted into a money machine for private companies and investors. What capitalism does to every endeavour. No profit = no use.
To make up for the unpreparedness of the government of the Buffoon for the pandemic, the shortage of vital Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as well as an adequate provision of the equipment necessary (in the early days when the virus was still not fully understood) the Thursday ‘Clap for the NHS’ was turned into a nationwide ritual.
Instead of being considered as skilled workers medical staff were being applauded for being ‘heroes’. But that cost nothing. Neither for the government or the population of Britain. This activity ceased by the end of May 2020 as a growing number of NHS workers started (belatedly) to realise that this was just an empty gesture that took the pressure off the government – and in effect, put all the pressure on those working in the NHS (and other so called ‘essential industries’).
And following the Budget of March 2021 those same workers that were so lauded for their ‘sacrifice and dedication’ only a few short months ago have learnt what their true value is to this government of over-privileged public schoolboys and girls.
The reaction, so far, from the health workers has been one of anger. But what will come of that? Will they act as workers, organise and take action to force the government to act? Will workers in other industries support them (difficult as that is after years of attacks and the weakening of Trade Unions)? Time will tell.
However, workers in Britain should be careful. Already, in their ‘justification’ for awarding health workers a measly handful of crumbs, the Buffoon is seeking to divide the working class by stating that other public service workers won’t even get that. Unless the action is taken in a unified manner, across the whole country and all industries, this struggle will end up being splintered and divided – the only winners being the capitalist system.
More of the same if we listen to some so-called scientific ‘experts’. It might have been a positive development that scientists have become the new ‘rock stars’ over the course of the last year but that new found fame (and fortune) should be taken in context. One of the reasons that ‘experts’ started to be distrusted was the way in which they were used in a number of high profile criminal cases where the decision of the jury depended upon who was the most convincing ‘expert’ – and the prosecution could always afford the most high profile and therefore, most ‘credible’.
Now they have the limelight some are trying to keep themselves there for as long as possible. As the UK appears to be coming out of the present lock down there is optimism that ‘normality’ will return in the not too distant future. However, those ‘experts’ who are risk averse are already raising the spectre of a return of non-covid respiratory diseases this coming winter – and in the process attempting to maintain the idea of control over the population. This control will be in the areas such as the (unproven) wearing of face coverings/masks. (It’s perhaps pertinent here to mention that this has become one of the growing cottage industries in recent months and small companies are now dependent on this fad staying around for some time.)
The manner in which many governments throughout the world, and especially in Britain, have managed the pandemic in the last year or so has been totally inadequate for a so-called modern society in the 21st century. To ‘institutionalise’ a minor tactic which doesn’t address the main issues surrounding the incompetence and corruption that has dominated the last 12 months will just be another way the thieves and incompetents get off the hook.
Yet another dodgy contract given under the excuse of dealing with the pandemic – but which will have consequences far beyond the period the virus is dominating British life. NHS faces lawsuit over data deal with “spy-tech” firm Palantir.
From the ‘original sin’ of 1917 to the government’s more recent adoption of the controversial IHRA anti-Semitism definition, Britain has always been firmly in Israel’s camp
In December 2016, then British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s working definition of anti-Semitism. It was the first government in the world to do so, marking yet another milestone in the 100-year history of British support for Zionism and callous disregard for Palestinian rights.
The ‘original sin’ was the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised to support the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’, provided that nothing was done to ‘prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. In 1917, Arabs constituted 90 percent of the population of Palestine; Jews made up less than 10 percent.
The declaration was thus a classic colonial document: it granted the right to national self-determination to a small minority, while denying it to the majority. To add insult to injury, the declaration referred to 90 percent of the country’s inhabitants as ‘non-Jewish communities in Palestine’, relegating them to an inferior status. Although grotesquely imbalanced in favour of Jews, the declaration at least included a promise to protect the civil and religious rights of Palestinians – but even this promise was never kept.
The British mandate for Palestine lasted from 1920 until midnight on 14 May 1948, the date the State of Israel was proclaimed. The first high commissioner for Palestine, Herbert Samuel, was a Jew and an ardent Zionist. Partiality towards Jews was evident from day one; the cornerstone of the mandate was to deny representative institutions as long as Arabs were the majority in Palestine.
In the end, Britain over-fulfilled its promise to Zionists by helping the ‘national home’ evolve into a Jewish state, while betraying its pledge to Palestinians. Britain’s betrayal gave rise to the Palestinian Great Revolt of 1936-39. This was a nationalist uprising, demanding Arab independence and an end to the policy of open-ended Jewish immigration and land purchases.
The revolt was suppressed with utter ruthlessness and brutality by the British army and police. Britain resorted to the entire panoply of colonial measures, including martial law, military courts, detention without trial, caning, flogging, torture, extra-judicial killings, collective punishment and aerial bombardment. Nearly 20,000 Palestinians were killed or wounded during the revolt, and villages were reduced to rubble.
In the process of crushing the uprising, Britain broke the backbone of the Palestinian national movement. British actions gravely weakened Palestinians and strengthened Zionists, as the two national movements moved inexorably towards a final showdown. Palestine was not lost in the late 1940s, as is commonly believed; it was lost in the late 1930s, as a result of Britain’s savage smashing of Palestinian resistance and support for Jewish paramilitary forces.
An undercurrent of anti-Arab racism coloured Britain’s entire handling of the mandate for Palestine. In 1937, future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said: ‘I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right.
‘I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race … has come in and taken their place.’
A Black Lives Matter protester had a point when, in June 2020, he sprayed graffiti on a Churchill statue in London’s Parliament Square to add the words ‘was a racist’. Churchill held Arabs in contempt as racially inferior. His description of Palestinian Arabs as a ‘dog in a manger’ is shocking, but not entirely surprising; racism usually goes hand in hand with colonialism.
As the British mandate for Palestine approached its inglorious end, Britain persisted in its anti-Palestinian stance. When the United Nations voted in November 1947 to partition mandatory Palestine into two states, Britain adopted an official posture of neutrality. Behind the scenes, however, it worked to abort the birth of a Palestinian state.
Haj Amin al-Husseini, the leader of the Palestinian national movement, fell out with Britain over its pro-Zionist policy in Palestine and made contact with Adolf Hitler during the Second World War. In British eyes, a Palestinian state was synonymous with a mufti state; accordingly, Britain’s hostility towards Palestinians and Palestinian statehood was a constant factor in its foreign policy from 1947-49.
Wiped off the map
Britain gave a green light to its client, King Abdullah of Transjordan, to send his British-led little army into Palestine upon expiry of the British mandate, to capture the West Bank – which was intended to be the heartland of the Palestinian state. The winners in the war for Palestine were King Abdullah and the Zionist movement; the losers were Palestinians. Around 750,000 Palestinians, more than half the population, became refugees, and the name Palestine was wiped off the map.
In short, Britain played a significant but little-known part in the Nakba, the catastrophe that overwhelmed Palestinians in 1948. When Jordan formally annexed the West Bank in 1950, Britain and Pakistan were the only UN members to recognise it.
Against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, the reassessment of Britain’s colonial past and the drive to decolonise school curricula, some scholars have leapt to the defence of the British Empire. Nigel Biggar, the Regius professor of theology at the University of Oxford, for example, defends the British Empire as a moral force for good.
Referencing Cecil Rhodes and the campaign to remove his statue from Oriel College, Biggar conceded that Rhodes was an imperialist, ‘but British colonialism was not essentially racist, wasn’t essentially exploitative, and wasn’t essentially atrocious’. The British Empire’s record in Palestine, however, is rather difficult to reconcile with the benign view of the learned professor.
The Conservative Party and its leaders are the standard-bearers of this shameful legacy of unqualified British support for Israel and indifference to Palestinian rights. Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) is by far the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in Britain, and its membership includes around 80 percent of Tory members of parliament. Since the May 2015 general election, CFI has sent 24 delegations with more than 180 Conservatives to visit Israel.
The last three leaders of the Conservative Party have been uncritical supporters of the State of Israel. Former Prime Minister David Cameron described himself as a ‘passionate friend’ of Israel and insisted that nothing could break that friendship.
Theresa May was probably the most pro-Israeli leader in Europe during her premiership. In an address to CFI in 2016, she described Israel as a ‘remarkable country … a thriving democracy, a beacon of tolerance, an engine of enterprise, and an example to the rest of the world’. She spoke of Israel as ‘a country where people of all religions and sexualities are free and equal in the eyes of the law’.
May reserved her sharpest criticism for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and to pressure Israel to comply with international law. BDS is a non-violent, global grassroots campaign whose principal demands – the right of return of 1948 refugees, an end to occupation, and equal rights for Israel’s Palestinian citizens – are grounded in international law. This movement, May stated, ‘is wrong, it is unacceptable, and this party and this government will have no truck with those who subscribe to it’.
May reminded her audience that Britain was entering a ‘special time’ – the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – and went on to deliver a wholly one-sided verdict on this colonial document: ‘It is one of the most important letters in history. It demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. And it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride.’ There was no mention of Britain’s failure to uphold even the minimal rights of Palestinians.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a slightly more nuanced take on Britain’s record as a colonial power in Palestine. In his 2014 book on Churchill, he described the Balfour Declaration as ‘bizarre’, ‘tragically incoherent’ and an ‘exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama’. This was one of the rare examples of sound judgement and historical insight on Johnson’s part. But in 2015, on a trip to Israel as mayor of London, Johnson hailed the Balfour Declaration as ‘a great thing’.
In October 2017, in his capacity as foreign secretary, Johnson introduced a debate in the House of Commons on the Balfour Declaration. He repeated the mantra about Britain’s pride in the part it played in creating a Jewish state in Palestine. He had the perfect opportunity to balance this with a recognition of Palestine as a state, but he repeatedly turned it down, saying the time was not right. Since the Conservative Party supports a two-state solution, recognising Palestine would be a logical step towards that end.
Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary in 1917, undertook to uphold the civil and religious rights of the native population of Palestine. A century later, the House of Commons added national rights as well, voting in October 2014 – by 274 votes to 12 – to recognise a Palestinian state. Cameron chose to ignore the non-binding vote; at least he was consistent in his passionate attachment to Israel, which is more than can be said about his successor. As with Johnson’s approach to any subject, in his attitude towards Palestinian rights, expediency prevails.
An unbroken thread of moral myopia, hypocrisy, double standards and skulduggery connects British policy on Palestine, from Balfour to Boris. The Conservative government’s adoption in 2016 of the IHRA’s non-legally-binding working definition of anti-Semitism falls squarely within this tradition of partisanship on behalf of Zionism and Israel, and disdain for Palestinians.
The definition states: ‘anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’
The definition does not mention Israel by name, but no fewer than seven out of the 11 ‘illustrative examples’ that follow concern Israel. They include ‘denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’; ‘applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation’; ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’; and ‘holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’.
The 11 examples make a series of unwarranted assumptions about Israel and world Jewry. They assume that all Israelis adhere to the notion of Israel as a Jewish state; that Israel is a ‘democratic nation’; that Israel is not a racist endeavour; and that all Jews condemn the comparison between Israeli policy and that of the Nazis.
In fact, Israel is a highly heterogeneous and deeply divided society with a wide range of opinions on all these issues – and a political culture marked by fierce disputes and no-holds-barred debates.
Many left-wing Israelis regard Israel as a racist endeavour. B’Tselem, the highly respected Israeli human rights organisation, issued a closely argued position paper in January titled ‘A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.’
It declared: ‘The entire area Israel controls between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is governed by a single regime working to advance and perpetuate the supremacy of one group over another. By geographically, demographically and physically engineering space, the regime enables Jews to live in a contiguous area with full rights, including self-determination, while Palestinians live in separate units and enjoy fewer rights.’
Right-wing Israelis continue to hotly deny that Israel is an apartheid state and reject any comparison with apartheid South Africa. But there is no law against calling Israel an apartheid state, and progressive Israelis do so all the time. Comparisons with Nazi Germany are also not proscribed by Israeli law. Such comparisons are less common in Israeli political discourse, but they are occasionally expressed in newspaper editorials and even by politicians.
Devil in the details
The global Jewish community is just as diverse and disputatious. Ironically, to treat Jews as a homogeneous group is in fact an antisemitic trope. It is antisemites who fail to differentiate between different kinds of Jews, and want to see them all clustered in one place. It is on this basis that Theodor Herzl, the visionary of the Jewish state, predicted that ‘the antisemites will become our most dependable friends’.
The devil is in the details or, in the case of the IHRA document, in the examples. Strictly speaking, there are two definitions: the two opening sentences, quoted above, and the list of 11 examples. This point cannot be emphasised strongly enough; it is a tale of two texts.
To achieve consensus on the document within the IHRA, it was necessary to separate the statement from the illustrative examples that followed. Pro-Israel partisans, however, have repeatedly conveyed the false impression that the examples are an integral part of the definition. They also habitually omit the qualifier that this is only a draft – a ‘working definition’.
As countless commentators, lawyers and scholars of anti-Semitism have pointed out, the IHRA working definition is poorly drafted, internally incoherent, hopelessly vague, vulnerable to political abuse, and altogether not fit for purpose. It does not fulfil the most elementary requirement of a definition, which is to define.
The definition states that ‘anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews’, but fails to spell out what this perception is. In my 50 years as a university teacher, I have not come across a more vacuous or useless definition. Yet, although it is vacuous, it is not innocuous. Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the definition, has rejected its adoption as a campus hate speech code, arguing that it ‘will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself’.
Anti-Semitism vs anti-Zionism
What the non-legally-binding IHRA document does do, with the help of the examples, is shift the focus from real anti-Semitism to the perfectly respectable and growing phenomenon of anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is sometimes described by pro-Israel stakeholders as ‘the new anti-Semitism’. It is essential, however, to distinguish clearly between the two.
Anti-Semitism may be simply defined as ‘hostility towards Jews because they are Jews’. Zionism, meanwhile, is a nationalist, political ideology that called for the creation of a Jewish state, and now supports the continued existence of Israel as such a state. Anti-Zionism is opposition to the exclusive character of the state of Israel and to Israeli policies, particularly its occupation of the West Bank. anti-Semitism relates to Jews anywhere in the world; anti-Zionism relates only to Israel.
The IHRA document, taken as a whole, is susceptible to political abuse in that it makes it possible to conflate legitimate anti-Zionism with nefarious anti-Semitism. Israel’s energetic apologists, who were instrumental in promoting the document, conflate the two deliberately and routinely.
To criticise the definition for its vacuity is thus to miss a central point. In this endeavour, the definition’s very vagueness confers a political advantage. It enables Israel’s defenders to weaponise the definition, especially against left-wing opponents, and to portray what in most cases is valid criticism of Israeli behaviour as the vilification and delegitimisation of the State of Israel.
Israel is not the victim of double standards. On the contrary, it is the beneficiary of western double standards. Under the IHRA examples, it is antisemitic to require of Israel a behaviour ‘not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation’. But this has nothing to do with anti-Jewish racism.
In any case, Israel is not a democracy. Even within its original borders, it is a flawed democracy at best, because of discrimination at multiple levels against its Palestinian citizens. But in the whole area under its rule, including the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel is an ethnocracy – a political system in which one ethnic group dominates another.
The superior status of Jews in Israel is enshrined in the 2018 nation-state law, the official confirmation that Israel is an apartheid state. The law states that the right to exercise national self-determination in Israel is ‘unique to the Jewish people’. It establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and downgrades Arabic – which is widely spoken by Arab citizens of Israel – to a ‘special status’.
Israel is the only member of the UN that enshrines its racism in law. It is therefore not antisemitic, but only right and proper, to expect Israel to behave like a democratic nation by giving equal rights to all its citizens.
Israel’s friends in the US and Europe have claimed for the definition an international status that it does not have. They pushed hard for the adoption of the definition by as many governments as possible, because it can be used to intimidate critics of Israel and pro-Palestinian campaigners by tarnishing them with the brush of anti-Semitism.
In Britain, the top echelons of the Conservative Party have followed the Israel lobby’s lead. Indeed, in the Conservative Party as a whole, the IHRA document seems to have acquired the status of holy writ.
The Labour Party discovered to its cost the divisive and damaging consequences of adopting this document. Initially, the party’s code of conduct incorporated five of the IHRA examples verbatim, and an additional two with minor amendments.
This did not satisfy Israel’s friends either inside or outside the party. The party was bullied by the Jewish Labour Movement, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Community Security Trust, and the Campaign Against anti-Semitism to adopt all the examples verbatim. Not to adopt all the examples exactly as they stood, it was misleadingly argued, was tantamount to a rejection of the definition.
Labour’s national executive committee caved in and abandoned its amendments to the remaining two examples. In the Orwellian world of the post-full-adoption Labour Party, many of the members who have been suspended or expelled for the crime of anti-Semitism were themselves Jewish. Several Jewish Labour Party members have been investigated since 2016, nearly all on the basis of allegations of anti-Semitism. This made a mockery of the claim of Keir Starmer, who succeeded the allegedly antisemitic Jeremy Corbyn as leader, to be making the Labour Party a safe place for Jews.
Under the new regime, the Labour Party is slavishly subservient to the benighted definition. A local Labour Party branch recently tried to submit a motion endorsing B’Tselem’s latest report on Israeli apartheid. It said: ‘This Branch supports the call from B’Tselem for an end to the apartheid regime to ‘ensure human rights, democracy, liberty and equality to all people, Palestinian and Israeli alike, living on the bit of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.’’
The motion was ruled out of order at the national level of the party on the grounds that, according to the IHRA’s working definition, this could be seen as designating Israel a ‘racist endeavour’.
In the rush to burnish its pro-Zionist credentials, the Labour Party turned against some of its most progressive Jewish members. Moshe Machover, the veteran Israeli British anti-Zionist, was expelled and then reinstated in 2017 after the Guardian published a letter of protest undersigned by 139 Labour Party members, including eminent Jewish lawyer Geoffrey Bindman, dismissing the insinuation of anti-Semitism as ‘personally offensive and politically dangerous’.
But in 2020, Machover was suspended again. He received a 20-page letter from party bureaucrats containing a melange of old and new allegations of anti-Semitism, which Machover described as “full of lies” and part of a ‘Stalinist purge of the Labour Party’. He considered resigning and slamming the door behind him, but decided to give the party inquisitors a chance to further disgrace themselves by expelling him.
The real question is: why did the British government adopt this fundamentally flawed and deeply controversial document? The government cannot claim in self-defence that it had not been warned about the potentially harmful consequences of adoption.
It actually rejected calls from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee to insert two ‘clarifications’ to the IHRA definition and examples: firstly, to clarify that it is not antisemitic to criticise the government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent; and secondly, to clarify that “it is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent’.
The clearest clue that the present Conservative government is wedded to the IHRA definition as a means of curtailing debate and restricting free speech on Israel is contained in a letter from Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for education, to university vice chancellors.
Sent in October 2020 amid a national crisis of the education sector due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the letter noted that the number of universities that had adopted the IHRA definition remained ‘shamefully low‘. The universities who ignored it were said to be letting down their staff and students, and their Jewish students in particular.
The education secretary insisted that these universities stop dragging their feet and formally endorse the IHRA definition. He threatened to cut off funding to universities at which antisemitic incidents occur and which had not signed up to the definition.
Williamson’s letter was not well received. He himself came across as authoritarian, while the tone of his missive was arrogant, hectoring and bullying. More worrying, however, was the content. It made no reference to any other form of bigotry, such as Islamophobia, homophobia or anti-Black racism. It did not escape notice that anti-Semitism was singled out for attention and punishment by a Conservative government that is renowned for its intensely relaxed attitude towards Islamophobia.
The letter assumed that universities that did not formally endorse the IHRA definition were not taking anti-Semitism seriously, which is far from being the case. It did not allow for the fact that most universities have rules and disciplinary procedures for combatting most forms of discrimination and racism, including anti-Semitism. Even if a specific definition of anti-Semitism is needed, which is debatable, no reason was given for privileging the IHRA one.
Above all, the letter, or rather the ultimatum, was seen as a threat to free speech, which universities and the Department for Education have a statutory duty to uphold.
Some English universities openly, and courageously, rejected the IHRA definition; about a fifth capitulated to the ministerial diktat by signing up to the definition; and the majority chose not to commit themselves one way or the other. My own university, Oxford, has fixed its colours firmly to the fence.
The statement on its website reads: “Oxford University aims to ensure that all students, whatever their background, have a fulfilling experience of higher education. To support us in our work, we have adopted (reflecting the position of the Office for Students) the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism as a guide to interpreting and understanding anti-Semitism, noting the clarifications recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee. The IHRA definition does not affect the legal definition of racial discrimination, so does not change our approach to meeting our legal duties and responsibilities.” In other words, Oxford will draw on the definition for intellectual enlightenment in thinking about anti-Semitism, but not as a guide for action.
In a letter to the Guardian published in November 2020, a group of 122 Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals expressed their concerns about the IHRA definition. Palestinian voices are rarely heard in the national debate on anti-Semitism and Israel-Palestine. This letter is therefore worth quoting at some length for the light it sheds on Palestinian perceptions and positions:
‘In recent years, the fight against anti-Semitism has been increasingly instrumentalised by the Israeli government and its supporters in an effort to delegitimise the Palestinian cause and silence defenders of Palestinian rights. Diverting the necessary struggle against anti-Semitism to serve such an agenda threatens to debase this struggle and hence to discredit and weaken it.
‘anti-Semitism must be debunked and combated. Regardless of pretence, no expression of hatred for Jews as Jews should be tolerated anywhere in the world. anti-Semitism manifests itself in sweeping generalisations and stereotypes about Jews, regarding power and money in particular, along with conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial. We regard as legitimate and necessary the fight against such attitudes. We also believe that the lessons of the Holocaust as well as those of other genocides of modern times must be part of the education of new generations against all forms of racial prejudice and hatred.
‘The fight against anti-Semitism must, however, be approached in a principled manner, lest it defeat its purpose. Through ‘examples’ that it provides, the IHRA definition conflates Judaism with Zionism in assuming that all Jews are Zionists, and that the state of Israel in its current reality embodies the self-determination of all Jews. We profoundly disagree with this. The fight against anti-Semitism should not be turned into a stratagem to delegitimise the fight against the oppression of the Palestinians, the denial of their rights and the continued occupation of their land.’
The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), Britain’s leading academic organisation for the study of the Middle East and North Africa, issued a statement expressing its profound concern about the pressure applied on universities by the government to adopt the IHRA definition.
It said Williamson’s intervention would have a “chilling effect” on academic freedom and the university sector in Middle East studies and beyond. While welcoming steps to root out anti-Semitism and all forms of racism from university campuses, the association came to the conclusion that this particular definition would have a detrimental impact on researchers and students.
After tracking the use of the IHRA definition in different contexts in the UK, it concluded that it was being deployed “to use the false charge of anti-Semitism to silence and delegitimise those who support Palestinian rights”. The anti-racist working groups within universities with whom it had consulted were all vehemently against adopting the IHRA definition.
The statement ended by urging universities “to protect academic freedom, to defend their autonomy against the government’s pressure to adopt the IHRA definition, and to retract the definition” where it had been adopted.
Another call on universities to resist the government’s attempt to impose the IHRA definition came from an unexpected source: British academics who are also Israeli citizens. I am a member of this group, brought together by outrage at Williamson’s rude and crude intervention. It came as a surprise to discover that there are so many of us but, on the issue of his threat, we were all on the same page, regardless of our diverse academic disciplines, ages, statuses and political affiliations.
Attacking free speech
Our demarche took the form of a long letter sent in the last week of January to all vice chancellors of English universities and many academic senates. Since then, our letter has been signed by an impressive list of 110 supporters, all Israeli academics outside the UK, including many from Israel.
We tried to reach a wider public beyond the academy by publishing our letter in the mainstream media. Our request was either rejected or ignored by no less than 12 national newspapers and other media outlets. We were rather surprised and disappointed that not a single national paper saw fit to publish our letter or to report our initiative. But the letter was eventually published by the Jewish leftist online journal, Vashti.
The litany of rejections is in itself a comment on the reluctance of the mainstream media to give space to non-mainstream Jewish voices.
In our letter, we said: ‘Fighting anti-Semitism in all its forms is an absolute must. Yet the IHRA document is inherently flawed, and in ways that undermine this fight. In addition, it threatens free speech and academic freedom and constitutes an attack both on the Palestinian right to self-determination, and the struggle to democratise Israel.’
We also pointed out that the government’s pressure on higher education institutions to adopt a definition for only one sort of racism singles out people of Jewish descent as deserving greater protection than others who today endure equal or more grievous manifestations of racism and discrimination.
Step in the wrong direction
We took strong exception to some of the ‘illustrations’ of the IHRA document. Surely, we argued, it should be legitimate, not least in a university setting, to debate whether Israel, as a self-proclaimed Jewish state, is ‘a racist endeavour’ or a ‘democratic nation’. We found it alarming that the document was being used to frame as antisemitic the struggle against Israel’s occupation and dispossession. No state should be shielded from such legitimate scholarly discussion, we opined, and nor should Israel.
Our letter went on to say that ‘as Israeli citizens settled in the UK, many of us of Jewish descent … we demand that our voice, too, be heard: the IHRA document is a step in the wrong direction. It singles out the persecution of Jews; it inhibits free speech and academic freedom; it deprives Palestinians of a legitimate voice within the UK public space; and, finally, it inhibits us, as Israeli nationals, from exercising our democratic right to challenge our government”.
In conclusion, we joined in the demand that UK universities remain firm in their commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech. We urged UK universities to continue their fight against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. We repeated that the flawed IHRA document does a disservice to these goals.
We therefore called on all academic senates in England to reject the governmental diktat to adopt it, or, where adopted already, to act to revoke it. A copy of our letter was sent to the secretary of state for education but, so far, we have not heard back from him. It would seem that all the protests about his letter are, for Mr. Williamson, like water off a duck’s back.
The case of Ken Loach
A recent episode at Oxford highlighted the problematic implications of adopting or even semi-adopting the IHRA definition. Ken Loach – the multi-award-winning British filmmaker, lifelong anti-racist and social campaigner – was invited by his old Oxford college to a discussion that had nothing to do with Jews or Israel. This was advertised as a joint event between Torch, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and St Peter’s College.
Loach was billed to discuss his filmmaking career with the master of St Peter’s College, Judith Buchanan, who is also a professor of literature and film. The event was part of a broader university humanities cultural programme that fosters debate between artists and academics.
What followed was a well-orchestrated campaign of character assassination against a man who had spent his life championing the victims of oppression and discrimination, including Palestinians. Buchanan was bombarded with messages demanding she cancel the event.
The Oxford University Jewish Society said it was deeply disappointed by the decision to host the event because ‘on numerous occasions, Loach has made remarks that are antisemitic under the IHRA definition, which was recently adopted by the University of Oxford’.
Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to Buchanan, describing the decision to invite Loach to speak at her college as ‘entirely unacceptable‘, and called for the event to be cancelled. She added that the board had been in touch with Jewish students at Oxford and ‘wholeheartedly support their condemnation of the event’. The categorical conclusion was: ‘This event should not take place.’
The Union of Jewish Students, a national organisation that represents around 8,500 students, piled on the pressure. ‘Just last summer’, it tweeted, ‘the University of Oxford stated they were committed to addressing systemic racism wherever it may be found, including within their own community. We do not see how this event can be reconciled with that statement. It is an outrage that St Peter’s College has ignored the concerns of its Jewish students and we urge Judith Buchanan, Master of St Peter’s College, to remove this speaker from the event. UJS are offering support to the Jewish Society.’
Buchanan and Torch stood firm against the combined pressure from all Jewish quarters, and the event went ahead as planned. It was also streamed live on YouTube. The discussion was moderated by Professor Wes Williams, the director of Torch.
In my inexpert opinion, it was a wonderful cultural event, a model of its kind. Loach showed clips from his films The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) about Ireland in the early 20th century and I, Daniel Blake (2016) about the inhumanity of the social benefits system.
Loach talked about his films, and the worldview that informs them, eloquently and movingly in the discussion with Buchanan. There was no mention of Israel or Palestinians. After the webinar, Buchanan referred to the controversy surrounding it and stressed that neither the college nor the university believe in no-platforming. In an email, however, she apologised to Jewish students for the ‘hurt’ caused by the row over the event.
The day after the event took place, on 9 February, the student union of Wadham College held a meeting regarding St Peter’s College and Loach. It is unusual for the students of one college to criticise the conduct of another college, but the Jewish students at Wadham evidently felt strongly about this issue.
The motion before the meeting went into great detail about comments made by Loach on different occasions that were considered to be antisemitic and complicit in Holocaust denial. The document generated more heat and venom; it was essentially a rehash of old allegations that had been comprehensively refuted in the past. The motion was to formally condemn Buchanan and St Peter’s College in poorly handling the concerns of Jewish students. The censure motion was passed with 150 votes for, 14 against and four abstentions.
Loach told the Telegraph, which reported on the controversy: ‘These recycled accusations are false and based on persistent misrepresentation and distortion.’ The embattled filmmaker’s friends rallied to his defence. Some were members of Jewish Voice for Labour, which in the past had defended Corbyn against false charges of anti-Semitism.
At their request, I sent a statement to be read at the student union’s meeting at Wadham College. It read: ‘I deeply regret the attack by Wadham College students on Ken Loach. He has a strong and consistent record of opposing racism of every kind, including anti-Semitism. He is anti-Zionist but in no way antisemitic.
‘He is charged with having made comments that are antisemitic under the IHRA definition. But that definition is utterly flawed. Its real purpose is to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism in order to suppress legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies. anti-Semitism is hostility towards Jews because they are Jews.
“Under this proper definition Ken Loach is completely innocent. He is also an admirable person, a champion of social justice, and an outstanding artist. The attack on him undermines freedom of speech and that has no place in an academic institution. I therefore urge the students of Wadham College to stop their vilification of Ken Loach and to accord to him the respect that he so richly deserves.’
The Loach affair vividly demonstrates the damage that the IHRA document can do to free speech on campus. The document was used to smear a prominent left-wing critic of Israel and a defender of Palestinian rights, and to try to deny him a platform.
The attempt at no-platforming ultimately failed, but it caused totally unwarranted pain to the artist, placed the master of his old college in an extremely awkward position, stirred up a great deal of ill-feeling on both sides of the argument, wasted a great deal of time and energy that could have been put to better use, and, worst of all, in my humble opinion, was completely unnecessary, unjustified and unproductive. All it did was sour the atmosphere around an imaginative cultural event.
Are there any lessons to be learned from this sad episode in relation to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism? First and foremost, it must be emphasised that anti-Semitism is not a fiction, as some people claim. It is a real problem at all levels of our society, including university campuses, and it needs to be confronted robustly wherever it rears its ugly head.
Secondly, it would be quite wrong to suggest that Jewish students who protest about anti-Semitism are inventing or exaggerating their feeling of hurt. Jewish students genuinely feel vulnerable and have a real need for protection by university authorities against any manifestation of bigotry, harassment or discrimination.
The real question is this: does the IHRA definition provide that protection? If the Loach affair is anything to go by, it most certainly does not.
In the first place, the definition is implicitly premised on Jewish exceptionalism – on the notion that Jews are a special case and must be treated as such. This gets in the way of solidarity and cooperation with other groups who are also susceptible to racial prejudice, such as Arabs and Muslims. To be effective, the fight against racism needs to take place across the board and not in isolated corners.
Another serious flaw of the IHRA definition is that, as I and many others have argued, so many of its examples are not about Jews, but about the State of Israel. As a result, it comes across as more concerned with the protection of Israel than the protection of Jews.
It is true that for many Jewish-British students, Israel forms a vital component of their identity. It is unhelpful, however, to let Israel feature so prominently in the analysis of anti-Semitism. Israel is a controversial country whose democratic institutions are being constantly eroded, and whose oppression of Palestinians attracts ever-increasing international censure – and, most recently, a ruling that paves the way for an investigation of war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Despite its claim to the contrary, Israel does not represent all Jews globally, but only its own citizens, a fifth of whom are Palestinian.
British Jews are not collectively responsible for Israel’s conduct, but the IHRA definition implicates them in Israel’s affairs, and encourages them to target anyone they consider to be an enemy of the Jewish state.
Furthermore, it bears repeating that criticisms of Israel are not necessarily antisemitic. The IHRA definition blurs the line between legitimate and illegitimate criticism. Nor does it protect Jewish students specifically; by aligning them too closely with Israel, it does the exact opposite. In the long term, therefore, it does not serve the interests of Jewish students.
No definition needed
The question arises, finally: do we need a definition of anti-Semitism at all? My own view is that we do not. The very term “antisemitic” is problematic because Arabs are Semites too. I prefer the term “anti-Jewish racism”. What we need is a code of conduct to protect all minority groups, including Jews, against discrimination and harassment while protecting freedom of speech for all members of universities.
The universal right to freedom of expression is already embodied in UK law by the Human Rights Act of 1998, which prohibits public authorities from acting in a way that is incompatible with that right. Specific protection for freedom of expression in universities is provided by the 1986 Education Act.
We do not therefore need any more legislation; all we need is common sense and honesty in applying the existing legislation. If a person attacks Israel, we should not ask whether the attack is antisemitic or not. And we should certainly not have to ask whether their statement falls foul of any of the seven Israel-focused IHRA illustrations of what might constitute anti-Semitism.
We should simply ask whether what they say about Israel is true or false. If true, the charge should be investigated further to ascertain whether the motive behind it is hostility or prejudice towards Jews and, if it is, appropriate action should be taken. And if the charge is false, it would be futile to speculate about the motives behind it. The debate about both anti-Jewish racism and Israel should be based on evidence, not on political or sectarian affiliations.
The essential point is that universities in the UK must have the autonomy to oversee and regulate all activities on their campuses, according to their own circumstances, free from external interference. Protecting freedom of speech on campuses is both a moral obligation and a legal duty.
The IHRA definition conflicts directly with this duty. I am old-fashioned enough to warm to the idea that a university is a pile of books and a community of scholars. In my kind of university, there is no room for colonial-style autocrats such as Williamson and his ilk.