Jonathan Arkush’s comments in his interview with The Daily Telegraph that conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism are deeply concerning. This conflation undermines both the cause of justice for the Palestinian people and the fight against anti-Semitism in which all should be engaged.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign has always made clear that our work is grounded in the principle that Palestinians and Israelis should enjoy equal rights. We call for the end of the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza; for recognition of the right of return of Palestinian refugees expelled or forced to flee from their homes in 1948 and 1967; and for Palestinian citizens of Israel to enjoy equal rights under the law. These demands are in line with the requirements of international law, with democratic principles and human rights conventions. To describe such demands as anti-Semitic degrades democratic discourse and undermines the fight against racism which at the heart of PSC’s work.

Mr Arkush’s comments are made in the context of a wider campaign to redefine anti-Semitism such that it would prevent legitimate criticism of Israel; a campaign in which the Board of Deputies has played a key role. At the heart of this campaign is an attempt to ensure widespread adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, including the guidance document which accompanies the 38-word text of the definition.

In March of this year, the Israel Britain Alliance submitted a petition to Downing St, accompanied by MP’s from the  DUP, Conservative Party, and Joan Ryan MP (Chair of Labour Friends of Israel), calling for the government to introduce legislation that would prevent Israel being described as an apartheid state.

The Board’s argument, which underpins the comments made by Mr Arkush, is that describing Israel in this way contravenes the IHRA definition and is therefore inherently anti-Semitic. The IHRA definition has been similarly cited to make the claim that any call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel is inherently anti-Semitic.

PSC welcomes the fact that the Labour Party has moved quickly to condemn Mr Arkush’s comments. We would urge all political parties to also make it clear that they recognise the need to stand firm against anti-Semitism and in support of the rights of the Palestinian people. We further urge them to resist any attempt to suggest there is a contradiction between these two imperatives.

Ben Jamal, Director of PSC, said:

“Jonathan Arkush’s comments reflect the ongoing attempts by the Board of Deputies and other groups to conflate legitimate criticism of the policies and actions of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism. This is extremely dangerous. It threatens freedom of expression and democratic discourse, undermines the Palestinian struggle for an end to oppression and for the enjoyment of equal rights, and also demeans the wider struggle against anti-Semitism and all forms of racism. All of those who care about human rights will distance themselves from his comments.”

ENDS

NOTES 

The IHRA document (comprising a 38-word definition and a two-page document of accompanying guidance) emerged in 2015 as a reworked version of a previously discredited working definition of anti-Semitism published by the European Union Monitoring Committee on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in 2005, but abandoned by its successor body, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), after the document came under heavy criticism. Criticism centred on the document’s attempt to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and the consequent risk to freedom of expression.

See here for academic articles from leading Jewish scholars of anti-Semitism criticising the document and the broader conflation of criticism of Israel or anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism:

https://www.thenation.com/article/myth-new-anti-semitism/

https://www.opendemocracy.net/mirrorracisms/antony-lerman/new-antisemitism

Since the document was resurrected by the IHRA in its new format there has been an extensive lobbying campaign to have it adopted across Europe.  See here for an analysis of how this campaign fits within the broader attempts by Israel and its allies to suppress BDS:

https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/ben-white/shifty-antisemitism-wars

In the UK, the Government adopted the document in December 2016 and since then pro-Israel groups have embarked on campaigns to compel public bodies to adopt the document. More worryingly, they have cited the document while lobbying to have events and meetings about Israel’s human rights violations cancelled.

The Labour Party has adopted the formal 38-word definition but not the problematic two-page guidance that cites examples of speech about Israel as examples of antisemitism. The Board of Deputies has been pressuring Jeremy Corbyn to adopt this guidance as well.

The IHRA definition has come under heavy criticism for its conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Israel and for its consequent threats to freedom of expression.

See here:

-Legal opinion from Hugh Tomlinson QC: http://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/ihra-opinion/#sthash.WQhhbtAL.dpbs

-The Institute for Race Relations submission to the Chakrabarti inquiry into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and their earlier response to Eric Pickles’ endorsement of the definition.

-Stephen Sedley, retired Court of Appeal Judge, writing in the London Review of Books: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n09/stephen-sedley/defining-anti-semitism