Witch-hunt bang to rights
A damning report concludes that in every fully investigated case, charges of anti-Semitism were found to be baseless. Carla Roberts is not surprised
Considering that allegations of anti-Semitism continue apace, it is astonishing that a damning report produced by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies and the European Legal Support Centre (ELSC) should barely be mentioned in the mainstream media.1
The Guardian managed a short article2 on this scientifically conducted study, entitled The adverse impact of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which was published on September 13. It investigated all 40 academic cases where a student, member of staff or a student society was accused of having violated the so-called ‘Working definition of anti-Semitism’, promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.3
We know, of course, why the majority of the media will not bother too much about this report - it entirely repudiates the official narrative that anti-Semitism is a massive threat in and to society. The report also confirms that the IHRA neither has a ‘definition’ (it is far too vague for that) nor does it deal with ‘anti-Semitism’ (it mainly deals with criticism of Israel).
The joint study looks at all incidents, occurring between January 2017 and May 2022 in higher education, where “accusations of anti-Semitism were made on the basis of the IHRA definition”. In some cases, it was the accused who reached out to the ELSC or the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, “which then referred them to ELSC”. But the ELSC also examined cases highlighted in the press and on social media.
Of these 40 cases, two “have yet to be substantiated” and are ongoing. Out of the other 38 cases, five concerned events that were reported to the authorities for having ‘anti-Semitic’ titles or speakers. Almost all of them ended up being cancelled - or the speaker withdrew after the university demanded that they confirm beforehand that they would not breach the IHRA definition.
As for the other cases, nine were made against individual students and 24 against staff. While some of the accusations were dismissed straightaway by the university administration, most led to often lengthy investigations: “Of those cases in which investigations or disciplinary hearings occurred, they took several months, resulting in prolonged stress and anxiety.” And they all ended up finding that the student or staff member had “no case to answer”.
Although the report does not feature the original evidence (presumably for privacy reasons), we get the paraphrased gist of them in the attached appendix: ‘Table of evidence’. For example: “Complaint of alleged anti-Semitism for sharing a social media post mentioning that ‘the establishment of Israel was a racist endeavour’.”4
This provocative formulation (taken straight from the IHRA’s list of 11 examples) has got many a Labour Party member expelled. However, when a real disciplinary process is applied, the verdict is: “No case to answer”. This shows that, even though most universities have adopted the IHRA fake definition, it proves to be entirely inadequate as soon as it is put to the test.
It is also further proof, if any was needed, that the disciplinary process in the Labour Party is not worth the name. Most public higher-education institutions have the burden of proof and cannot simply expel or dismiss the accused. Also, students and particularly employees have access to appeals processes (for example, an employment tribunal). None of that exists in the Labour Party.
Sadly, Jeremy Corbyn made no attempt to repair the system - he actually made it worse by introducing fast-track expulsions and allowing the hounding of some of his most outspoken supporters, like Chris Williamson, Jackie Walker and Marc Wadsworth. His strategy of trying to appease the right allowed the witch-hunt, and particularly the anti-Semitism smear campaign, to go into overdrive.
Still, the best disciplinary process in the world cannot protect you from having your name dragged through the mud in newspapers or online, even if the allegations turn out to be baseless. The report is scathing. All these cases came surrounded in publicity, leaving reputations and careers of numerous students and academics seriously damaged.
The authors also note something we have frequently come across in the Labour Party:
Another common feature across several cases is the occurrence of significant levels of monitoring and surveillance of any publicly expressed analysis or opinion about Israel or Palestine. This includes recording student speeches, staff lectures and other presentations; monitoring student or staff social media posts (including the collection of social media posts several years after they were written); reviewing academic publications; and reviewing course syllabi and reading lists.
The implication is clear: these complaints were - in the vast majority - not made by this or that Jewish student who has been discriminated against, heard something anti-Semitic or experienced something even as vague as ‘feeling unsafe’. No, many complaints seem to be part and parcel of a concerted witch-hunt. Certain individuals and organisations have gone out of their way to dig up dirt and find something that could be misconstrued as anti-Semitic. The report gives an example that will sound familiar to many Labour activists:
In December 2020, an academic staff member teaching on the Middle East received a notification from their university management that a recent graduate, whom the academic had never taught, had submitted complaints for anti-Semitism against them and that an investigation had been opened. The complaints concerned more than 20 social media posts, some of which were posted by the academic, whilst others were merely shared or liked, dating from 2016 to 2020. The posts consisted of criticism of Zionism as a political ideology; a media article about the Nakba, and comments about the allegations of anti-Semitism made against members of the Labour Party. The complainant argued that the posts breached the IHRA definition.
The academic was cleared of all allegations, but not before being subjected to a lengthy disciplinary process. This caused a considerable amount of stress and represented a significant burden on the academic, who had to request legal advice. The university referred to the IHRA definition as part of their policies to include in the disciplinary proceedings.
It would have been interesting to see how many of these allegations came from the same source - after all, the 40 complaints were made in only 14 universities. Although these are not quite the same numbers we have seen in the Labour Party, where Margaret Hodge proudly stated that she alone had submitted 200 complaints (no doubt she researched each and everyone of them herself and therefore did not have time to check if they were even Labour members - 90% were not!).5
It’s Israel, stupid
The scope of the research does not allow the authors to explain the political reasons for this witch-hunt. Some more naive commentators presumed that, with the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn and the destruction of the ‘Corbyn movement’ (however flaky that was), the witch-hunt around Israel/Palestine would stop.
Perhaps that is why former Tory leadership wannabe Rory Stewart stated in an interview with the liberal Novara Media that he thought it was safe to discuss Corbyn: “I think it’s disgusting he was thrown out of the Labour party. I mean, it’s mad. Jeremy Corbyn, whatever you think of him, is a major figure who represents a very significant part of Labour history and heritage. He was the leader of the party.”6
Of course, all hell broke loose. After the Jewish Leadership Council called his comments “disgusting”, Stewart quickly tried to “clarify” - ie, grovellingly retract: “There was horrifying anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, I had friends who witnessed it directly and they expressed to me how disgusting it was. I absolutely believe it and it was a very good reason why people turned against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.”
Clearly, the campaign against Corbyn was just a smaller side show and an integral part of a much bigger picture. Israel remains a key ally of US imperialism in the Middle East. But, with the rise of the global Palestine solidarity movement and the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), it has become increasingly difficult to justify the massive ongoing financial, military and political support for a state that so very visibly, systematically and brutally oppresses the Palestinians. Claiming that anti-Semitism is a huge and growing problem globally allows the Zionist state to be painted as a besieged outpost - a bolthole in case of another holocaust.
The IHRA plays an important part of this, which is why it is still being forced through in town halls, political parties, national parliaments - and on campuses too. It allows charges of anti-Semitism (some real, but mostly not) to be instrumentalised and weaponised. As the report puts it,
The spate of allegations of anti-Semitism is damaging academic freedom, curtailing freedom of debate and discussion on campuses, leading to self-censorship among those who research and study Israel- Palestine, and, in some cases, harming personal and professional lives and livelihoods. In addition to these harms, it is likely that the IHRA definition and its use has a much wider chilling effect, causing others to avoid discussing issues related to Palestine, thereby acting as a form of self-censorship.
The authors are right to focus on the danger of self-censorship, which is a key aim of this campaign - much better to stop people from speaking out in solidarity with Palestine in the first place. The authors’ recommendation is clear: the IHRA should “not be adopted, implemented or promoted by any higher education institution. Where it has been adopted, the decision should be rescinded.”
But things are still going the other way, unfortunately. In 2017, there were only 18 out of 95 universities that had not yet adopted IHRA. Today, only 12 are still holding out, including SOAS and the University of Greenwich in London. That means that almost 90% of all UK universities have now adopted the IHRA ‘definition’.7 No doubt, this is down to political pressure - not least from the UK government, which has repeatedly threatened to withhold funding from those higher education bodies that refuse to adopt it. Although we have not heard of this actually being implemented, it will certainly have many university administrations shaking in their boots.
Miller et al
Incidentally, the study does not include the case of professor David Miller, who was sacked from his job at Bristol University in October 2021 after a campaign by the Israeli-funded Union of Jewish Students.8 Backed by a petition of over 100 parliamentarians, it was alleged that comments by Miller were “threatening the safety” of Jewish students on campus.9 However, the official reason for his dismissal is not anti-Semitism or contravening the IHRA, but that he “did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff”. He is taking the university to an employment tribunal and has already raised well over £30,000 towards his £50,000 target.10
I have many political differences with Miller, among them his dreadful statement that “Jews are overrepresented” in society11 and his ridiculous fondness for Brics countries like Iran and Russia, which he believes represent some kind of positive alternative to US hegemony and should therefore be supported by the left. But clearly Miller should not have been sacked. Neither should he be ‘cancelled’ or no-platformed, but in the name of free speech, openly criticised and debated with - particularly as so many share his deeply pessimistic, conspiratorial and anti-working class views. We cannot defeat wrong ideas by banning them or driving them underground. They will only fester.
So how to fight the witch-hunt? Ken Livingstone and Pam Bromley have given us a good example of how not to - appealing to a bourgeois court. Supported by Chris Williamson’s Legal Fund, they had sued the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) for their inclusion in its 2020 report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which stated that they had “contributed” to “unlawful harassment related to Jewish race and religion”. A politically motivated piece of fiction if ever there was.
The case has now been dropped, before it could go to trial. Both sides agreed to carry their own legal costs. In other words, Livingstone and Bromley withdrew their challenge, leaving the report unchanged and still publicly available online.12
Reading the Morning Star’s coverage of the case is like reading something straight out of Stalin’s playbook. An article about Livingstone and Bromley is given the title, ‘Important victory for Palestine campaigners’.13 The newspaper quotes from their statement, which declares rather bizarrely:
We believe that, deep down, the EHRC understands that its investigation was flawed and that it acted unlawfully. That’s probably why they were willing to settle the case without recovering a penny of their exorbitant costs.14
Deep down? Probably? This statement goes beyond wishful thinking.
The Jewish Chronicle puts another - diametrically opposed - spin on the story: ‘Livingstone withdraws legal challenge,’ runs the headline; and the article goes on to quote an EHRC spokesperson, who “welcomes the decision to withdraw this judicial review claim, with disappointment at the valuable time and resources that we have had to expend on defending it”. He also reminds us that “the report’s finding were accepted in full by the Labour Party”. Various Zionists are quoted, who are celebrating because “Livingstone folded” with “a bloody nose”. And it is hard to view this case any differently. Having spent over £35,000 in legal fees, it must have eventually dawned on Livingstone, Bromley and Williamson that this was not going to end in a victory - otherwise they would surely not have dropped their challenge.
That does not mean that the EHRC report was correct. Of course it was not. It was produced by underlings serving the wishes of a board appointed directly by the Tory government. It would have been a miracle if they had come up with anything other than their actual ‘findings’.
We still have the ongoing campaign by Jewish Voice for Labour crowdfunding for £15,000 to appeal - via their solicitors Blindmans LLP - to the EHRC to stop the Labour Party from unfairly mistreating its leftwing Jewish members - absurd.
It was no less absurd, though, for Livingstone and Bromley to believe that they would get ‘justice’ from a bourgeois court. Justice is not blind - it serves those with the deepest pockets: the EHRC had spent over £215,000 in legal fees already and could have easily spent three times as much.
Political questions have to be fought politically.
www.brismes.ac.uk/files/documents/Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom in UK Higher Education-BRISMES-ELSC.pdf.↩︎
‘Anti-Semitism of useful idiots’ Weekly Worker August 31: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1456/anti-semitism-of-useful-idiots.↩︎