Why Britain's Labour Party Is Agreeing To Adopt An International Definition Of Anti-Semitism

Sep 4, 2018
Originally published on September 4, 2018 5:17 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, a development in an issue that's been in the headlines of the British press all summer - Jewish leaders there have accused the opposition Labour Party of harboring anti-Semitism within its ranks. Now, the party's leadership has agreed to adopt an international definition of anti-Semitism after months of internal struggle. To explain the significance of today's action, we're joined by NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Hey there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So how did a definition of anti-Semitism blow up in British politics?

LANGFITT: Well, the Labour Party was hesitating to endorse the definition. But the real sticking point was examples of what you can't say. So, for instance, the definition sort of said you couldn't say that Israel was a racist endeavor, and this could have been used - can be used to punish Labour Party members who say things that violate the definition. Now, Labour leaders, they were especially worried that this could curtail legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. And in some ways, the bigger picture here is this was pitting a fear of racist rhetoric against concerns about, you know, curtailing free speech.

CORNISH: And first some background here, we know that hate speech laws in the U.K. differ from the U.S., right?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. One of the things is according to The Times newspaper, police here are actually looking at some alleged cases in the Labour Party to see if they violate hate speech laws.

CORNISH: So why have Jewish leaders focused their attacks on the leader of the party, Jeremy Corbyn?

LANGFITT: Well, they say under Corbyn that Labour hasn't cracked down on online anti-Semitism. In the party, he's also, they say, shared public platforms with anti-Semites. There's a lot of examples of that - or some examples of that. And Corbyn, though, I should say, has repeatedly said there's no place for anti-Semitism in the party. He admits it's a problem. But many Jewish groups are also uncomfortable with him because he's long supported the Palestinian cause. Now, there were three leading Jewish newspapers. This was back in July. They said a Corbyn-led government posed an existential threat to Jews here in the United Kingdom. And in some, you basically had Jewish leaders going to war this summer against a man that they're afraid is going to end up in 10 Downing Street.

CORNISH: So what's their reaction now after Labour's taken action?

LANGFITT: Well, there's some people who are glad to see Labour accepting the definition, but others are disappointed. And the reason is there's this caveat. Labour has said that the definition would not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians. Now, one Jewish leader called this free speech clause a right to be racist protection. And earlier this afternoon, I was talking to Daniel Sugarman. He's a reporter with The Jewish Chronicle here, and here's how he put it.

DANIEL SUGARMAN: The Jewish community will not be satisfied. The Jewish community will believe that once again the Labour Party has gone about this in bad faith.

CORNISH: Frank, while the Labour Party has been tangled up in this debate, you have Prime Minister Theresa May dealing with Brexit, dealing with basically an open revolt of senior members in her ruling Conservative Party. Has this hurt Labour's ability to be effective as opposition?

LANGFITT: Well, I don't think you've seen much of a fall in the poll for Labour, so I don't think that it's yet resonating among the populace, but it's definitely seen as a lost opportunity. This would have been a great time this summer to offer an alternative to the Conservative Party as they flail about on Brexit. And, you know, Labour had been surging earlier. It had done much better last summer in an election. And so, yeah, this was a really good chance to score some points and also grab the attention of voters.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks for explaining it.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.