Racism and antisemitism: examples and words matter
It’s been a long, hot summer for the Labour Party in England as it struggled with allegations of antisemitism. The source of the problem was its reluctance to adopt examples of antisemitism contained in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition.
The reason for its reluctance was lest it impeded its freedom to criticise Israeli policy on Palestine. The problem is familiar when the right of free speech and the right to freedom from hateful discrimination clash. A similar problem came to the fore recently in Cyprus after publication of a voluntary glossary for journalists proposed by the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe.
It was condemned by some Greek Cypriot journalists as contrary to free speech and a rewriting of history. But all it did was to identify a number of words that cause offence and suggest alternatives more conducive to improving community relations.
Decorum and civilised discourse are not inconsistent with freedom of speech. Besides freedom of expression is a qualified right: as a judge once remarked ‘you are not free to shout fire in a crowded theatre unless there is a fire.’
Anyway under human rights law a voluntary glossary of words for journalists cannot amount to an interference with the right of freedom of expression because journalists remain free not to adopt the alternatives proposed in the glossary.
The debate on antisemitism in the Labour Party was also about a voluntary glossary – this time of examples identified by the Holocaust Alliance as antisemitic. The clash was between freedom to criticise Israeli policy on Palestine on the one hand and antisemitism on the other. During the debate the Labour leader was branded a racist antisemite by the Israeli government and some members of the Jewish community, while people in-the-know have a diametrically opposite opinion of him. Jeremy Corbyn spent all his political life fighting racism and, with every respect to the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sachs, does not have an antisemitic bone in his body.
Antisemitism is defined as ‘a certain perception of Jews expressed as hatred toward Jews’ and includes the ‘targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity’.