Simon Johnson: Tackling Racism

Over the Summer, and since June 2019, I have spent a fair amount of time with leaders of Jewish communities and senior representatives of Jewish communal organisations from around the world.

There had been one topic that has been at the forefront of their mind- antisemitism.  And this global focus amongst jewish communal leaders on the topic is leading to a slight policy difference with us in the UK; which is ironic, since the high profile focus on anti-Jewish racism in the Labour Party here in the UK is one of the factors that is cited for an increasingly hard line approach on the issue coming out of the United States community and Israel.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the outgoing Executive Vice President of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations,  made a speech at a gathering of jewish communal leaders in Israel in June in which he described there being a “global war against the Jews”. For him, from his vantage point, the stakes were that high. Of course, he is able to take a much more global view of the threats around the world than we do in the UK, looking parochially at our own issues. But even we, as leaders of Jewish communal organisations in the UK, with all the threats that we are familiar with- including record numbers of reported antisemitic incidents and our main Opposition Party under investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission- would not describe what we face in the UK in such bellicose terms. Perhaps it is our typical English reserve and stiff upper lip attitude, but we have sought frequently not to use alarmist language in confronting the challenges that we face.

The United States Government has begun to make policy interventions in this area. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has stated that it is US Government policy than anti-Zionism is the same as antisemitism.

He has reinstated and reinvigorated the position of U.S. Government Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism and appointed Elan Carr to this position. Mr Carr has been active and visible, and I have met him and heard him speak in Israel and the UK. He has travelled to many countries around the world and is able to use his office to bring US Government pressure on Governments and institutions where there is antisemitism. And he has been very keen to emphasise the U.S. Government’s position that anti-Zionism is the same as antisemitism.

The Israeli Government, and especially the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the department charged with countering the delegitimisation of Israel, has made great play of the decision taken in the German Parliament to rule that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (BDS) is equal to antisemitism.

U.S Communal organisations and think tanks have been enthusiastic to meet with my Chair at the JLC and to hear about the specific problems that we are dealing with in the UK. It is part of their process of understanding the threats that we face and seeing it as part of a global threat against the Jews.

The Winner of the Genesis Prize, the U.S. Philanthropist, businessman and sports club owner Robert Kraft, has used his prize money to establish a Foundation to Combat Antisemitism.

It does seem that there is increased focus on the problem.

The US and Israeli approach is different to the approach that we have adopted in the UK. We have tried consistently to be measured and balanced in our description of the impact of the challenges that we face. We emphasise that the UK remains a great country in which to be Jewish and that placing the anti-Jewish racism that we see in its proper context.

There is also a policy difference which is emerging. We have not advocated that either anti-Zionism or BDS are equivalent to antisemitism. We have found that approach to be counter productive in our dealings with civil society so far.

Our preferred approach, and I have been trying to advocate this approach to colleagues around the world, is to push for the widest possible adoption of the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism and to then hold that as the definitive way of determining if statements, actions and policies are antisemitic or not.

We have had some success with this and our model is one that we can be proud of. The IHRA definition is now adopted by all political parties, the Police, and CPS, by many trade unions, some universities and by over 180 Local Authorities. This means that we have the widest local municipal adoption of the IHRA definition in the world. This is a remarkable achievement. It focusses minds on the issue of anti-Jewish racism and sets clear and balanced boundaries for where language is antisemitic or not. We will be continuing this year to push for even wider adoption of the IHRA definition in Universities and the remaining trade unions and Local authorities.

We feel that the IHRA definition, with all of its examples, is the most useful tool to deal with anti-Zionism and BDS and to determine when it crosses the line into antisemitism. We feel that this is a smarter, more objective and acceptable way of confronting those who are anti-Zionist and who advocate for BDS. Our approach judges their actions, words and activities, rather than their beliefs. We feel that this is more effective and allows us to operate from “higher ground” by using and enforcing an internationally adopted and widely accepted definition.

In fact, my preference will be that the IHRA definition is widely adopted in the US in the same way that we have done so here. I recognise the challenge with this from the USA’s freedom of speech regime but I feel that our model of finding, widely adopting and enforcing an objective definition is an appropriate way to address the challenges that we face with anti-Jewish racism.

This difference of approach on a key area of policy for us is one that will be the subject of intense discussion amongst Jewish leaders in the months ahead.

May I also take this opportunity to wish you and your family a G’mar V’Chatima Tova and Shana Tova.