Many members of the Jewish community – both here in Aotearoa and abroad – are increasingly concerned about antisemitism manifesting in the global anti-Israel movement. Increasingly, however, they are finding their efforts to bring attention to bigotry and bias frustrated by ‘progressive’ politicians who seem prepared to completely contradict many of their stated positions in order to normalise harmful anti-Jewish rhetoric.
On the 25th of February an attempt to get Wellington City Council (WCC) to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism was pulled by its sponsors after concerted pushback from opponents. These included the anti-Israel group, Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa (PSNA), chaired by veteran activist John Minto, who voiced concerns about the chilling effect the IHRA definition might have on debate around the Israel/Palestine conflict.
The IHRA definition – as the name suggests – is a guideline for identifying antisemitism as it manifests in a contemporary context. It is not legally binding and was viewed primarily as an educational tool by many local Jewish organisations. The hope was it would go some way to dealing with the frustration of antisemitism not being taken seriously in NZ, especially by the media (which has traditionally played dumb on antisemitism on the far-Left) and within current Labour coalition partner, NZ Greens. Jews are commonly met with resistance when trying to articulate antisemitism, while most other groups are taken at their word on matters concerning racism.
As explained on the IHRA website:
IHRA experts determined that in order to begin to address the problem of antisemitism, there must be clarity about what antisemitism is.
Kenneth Stern, one of the IHRA definitions original researchers wrote a piece in the Guardian expressing alarm at attempts to use the definition to silence discourse, adding that the definition’s original purpose was to help collect data on anti-Jewish sentiment. It may be fairer to say that having a working definition is not a threat so much as hate speech laws that might rely on it. In 2016 then UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the Government believed that while the definition was “legally non-binding” it was nevertheless an “important tool” for criminal justice agencies and other public bodies. As Government policy, it would be for those bodies “to implement the definition and embed it within operational guidance as relevant”.
My personal view is that the definition could easily prove as divisive as legally binding speech restrictions promise to be with their validity a constant focus of debate whenever a high-profile individual is pinged. A consensus on what constitutes antisemitism would emerge out of a fair media prepared to criticise the spectrum of offenders – but few journalists seem prepared to go after politicians they vote for. And, for Jewish organisations, a tendency to handle antisemitism in Left-wing parties internally while making a meal out of transgressors on the Right has – as this episode demonstrates – proved unrewarding.
Yet, despite their withdrawal, the IHRA definition has done us a service by exposing the rank hypocrisy of their prominent New Zealand opponents.
It should surprise absolutely no one that John Minto and the group he is associated with would have opposed the IHRA definition. His group is antisemitic. Recently the group’s Secretary was exposed for his Twitter activities that included accusing a local Jew of being a spy, Jews being the puppet masters of the National Party and suggesting “questions needed to be asked” regarding Jewish involvement in 9/11. When confronted with his Secretary’s conduct Minto outright dismissed any accusation of racism and even suggested to say so was a cynical attempt to cover Israeli crimes. It’s worth noting that many on the far-Left consider the IHRA definition to have played a role in harming UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who they view as a victim of a Jewish conspiracy.
Labour MP for Christchurch Central, Dr. Duncan Webb, presents a more curious case. His stand against adopting the definition was boasted of on antisemitic group Kia Ora Gaza‘s website. Webb, too, voiced concerns for free speech when opposing the WCC adoption of the IHRA working definition, despite his ruling Labour party about to bring in new hate speech laws and after having personally endorsed the criminalisation of speech himself.
Dr. Webb urged a broader resolution against bigotry that would “extend to all religions including Islamophobia.” Webb essentially made an “#AllLivesMatter” argument that is normally outright rejected by the contemporary Left as being dismissive of specific forms of racism and a ploy to undermine minority voices. Again, it seems, for Jews, different rules apply.
Dr. Webb has long flirted with antisemitic tropes. He wrongly stated that it has been made illegal in the US to call for boycotts of Israel because of a “strong Zionist Jewish lobby” – a conspiratorial trope about Jews controlling the government (which breaches the IHRA definition he now rails against). Dr. Webb has on many occasions voiced his support for boycotts of Israel and the BDS campaign – a movement completely uncritical of terror and Arab intransigence and fundamentally against the continuation of a Jewish state. The German government has recognised the boycotts against Israel as being similar to Nazi boycotts of Jews and in Austria – the birthplace of Hitler – the government has unanimously agreed that BDS is antisemitic. Yet Dr. Webb still has no qualms promoting the campaign. In fact, in his letter sent to the Wellington City Council, protecting such boycotts from criticism was a chief motivating factor for him.
As troubling is what Webb’s actions here, as a representative for the New Zealand Labour party, say about their underlying attitude to proposed speech restrictions and racism more generally.
Who and what the state excludes from its eventual hate speech laws will signal to the wider public what is fair game. The intervention of the likes of Webb may end up actually empowering the racists the New Zealand Jewish community is most concerned about; peddlers of neo-Nazi tropes like the PSNA Secretary who claimed a victory on Twitter after the IHRA definition was withdrawn.
Dr. Webb has openly supported the government’s new hate speech laws, yet presented as a free speech champion when it looked like his pet cause – obsession some may say – could suddenly attract him much more personal scrutiny. This demonstrates not only the inherent corruption of speech restrictions – with their inevitable violation of equality – in action but also how when it comes to Israel and other Jewish concerns specifically, different rules seem to apply.
Dane Giraud is a comedy writer, a Spokesperson for the Free Speech Coalition and a member of the New Zealand Jewish Community.