By the time the British Labour Party finally bowed to public pressure and adopted the full definition of antisemitism determined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance on Wednesday, the move was no longer meaningful. After a summer of insisting that it’s okay to say Zionism is Nazism and that Zionists have no sense of irony, no one is so deluded as to believe that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn or his supporters are anything but Jew-hating bigots.
The Labour leader made this point more or less explicitly when on Wednesday he tried to submit a “clarification” of the definition that was itself antisemitic.
Corbyn wanted to add a statement to the resolution that stated, among other things, “It cannot be considered racist to… describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
As Britain’s Jewish Leadership Council’s chief executive Simon Johnson said, Corbyn “attempted shamefully to undermine the entire IHRA definition.”
Corbyn’s caveat, Johnson noted “drives a coach and horses” through that definition.
As it stands, due to Corbyn’s protestations that antisemites must be free to state their views, Labour’s decision to adopt the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism was published with a caveat that the decision “will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of the Palestinians.”
In other words, the Labour Party simultaneously adopted and rejected the IHRA definition.
As bad as the situation in Britain’s Labour Party is today, in some ways, the emerging situation in the US is worse.
The Jews in Britain are fully awake to the dangers that Corbyn poses to Jewish life in the United Kingdom. Forty percent of British Jews told pollsters that they will consider emigrating if Corbyn is elected. The unwavering stand of the Jewish community against Corbyn has forced even far left media outlets like The Guardian to provide straight coverage of the issue.
The British media’s willingness to report fairly about the Labour Party’s endemic anti-Jewish bigotry in turn neutralizes pressure Conservatives might otherwise have felt to make their peace with Corbyn and legitimize his bigoted supporters.
In the US, the opposite phenomenon is occurring. Radical, anti-Israel and, at least in some cases, virulently anti-Jewish forces are rising in the Democratic Party.
In response to the victories of anti-Israel politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in the recent Democratic Congressional primaries – and the rising power of antisemitic activists led by Linda Sarsour and Louis Farrakhan in the party – moderate, traditionally pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers are cowering in fear. Rather than challenge their new colleagues’ racism, Jewish Democrats along with pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers are denying what is happening while watering down their own support for Israel in the hopes of appeasing the anti-Israel forces rising in their party.
AIPAC, which is supposedly the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US, has likewise opted to ignore this turn of events rather than fight it.
Rather than lobbying previously strong Democratic supporters of Israel to stick to their guns, AIPAC is facilitating their retreat.
AIPAC does this in order to maintain the increasingly fictional narrative that Israel enjoys bipartisan support in Congress. Rather than shepherd significant pro-Israel legislation through Congress, it is becoming AIPAC’s practice to gut Republican pro-Israel bills in order to win Democratic support. That is, AIPAC now appeals to the lowest common denominator of Congressional support for Israel.
For their part, rather than stand up to AIPAC and refuse to render their own legislative initiatives meaningless in the name of empty bipartisanship, key Republican lawmakers are going along with this exercise in deceit.
Consider the legislative drama unfolding regarding the AIPAC-led House draft of a bill that is supposed to fight anti-Israel and antisemitic moves by the European Union and the UN to impose anti-Jewish trade barriers on trade with Israel.
To understand the current state of affairs, it is necessary to understand the anti-boycott laws now in force.
In June 2015, South Carolina passed its historic anti-boycott law, banning the state from contracting with companies that boycott Israel. Twenty-four other states have since passed similar legislation. As Joseph Sabag from the Israel Allies Caucus in Washington explains, the sum total of the economic output of these US states has made the economic penalties significant for commercially discriminating against the Jewish state and Jews who operate within it.
Shortly after then South Carolina governor Nikki Haley signed the bill into law, Congress passed the Trade Promotion Authority. In a bid to respond to EU member states’ enactment of boycotts against Israeli firms, Congress approved an amendment to the TPA that instructed US trade negotiators engaged in free trade discussions with the European Union to make clear that “the principal negotiating objectives of the United States regarding commercial partnerships” include objectives to “discourage actions by potential trading partners that directly or indirectly prejudice or otherwise discourage commercial activity solely between the United States and Israel,” as well as “discourage politically motivated actions to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel and to seek the elimination of politically motivated non-tariff barriers on Israeli goods, services or other commerce imposed on the State of Israel.”
Under the amendment’s definitions, “Israel” was defined as all “Israeli controlled territory.”
This was necessary, says Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, who heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum, because the EU and the UN Human Rights Committee use boycotts against Jews operating in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem as a means of promoting direct boycotts against Israel and secondary boycotts against American and other firms that do business with Israel.
Last year, the UN Human Rights Committee voted to publish a “blacklist” of firms that do business in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. Without proper legal protection from Congress, major US firms will be forced to choose between selling their products to Israeli vendors – who in turn sell them countrywide without prejudice – and discriminating against Jews.
To protect US firms from the EU and UN Human Rights Committee’s anti-Jewish commercial practices, AIPAC initiated Congressional action to widen the 1979 Export Administration Act. The EAA bars US firms from participating in the Arab League boycott of Israel. The proposed amendment would expand the prohibition against participating in anti-Israel commercial boycotts from state-sponsored boycotts, to boycotts promoted by international organizations, including the UN and the EU.
The AIPAC-sponsored amendment of the EAA was submitted in identical draft versions to the House and Senate early last year. It referred to the TPA’s definition of “Israel” to ensure that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria – the ostensible target of the UN blacklist – would be shielded, so all Israelis and Israeli communities would be protected.
Shortly after the bill was submitted to the relevant committees, the American Civil Liberties Union swung into action. Like Corbyn and his supporters, the ACLU argued – obscenely – that a bill that sought to bar discrimination against US manufacturers for doing business with Jews by virtue of their location is a violation of free speech. Rather than reject the ACLU’s contention – as British Jewry has rejected Corbyn’s – Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Elliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, folded. Gillibrand ended her support for the measure.
Engel and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce told AIPAC that they would have to amend the bill to retain Democratic support. And so a long process of watering down the amendment began.
The version of the bill that AIPAC shepherded through the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and is priming for a vote before the full House, no longer contains a reference to the TPA’s definition of Israel as including “Israeli-controlled territory.” Instead, the bill leaves it to the Department of Commerce to decide what “Israel” includes.
As Kontorovich explains, the House version is not simply worthless; it is counterproductive.
The approved draft lowers the bar for how the US fights anti-Israel boycotts. Without the amendment, under existing federal law, the definition of boycotting Israel includes boycotting Jews in communities in Judea and Samaria and in unified Jerusalem. By removing that stipulation, the amendment that was passed through the House Foreign Affairs Committee implicitly endorses boycotting Jews based on where they are located.
The approved amendment also sets a low bar for future pro-Israel anti-boycott legislation. If this watered down, counterproductive measure is all that a Republican controlled House and Senate with a Republican White House can pass, what sort of legislation could a Democrat-controlled Congress be expected to approve? In other words, the amended bill gives license to a future Democratic Congress to abandon pro-Israel legislation altogether.
Moreover, as a practical matter, removing the regulatory authority for fighting anti-Israel boycotts from Congress and transferring it to the Commerce Department ensures that there will be a long period during which the law is not enforced. The Commerce Department routinely takes years to determine and publish relevant regulations. And even if the Trump administration defines Israel as the TPA does, future policy on anti-Israel boycotts will be subject to the whims of whomever occupies the White House.
In short, the version of the AIPAC-sponsored anti-BDS bill that is set to be voted on before the full House of Representatives does more to legitimize UN and European Union efforts to economically discriminate against Jews in Israel than it does to counter them. AIPAC and AIPAC-supported Republicans like Rep. Royce opted to gut the bill in order to retain the support of Democratic legislators who have been cowed into ending their substantive protection of Israel by the rising forces in their party that are hostile to Israel.
This dire situation – which foretells a future where, in the interest of preserving the fiction of bipartisan support for Israel, all pro-Israel bills are gutted to secure the support of the lowest-common denominator of pro-Israel sentiment among the Democrats – can be reversed.
The Senate version of the bill is the original version of the legislation. It is the version of the bill that should be adopted into law. Republicans in the full House can refuse to approve the Foreign Affairs Committee’s bill and wait instead to pass the Senate version.
Looking ahead, Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate need to stop agreeing to water down their initiatives to secure support from their Democratic colleagues who have been cowed into paralysis by the rising anti-Israel forces in their party. After all, if the Democrats retake control of the House in November, they will not lift a finger to secure Republican votes.
AIPAC may have made perpetuating the myth of strong bipartisan support for Israel its cri de couer. But Republicans, who are truly pro-Israel, have no reason to join them.