An Illinois congressional district leans so heavily Democratic that no serious figures contested the Republican nomination for this fall’s midterm elections. As a result, an avowed Nazi has become the official Republican standard bearer in the suburban Chicago area.
The issue is not that he stands a hope of winning. He doesn’t. The critical test is the degree of unanimity with which the mainstream body politic of the United States comes together to condemn the candidate and reject the normalization of his positions. So far, results are tepid.
Some GOP figures are advising voters not to cast a ballot in the race, which seems like bad advice in a democracy. Others are saying, simply, “Don’t vote for the Nazi,” without suggesting voters support the Democrat. When asked if he was urging Republicans to support the Democrat in the district, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner simply said, “No.”
We have been seeing far too many examples of Americans putting party over country and humanity recently. President Donald Trump has been able to get away with his worst excesses only through the support of a Republican Congress.
Nevertheless, for whatever limits partisanship puts on bulwarks to bad things, most Americans agree Nazism is bad and should be condemned.
A more ambivalent reaction is taking place in the United Kingdom. The British Labour party has been embroiled for some time in a very serious internal conflict around antisemitism. Senior party figures, including MPs, have uttered (or expressed on social media) things that any “woke” person would recognize as founded on antisemitic premises. In some cases – including in a “closed” Facebook discussion group of which party leader Jeremy Corbyn was a part – the most medieval and unequivocal stereotypes, accusations, conspiracies and Jew-hatred have gone unchallenged.
Members of the party have been kicked out after being subjected to internal party investigations for antisemitic rhetoric. But some have been allowed back in and others have been let off without any censure, even after expressing what the most casual observers would recognize as unacceptable attitudes toward a minority group.
A reckoning has been coming. So, in an effort to set some ground rules, a party committee adopted a definition of antisemitism last week that will serve as the measuring stick in upcoming investigations around whether party figures have or have not engaged in antisemitic rhetoric or behaviour.
The party based their new rules on the standards created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) – criteria that have attained a degree of consensus as perhaps the most conclusive definition we can hope to develop for something as amorphous as antisemitism. The guidelines have been adopted by governments and quasi-governmental agencies worldwide, including Britain’s, but the Labour party thought the guidelines could use some improvements – and so they made their own tidy edits.
The Labour party’s red pen took out references that assign antisemitic intent to the equation of Zionism with Nazism. They deleted the parts where the IHRA says that antisemitism includes accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country. Under the new Labour party rules, it’s OK to say that Israel’s very existence is racist. Holding Israel to a higher standard than any other countries is also fine with the party.
In short, the Labour party retrofitted the definition of antisemitism to comport with the attitudes and actions of their members, instead of forcing their members to adhere to international standards that reject antisemitism.
The new rules also put the onus on the victims to prove intent, which is almost unprovable. In effect, a Labour member can say whatever they wish – “ZioNazi” is a favourite, it seems – as long as they declare that their intent was not antisemitic. For whatever else this represents, it is a betrayal of a core tenet of the global progressive movement: that those who experience discrimination are the ones who get to define it.
As disturbing as the antisemitism crisis in U.K. Labour is – especially as Theresa May’s Conservative cabinet is imploding and a new election could come any day – it is an important moment for addressing left-wing antisemitism throughout the West.
It is one of the first formal, structured discussions we have seen in Western countries around the issue of defining, identifying and censuring antisemitism within mainstream political discourse. It is not a good thing that it is necessary, but it is good that the necessary discussion is taking place.
Of course, this could go (at least) two ways. Labour could experience a backlash over their efforts to redefine antisemitism to their political benefit, realize that they are far outside acceptable discourse and undertake a genuine correction. Alternatively, they could stick with their highly problematic definition of antisemitism, leave their substantial problem of institutional anti-Jewish bias in place and still win the next U.K election. In which case, they will have moved the goalposts of acceptable discourse in dangerous new directions, with implications that go far beyond Britain.