Sometimes you need to read paragraph 34: Geoffrey Robertson’s legal opinion on defining antisemitism

I was one of the Liberal Democrat Federal Board (FB) members who requested that yesterday we debate adopting the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, including the worked examples, for use in the party’s disciplinary processes. We voted to adopt it.

My reasoning for asking for the debate was fairly straightforward. Although parts of the party had previously adopted this definition, other parts had not (yet) decided on whether or not to use this definition. Agreeing to have one standard definition for use across the party seemed a sensible way of preventing future problems – such as the nightmare situation of different parts of the party using different definitions whilst dealing with the same incident. It’s also almost always a better way of making decisions to do so without a particular case immediately in front of you as that can greatly distort and distract from what the overall policy should be.

Ahead of the meeting, to prep myself for our discussion, I spent some time reading different documents, including those cited as evidence (either in the context of the Lib Dems or of other parties) against adopting the IHRA definition.

Which is why I read Geoffrey Robertson’s recent legal opinion. It’s been cited by people arguing that political parties should not adopt the IHRA for use in their own disciplinary processes.

Hence my surprise when I got to paragraph 34.┬áHe actually wrote, “There can be no objection…” to a political party using it in their disciplinary processes. That is a very different framing of the issue from the way his opinion often seems to be presented.

He goes on to say that he would prefer a broader definition, but again that is rather different from the framing of the issue as ‘the IHRA definition is too broad as it includes things that shouldn’t be in there, and look Geoffrey Roberston supports that view’.

Geoffrey Robertson opinion on IHRA definition

Councillors often joke about how they like reading the middle of long council paperwork as that is where officers place the most interesting, embarrassing or revelatory content. It is a joke with a large strain of truth, and one that applies more widely.

It’s easy to end up referring to documents that you do not read all the way through, and this can happen for all sorts of innocent and decent reasons. I am though puzzled by the number of people I’ve seen say things such as ‘you should read Geoffrey Robertson’s judgement’ when making a case that is the opposite of what he says in paragraph 34. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that at least some of those telling others to read it have not quite read it all themselves.

I’m also cautious about applying too much weight to one legal opinion alone, especially one which in its first version had a fair number of non-trivial factual errors. (Since corrected, to be fair.) But if you are going to put significant weight on Robertson’s views, then paragraph 34 is part of them too.

3 responses to “Sometimes you need to read paragraph 34: Geoffrey Robertson’s legal opinion on defining antisemitism”

  1. until various public faces ‘came out’ and declared that they are Jewish, I would not have known, how could I? why should I? So I can’t get my head around why people can have a dislike for them, let alone a hatred. A person’s ethnicity is a matter of fact; their birth and upbringing is down to their parents; their religion as an adult is a matter of choice.. We should all learn to cherish the richness in diversity, and our school system should have that at its core..
    But when one country bullies a weaker neighbour and takes its lands, then I do have an issue, especially when major powers stand by and let it happen, or worse support the bully.

    • Peter: antisemitism is a fact. That it is irrational and usually self-destructive, that it is based on false science and a distortion of religion, does not stop it happening. As for people “coming out”, is the wearing of a skull-cap or a big hat and dark overcoat or attendance at a synagogue or “looking Jewish” or having, in the UK, a German type surname, enough? It is for the anti-semites. I wonder, though, if the Federal Board has got this right. The IHRA definition seems to me wide open to classifying some legitimate criticism of Israel as anti-semitic.

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