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THE BigRide4Palestine is a charity bike ride which aims to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Now in its fifth year, it raises money for a children’s charity in Gaza. On the Big Ride’s website, they refer to the well-documented history of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israel. The ride has been supported by MPs and other public figures.
Therefore when the Big Ride asked the Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) to host an event to welcome the London leg of the event to Tower Hamlets in late July, we set to work, sure that the borough which saw the battle of Cable Street and saw off recent attempts by fascists to intimidate Muslims and socialists would provide a great welcome.
PSC campaigners use every opportunity to draw attention to Palestine. Last autumn, along with many others, we were concerned that our Labour-dominated council had passed, with minimal discussion or publicity, a Tory-proposed motion adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism, along with its highly contentious examples.
We petitioned and lobbied the council to adopt the following safeguarding caveat, which would protect our right to criticise Israel:
It is not anti-semitic, unless there is additional evidence to suggest anti-Jewish prejudice, to:
** Criticise the government of Israel
** Criticise zionism as a political ideology
** Describe any policy or law or practices of the state of Israel as racist, including acts leading to Palestinian dispossession as part of the establishment of the state
** Describe Israel as an apartheid state
** Advocate boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Our petition was rejected, despite statements from several councillors and the Mayor, John Biggs, of support for Palestinians.
The mayor found the petition “offensive” (see video here 31-44 mins in). We made our opposition to all forms of anti-semitism very clear, referencing our horror at the far-right anti-semitic Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, which had just happened.
We were assured that our right to protest about Palestine in Tower Hamlets would not be affected.
We applied in March to use a Tower Hamlets park to welcome the Big Ride, a laborious and detailed process.
Our first choice was Altab Ali Park, the scene of many demonstrations and celebrations over the years. The council turned us down, but suggested we might look at a different park, which we did.
We wanted to have an event to celebrate Palestinian culture, with speakers, music, food and stalls.
After a month of delay, we were turned down completely, on rather vague grounds which turned out to be dishonest.
The PSC made some freedom of information searches, which revealed that council officers believed the event might be anti-semitic.
PSC’s lawyers have told us that the decision is unlawful. The story was reported in the Guardian on Saturday.
This is a truly shocking situation. Council officers are entrusted to make decisions on park hire. It appears that they thought they had to inspect our application for possible anti-semitism and they concluded that references to “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians was in some way anti-semitic, as a consequence of the badly worded IHRA definition.
Now it seems that any reference to Palestine is possibly “anti-semitic.” The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israel is a demonstrable fact.
The responsibility here is a political one and lies firmly in the court of the executive Labour mayor.
As public bodies began to adopt this flawed definition, many of us warned it would stifle debate and have a chilling effect on solidarity actions for Palestine.
That is exactly what has happened. As Professor Kamel Hawwash, the Palestinian chair of PSC, says: “If evidence were needed of the potential for the IHRA definition of anti-semitism to be used to silence critics of Israel then here is one.
“This is just what the pro-Israel lobby wanted, even if the authors of the definition had not intended … An urgent review is needed of the adoption of the IHRA and its usage by public bodies to ensure freedom of expression is maintained and that Palestinians and their supporters can continue to speak about this grave injustice.”
There is widespread anger in the local community, which is one third Bangladeshi Muslim and has a proud record of support for Palestine.
We have organised numerous visits of Palestinians to the borough from Jenin, our partner city in the north of the West Bank.
In 2013, a group of Tower Hamlets councillors and trade unionists visited Jenin.
The mayor himself has welcomed Palestinians to the town hall.
Mayor Biggs has briefly replied to our letter and agreed to ask the chief executive to look into the decision-making process.
Tower Hamlets PSC will be petitioning the council to make the caveat referred to above policy, to ensure this does not happen again.
This should be a warning to other local authorities. In fact, Hackney Council was very helpful on the day of the Big Ride — one of its parks was used for a lunch stop.
The welcome event, with speakers including Mark Thomas, went ahead in the very welcoming St John Church in Bethnal Green. It was very successful — our thanks to Father Alan Green for hosting us so generously.
Sybil Cock is chair of Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Jenin Friendship Association.
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