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The right to protest against Israel’s policies is being threatened

BEN JAMAL argues that the headlong rush by Labour’s candidates for leader to endorse the Board of Deputies' 10 pledges for action on anti-semitism is ill-advised

IN THE summer of 2018, when the media was dominated by daily stories about Labour’s anti-semitism crisis, Brian Klug, one of the world’s foremost academic experts on anti-semitism, issued a plea for reasoned and informed thinking on the issue in place of the kind of moral panic which was ensuing.

At that time, the supposed touchstone of Labour’s commitment to addressing anti-semitism was its willingness to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-semitism unamended and with no additional accompanying text.  

Klug’s forensic piece illustrated the illegitimacy of this argument, but ended with a heartfelt warning. “Part of me,” he wrote, “feels the hopelessness of appealing to reason, a sense of swimming against a mighty and unmindful current of opinion… rallying around the IHRA text as if it were the eternal word of God.”

Move forward 18 months and the headlong rush by all of Labour’s candidates for leader to endorse the Board of Deputies 10 pledges for action on anti-semitism, showed the prescience of Klug’s warning that appeals for reason would go unheeded.

There are problems with most of the 10 pledges that candidates have been asked to endorse but, as a Palestinian and as director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), it is the reassertion of the demand to endorse the IHRA definition with all of its examples and without caveats that most concerns me.

The argument that the IHRA is universally accepted and presents no threat to freedom of expression in defence of Palestinian rights bears no serious examination.

The definition  has been roundly criticised by many leading academic experts on anti-semitism alongside Klug, by eminent lawyers, by the Institute of Race Relations and by no less an authority than the definition’s own author, Kenneth Stern. All have centred their criticism on how the definition has been used to threaten freedom of expression on Palestine.

The argument that the IHRA is universally accepted and presents no
threat to freedom of expression in defence of Palestinian rights bears no serious examination

That threat can certainly be evidenced. Last year Tower Hamlets Council refused permission for a bike ride raising money for children in Gaza to finish with a rally in a council-run park.

Freedom of Information requests made by PSC revealed that the reason for this decision was the fear of council officers that the ride might violate the IHRA definition due to references on its website to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 and comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa.

The driving into exile of over 700,000 Palestinians, including members of my own family in 1948, is a fact of history.

Numerous political analysts and legal scholars have asserted that the body of laws and policies via which Israel discriminates against Palestinians — from those living under military occupation to those living as second class citizens of Israel — meet the definition of apartheid as defined under the Rome statute.

You can agree or disagree with the application of the term, but to define it as a racist statement degrades political discourse and to seek to limit the right to make the assertion threatens core democratic freedoms.

And yet just this week, Labour Friends of Israel called for the whip to be withdrawn from Zarah Sultana MP on the basis of comments she had made as a student calling out Israel’s racist policies and laws, claiming that “making totally false comparisons between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, is utterly despicable and offensive.”

Israel has devoted much energy in the last decade to seeking to delegitimise the peaceful movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

With the support of allies in Western governments we have seen laws introduced in Europe and the US seeking to criminalise support for BDS.

Now in Britain, the government has announced its intention to introduce law to prohibit public bodies from supporting BDS campaigns against countries where the government itself has not employed sanctions.

The rationale for the law is that BDS is anti-semitic and again it is the IHRA definition that is called upon to justify the charge, relying on the example that defines it as anti-semitic to hold Israel to a “double standard.”

The Tory government Bill underminines the obligation of public bodies not to be complicit in human rights violations via the investment of public funds

The ludicrous assertion is that an organisation or individual can be deemed anti-semitic if they are campaigning for BDS in relation to Israel but not simultaneously campaigning for boycotts of other human rights-abusing states.

Using this logic one could have described the anti-apartheid movement as racist because it did not also campaign to end human rights abuses in East Timor.

This proposed law threatens the core democratic freedoms not just of those campaigning for Palestine, but anyone calling on public bodies not to invest public funds in companies that are complicit in state violations of human rights, including for example those campaigning for action on fossil fuels.

PSC is speaking to a range of NGOs around the launch of a broad campaign to oppose this Bill, focused on its threats to freedom of expression and its undermining of the obligation of public bodies not to be complicit in human rights violations via the investment of public funds.

Such a campaign should be supported by all those who believe in upholding core democratic freedoms in this country but also in the principles of solidarity with the oppressed, which of course should include the Labour Party, whoever leads it.

We expect the next Labour leader to uphold the commitments the party has made on internationalism and human rights including at last year’s conference where it committed to “adhere to an ethical policy on all UK trade with Israel,” including applying international law on settlements and stopping the arms trade with Israel that violates human rights.

PSC shares the commitment of all of the leadership candidates to fight racism in all forms including anti-semitism.

Our support for the rights of the Palestinians and opposition to the racist laws and policies by which Israel oppresses them is rooted in those values.

We also agree with Klug that the fight against anti-semitism is not enhanced, but diminished, by any endorsement of the IHRA and would urge the candidates to heed this advice before embracing steps that would undermine a coherent anti-racist politics.  

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