Reprinted by permission of the author
This article was originally published in the Times of Israel but was pulled from their site within 24 hours
April 18 would have been the 115th birthday of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Schneerson, who took over a struggling Brooklyn-based Hasidic sect in 1951, was by his death in 1994 arguably “the most influential Jew since Maimonides” and it is about that influence I wish to write — particularly because, in the 20-odd years since his death, recollections of the Rebbe’s personal charisma have largely eclipsed the record of his actual teaching.
I note at once that I have neither the expertise nor the desire to try to analyze the whole range of the Rebbe’s religious doctrine. Of his role as clergyman and community leader I have little to say, never having lived in a predominantly Lubavitch enclave. Moreover, since I had no contact with him, I am clearly unequipped to write about the Rebbe’s personal qualities; I am prepared to grant that these were impressive.
It was inevitable that antisemitism smears would be deployed against supporters of Palestine at some point during #GE17. Even so it was a surprise to hear Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat party leader, cornered by pro-Israel lobbyist Eric Pickles in the House of Commons on Wednesday, appeasing the witch hunters by declaring that one of his own parliamentary candidates would be banned from standing.
The language used to denounce David Ward, former Lib Dem MP for Bradford East, as in so many of the cases we have seen in the Labour Party, the National Union of Students and elsewhere, takes us deep into Orwellian territory.
They wanted to shut me up. I was due to give a talk at a famous public school on my time working as a human rights monitor in Palestine. It was titled “Occupation: up Close and Personal”.
Every school governor got emails – some from as far away as Australia – demanding that my talk was cancelled. The local police took notice after the organiser found a threatening message on her answerphone. Sniffer dogs searched the school grounds on the day and special branch made an appearance.
The head teacher posted a message on the school’s website, standing up to the bullying and the evening passed off without incident: a full hall, a warm and engaged audience and me on top form (though I say so myself).
Jackie Walker was due to speak at a Scottish PSC meeting at St Columba’s by the Castle Church in Edinburgh on 20 March. One Edinburgh Jew claimed to the Church Rector that the meeting might have antisemitic connotations. The Rector amplified this claim into “criticism of Israel’s policies can have unintended consequences, leading to an increase in anti-Semitic attacks” and the Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, John Armes, told him to cancel the Booking. FSOI has written to the Bishop to add our voice to that of Ken Loach and Miriam Margolyes and local activists in deploring this censorship and silencing of criticism of Israel.
The FSOI letter
Dear Bishop Armes,
We are aware of the controversy surrounding your decision to prevent a Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) event from taking place at St Columba’s Church on March 20.
As a Jewish-led organisation which abhors all forms of racism and supports the right of the Palestinian people to live their lives free from discrimination, we would welcome the opportunity to open a dialogue with you about this fraught subject. Continue reading “FSOI protests Scottish church cancellation”
Legal Opinion on IHRA definition of antisemitism launched Monday March 27, 15:00 – 16:30 at House of Lords Committee Room 3
Definition cannot be used to judge criticism of Israel as antisemitic, unless it expresses hatred towards Jews.
Describing Israel as a state enacting a policy of apartheid, as practising settler colonialism or calling for policies of boycott divestment or sanctions against Israel cannot properly be characterized as antisemitic.
The definition’s poor drafting means public bodies applying the definition could be at serious risk of “unlawfully restricting legitimate expressions of political opinion”.
Definition has already been used to close down student events at universities across the country; it is widely feared to have a ‘chilling effect’.
The Chair of Hampstead and Kilburn Constituency Labour Party used his position to block discussion of a properly submitted motion on the scandal disclosed by the Al Jazeera series ‘The Lobby’, at their monthly meeting on 15 March. He used the IHRA (mis)definition) of antisemitism to back his partisan ruling. He claimed that discussing Israeli subversion in Britain before discussing Russian subversion in the United States was antisemitic. He acknowledged that the movers of the motion were themselves Jewish but patronised them saying their actions were ‘inadvertent and meant in good faith’. He sided with those Jews who were distressed by discussion of unacceptable behaviour by Israel over those who were outraged by the Israeli actions.
The rules of debate meant that there could be no speeches to contest the questionable assertions of the Chair. Despite a clear majority of the meeting opposing his ruling, there was not the two-thirds majority required to force a debate.
We have been criticised as scaremongering for claiming the IHRA definition will stifle Free Speech. This is another example of the censorship regime encroaching on our legal right to freedoom of expression to put alongside the clampdown on University campuses.
Thousands of students and academics attended events as part of what was one of the biggest Israeli Apartheid Weeks in the UK to date.
This was doubly impressive given the unprecedented campaign of repression launched against Israeli Apartheid Week by the UK government, universities and the pro-Israel lobby. The campaign came in the context of broader attacks on Palestine organizing in the UK and across the world.
On 13 February, UK universities minister Jo Johnson wrote a letter, seen by The Electronic Intifada, titled “Tackling Anti-semitism on campus” to Nicola Dandridge, the head of Universities UK, the representative organization for universities.
Apparently signalling that universities should seek to subject Israeli Apartheid Week events to special scrutiny, Johnson wrote that events which “might take place under the banner of ‘Israel Apartheid’ events” must be “properly handled by higher education institutions to ensure that our values, expectations and laws are not violated.”
Johnson’s letter was passed on to the head of each of the UK’s universities.
British university staff are also being told to “manage” pro-Palestine events on campus as part of the government’s controversial Prevent anti-extremism strategy, Middle East Eyereported.
In addition, pro-Israel organizations lobbied universities directly, urging them to cancel Israeli Apartheid Week events and organized mass letter writing campaigns. According to an email newsletter it sent out, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a pro-Israel organization, met with several universities to call for the cancellation of events.
Apparently urged on by pro-Israel groups, the Charity Commission, the regulating body for UK charities, sent intimidating emails to student unions at many of the universities where Israeli Apartheid Week was taking place.
Having spoken to different student organizers and student union officers, it is clear the commission asked unions a series of questions about Israeli Apartheid Week. This included insisting that unions reconsider the “suitability of invited speakers” and urging them to take extra measures to ensure that Israeli Apartheid Week events were lawful.
As part of my organizing on Israeli Apartheid Week, I’ve been speaking to members of the Israeli Apartheid Week UK committee and to organizers on campuses across the country. The way in which universities and some student unions reacted to this external pressure were often dangerously repressive and outright bizarre. They included the following:
At University College London, management forbade a planned street theatre event on the grounds that risk assessment forms had not been filled in on time.
At Kings College London, there was a heavy presence of university security officials inside an event and, in a highly unusual move, the speakers were given a lengthy “security briefing.”
Student organizers at Leeds were told by their student union that they were not allowed to show any documentary produced by Al-Jazeera or any that featured “emotive music.”
The director of the University of Sussex, Adam Tickell, emailed a statement to all students which said, “we will not tolerate intimidation of anyone for their religious or political opinions about the politics of the Middle East” and claimed that “the language” surrounding Israeli Apartheid Week was “deeply upsetting.” Students I talked to believed this was an attempt to intimidate them for their political opinions about the Middle East.
Several universities sent official observers to events or organized their own recording of events for monitoring purposes.
Yet despite all this, Israeli Apartheid Week events still took place at more than 30 campuses.
US spoken word artist and organizer Aja Monet and South African anti-apartheid veteran and academic Farid Esack spoke to hundreds of people at events at Kings College London, the University of Manchester and the University of Sussex.
Monet also performed at a packed out cultural event in London alongside Palestinian spoken word artist and organizer Rafeef Ziadah and Moroccan band N3rdistan.
Abed Salayma from Hebron-based group Youth Against Settlements spoke out against Israeli apartheid at Portsmouth, University College London, Goldsmiths, Brunel and several Scottish universities.
At the University of Oxford, talks were given by Palme d’Or winning director Ken Loach and Professor Avi Shlaim.
The Israel lobby had clearly set its sights on the complete cancellation of Israeli Apartheid Week in the UK.
Indeed, the Board of Deputies of British Jews sent out an email claiming credit for some of the cancellations of events and other repressive measures enacted by universities.
The fact that inspiring, impressive and well attended events still took place across the country is down to the way in which students, as well as many student unions, stood up to university management and firmly pushed back against the repression.
It’s also significant that academics across the country wrote emails to management and brought up concerns about repression in their departmental meetings. More than 250 academics signed an open letter published in The Guardian denouncing the campaign of repression.
Prominent anti-Palestinian activist David Collier appeared disappointed that the campaign of repression largely failed, writing “despite one or two cancellations, the government, the university, and elements of our own leadership are letting us down.”
It’s clear that attempts to repress Palestine solidarity organizing won’t stop students standing up for Palestinian rights.
In a statement, the Israeli Apartheid Week UK organizing committee said that although the restrictions “created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation on university campuses” attempts to silence the Palestine solidarity movement would fail.
“Freedom of expression is at stake here not only for campaigning around Palestinian rights, but social justice campaigning more broadly,” the committee said. “The attacks on Palestine campaigning must be situated within today’s overall current political context which facilitates discrimination towards marginalised groups.”
The committee insisted that “no amount of external meddling to shut down or censor IAW events will work – we will continue to uphold the right to campaign on university campuses and advocate for justice and freedom.”
Zionists on and off UK campuses have repeated their annual attempts to disrupt student organised events in Israeli Apartheid Week. This year they have been encouraged by Government Minister Jo Johnson who wrote to the Universities’ coordinating body, UUK, to say
I am sure you share my concerns about the rising reports of anti-Semitic incidents in this country and will want to make sure that your own institution is a welcoming environment for all students and that the legal position and guidelines are universally understood and acted upon at all times. This will include events such as those that might take place under the banner of ‘Israel Apartheid’ events for instance. Such events need to be properly handled by higher education institutions to ensure that our values, expectations and laws are not violated.
The leaders of most universities ignored this attack on Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom and did not interfere with their students’ right to express their support for Human Rights. A few, however, decided to forget their duty in their rush to placate the Government and to succumb to Zionist threats. IAW events took place on most campuses and the campaign against drawing attention to Israel’s crimes only succeeded in causing many students to ask what Israel’s defenders were so keen to keep hidden.
FSOI has written to Malaka Shwaikh to express our support for her in the face of the harassment and threats she has been subject to.
Malaka Shwaikh (Photo credit: Jeremy Abrahams)
I am writing on behalf of Free Speech on Israel to offer you our solidarity and support. FSOI is a Jewish led group set up a year ago to counter the false allegations of antisemitism being brought against Labour Party and NUS activists.
We view the malicious attacks on you as deeply unfair and deplorable but sadly not surprising. It seems Zionists and apologists for Israel’s crimes get particularly virulent when a Muslim women challenges their air of superiority. Like in many other cases you are being attacked for words ripped from their context and maliciously selected.
We see nothing antisemitic in any of your words or actions that have been reported. The reports in the Daily Mail reflect the typical level of distortion and abuse we expect from that newspaper.
We regret the lack of support you have received from Exeter University management which is total failure in their duty of care towards a member of the university.
I attach a copy of our latest leaflet which explains the deficiencies in the IHRA definition of antisemitism which has been adopted by the Government which has encouraged all Universities to adopt it in order to suppress support for Palestinian rights and criticism of Israel.
Please let us know if there are any practical steps we can take to support you.
‘People can and do have a range of views on this flashpoint in the Middle East. Yet there should surely be no two views about the importance of defending the right to free expression in our institutions.’ Tom Hickey, University of Brighton
On February 27, a letter appeared in the Guardian signed by 243 academics condemning “outrageous interferences with free expression” and “direct attacks on academic freedom” resulting from attempts “to silence campus discussion about Israel, including its violation of the rights of Palestinians for more than 50 years.”
The letter attributed these developments to adoption by the UK government of “the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism” which is being interpreted as meaning that criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights is prima facie evidence of antisemitism.
New names are pouring in to be added to the list of signatories to the academics’ letter. If you would like to join them please read the statement below. The full text of the letter follows.