Free Speech on Israel wrote to all Greater London Authority (GLA) members to rebuke them for their hasty unanimous adoption of the flawed IHRA definition of antisemitism. Len Duvall, leader of the GLA Labour Group replied on behalf of the Group. His response was so inadequate that I felt impelled to respond personally in advance of the collective FSOI rebuttal.
Thank you for your reply to the Free Speech on Israel letter about the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. FSOI will be sending you an organisational reply shortly but this is my personal response.
I fear you misunderstand our concerns about the definition and indeed about the nature of the Israeli state.
I have concerns about the definition which fall into three separate, if occasionally overlapping, categories. The definition is:
Today Free Speech on Israel wrote to every member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) today to point out the dangers of adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism. They all received personally addressed copies of this letter and an explanatory document.
Reprinted from New York Times by permission of the author
I was raised in a religious Jewish environment, and though we were not strongly Zionist, I always took it to be self-evident that “Israel has a right to exist.” Now anyone who has debated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have encountered this phrase often. Defenders of Israeli policies routinely accuse Israel’s critics of denying her right to exist, while the critics (outside of a small group on the left, where I now find myself) bend over backward to insist that, despite their criticisms, of course they affirm it. The general mainstream consensus seems to be that to deny Israel’s right to exist is a clear indication of anti-Semitism (a charge Jews like myself are not immune to), and therefore not an option for people of conscience.
Over the years I came to question this consensus and to see that the general fealty to it has seriously constrained open debate on the issue, one of vital importance not just to the people directly involved — Israelis and Palestinians — but to the conduct of our own foreign policy and, more important, to the safety of the world at large. My view is that one really ought to question Israel’s right to exist and that doing so does not manifest anti-Semitism. The first step in questioning the principle, however, is to figure out what it means. Continue reading “On Questioning the Jewish State”
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.
The Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) is an intensely Zionist group created at the height of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014, with the specific goal of demonising Israel’s critics. It poses as a charity protecting Jews against rampant antisemitism. In fact it concentrates on belligerently attacking supporters of justice for Palestine who draw attention to Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people.
This is why Free Speech on Israel supports the petition challenging the CAA’s charitable status launched by activist Tony Greenstein. The CAA’s characteristic response has been to make a failed bid to force the online petition site change.org to take down Greenstein’s petition.
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.
Your video animation, designed to make the moral and political case against this year’s Israel Apartheid Weeks on campuses around the world, is a skilful piece of deceit that needs urgent challenge from all who support human rights.
I’ve always admired your writing on Judaism and I recommend your books to others. Except where you talk about Israel, at which point you appear to abandon your learning and your ethical values.
You’re hardly the only rabbi who does this. But most of them don’t have your worldwide reputation, status and audience. When you say something on an important topic like boycotts many will be listening and they will take your position to be the authentic, intelligent and trustworthy voice of Judaism.
‘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.