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.
We understand from a report in the Herald newspaper that you and St Columba’s rector David Paton-Williams were concerned, following complaints from “a member of the Jewish community,” that the meeting in question might have antisemitic connotations.
We are heartened by your statement that “We support freedom of speech; we also seek close and friendly relationships with people of every faith.” Both of these are imperatives that we wholeheartedly endorse.
However we hope you will permit us to explain why we do not share your view that “On this occasion….these two important values collided.”
There are a number of points we would like to make.
- There are many Jews, such as ourselves and members of Scottish Jews for Justice for Palestinians, who welcome meetings like the one planned by Scottish PSC to be addressed by Jackie Walker – a prominent pro-Palestinian anti-racist campaigner who is both Black and Jewish. We have looked in detail at the postings and events that gave rise to allegations against Jackie Walker and have talked to her at length. This has led us to the judgement that there is no reasonable way to interpret any of her statements as antisemitic. We do not believe that it enhances our relationships with people of other faiths, or no faith, to close off opportunities to discuss difficult questions, especially on the basis of such unfounded concerns.
- We do not agree with David Paton-Williams that “criticism of Israel’s policies can have unintended consequences, leading to an increase in antisemitic attacks”. Surely the chain of logic starts with Israel’s outrageous policies rather than with the criticisms that can be made of them. How can it be an ethical position to deny a hearing to those legitimate criticisms? The equation between Jews and Israel is false – many Jews are highly critical of what Israel is doing. And for those who have mistakenly taken all Jews to be responsible for what Israel does – what more effective antidote could there have been than listening to a Jewish speaker, such as Jackie Walker, making those criticisms?
- We do not believe that a meeting addressed by Jackie Walker justifies the concern you are quoted as expressing, “that individuals and religious groups” should not be “singled out for abuse because of their beliefs.” As mentioned above, the religious beliefs of Jews are not abused by discussion of the politics of the state of Israel, because the two things are in entirely separate categories.
- Those who campaign for justice for Palestine generally understand that Zionism and Judaism are not the same thing. In November last year for example, Jews and Christians spoke out together in defence of Lichfield Cathedral when it was attacked for holding an event titled “Holding Palestine in the Light.” One may legitimately criticise Israel for its denial of rights to Palestinians without in any way expressing hostility to Jews. This is the position outlined in a recently published legal opinion. The case was eloquently argued by two senior Jewish lawyers at the launch of the Opinion on March 27.
- It is undeniable that most mainstream Jewish organisations strongly support Israel. But the implicit claim that this is a consensual opinion among the UK’s Jewish population is certainly not true. In a recent poll on the attitudes of British Jews towards Israel, carried out by Ipsos Mori for the liberal Zionist organisation Yachad, 41% of respondents declined to describe themselves as Zionists. Getting on for half of those under 30 said they would support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel if it could bring that country to the negotiating table.
There are disturbing implications for freedom of speech if the strident voices of pro-Israel lobbyists are allowed to close down discussion on the pretext that it is offensive to Jews. Those who make such demands deliberately ignore significant currents of Jewish opinion that take a very different view, respecting the long history of Jewish universalist humanitarianism which far predates political Zionism.
We hope you will take these comments in the respectful spirit in which they are offered.
Perhaps we may contact you in the near future to arrange a discussion about the issues we have raised.