Selected Cases of Interference with Free Expression, 2017

Free Speech on Israel
Palestine Solidarity Campaign

This dossier records some of the more prominent cases of restriction of freedom of speech or assembly related to criticisms of the state of Israel that occurred during 2017. In some cases the document produced in May 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) as a definition of antisemitism, and adopted by the UK government in December of that year, is explicitly cited in support of the action taken. In all cases the awareness of that government action has provided the pervasive atmosphere, chilling to free speech on Israel/Palestine, in which these decisions were taken.
The IHRA definition has been used to press for and achieve the cancellation of events denouncing Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and violations of human rights. The use of the IHRA definition in such instances is commonly framed around the following narrative: “These events typically apply double standards towards Israel that are not applied to other countries and effectively deny Israel any right to exist by treating it as an inherently racist endeavour. As such, they conflict with the IHRA definition.” (quote from spokesman for UK Lawyers for Israel – UKLFI).
In the UK, student events organised on campuses have been particularly targeted, following a letter sent by the Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson to UK universities in February 2017 to outline the government’s concerns about antisemitism on campuses, especially around Israel Apartheid Week due to take place that month, and asking for the IHRA definition to be disseminated throughout the academic system.


Example 1: cancellation of Israel Apartheid Week at the University of Central Lancashire, February 2017

In February 2017, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) cancelled an event planned as part of “Israeli Apartheid Week” on the grounds that it “contravened” the IHRA definition of antisemitism recently endorsed by the UK government and was unlawful. The panel event, “Debunking misconceptions on Palestine and the importance of BDS”, was organised by the UCLan Friends of Palestine society. The administration said:
“[We] determined that the proposed event would not be lawful and therefore it will not proceed as planned.” Speaking to Jewish News, the university said: “We believe the proposed talk contravenes the new definition and furthermore breaches university protocols for such events, where we require assurances of a balanced view or a panel of speakers representing all interests.”
There are three particularly disturbing aspects of this decision by the UCLan authorities:
1. The event organisers only found out about the cancellation by reading about it on the Jewish Chronicle website. The university excluded students in the Friends of Palestine society from the decision-making process concerning the event, and there was no attempt to dialogue with organisers about the event once concerns had been raised.
2. The university quite clearly bowed to pressure from external, pro-Israel advocacy groups. The day before the cancellation was announced StandWithUs, North West Friends of Israel, and Sussex Friends of Israel began urging their supporters to bombard the university with complaints.
3. UCLan’s claimed that the event “contravenes” a government-endorsed definition of antisemitism, referring to a text formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and “formally adopted” by the UK government. That phrase is important – the definition does not constitute legislation, which means it is unclear what the university meant by saying the “proposed event would not be lawful.”

Example 2: University of Exeter banned students from staging a street theatre performance, February 2017

The university banned students from staging a street theatre performance called Mock Checkpoint, in which some participants were to dress up as Israeli soldiers while others performed the roles of Palestinians. The event, which had been approved by the students’ guild – the university’s student union – as part of an international week of talks and activities on campuses around the world, was banned for “safety and security reasons” less than 48 hours before it was due to take place. An appeal against the decision was refused. Although the IHRA definition was not explicitly mentioned, the cancellation happened only a few days after the letter from the government’s minister to UK universities regarding that matter. Organisers of the Israel Apartheid Week at Exeter claim the university is conflating antisemitism with Palestinian activism. “It doesn’t have anything to do with antisemitism,” said the spokesperson for Exeter’s Friends of Palestine Society. “We feel they were indirectly accusing us of antisemitism and discrimination and harassment through this event.”

Example 3: Talk on the occupation cancelled at UCL, February 2017

In February 2017, UCL cancelled a talk titled “Quad Under Occupation” on Palestine claiming that Friends of Palestine “did not follow procedure”. The talk invited attendees to “explore the practices which sow the seeds of racial tension in Israel”. The cancellation followed a complaint from the Academic Friends of Israel group which stated that the event would not respect the new government approved definition of antisemitism. Only after this complaint did Rex Knight, UCL Vice-Provost, announced that the event would be cancelled for not “go[ing] through the proper process”.

Example 4: University of Leeds threatened to cancel talk by Craig Murray during Israeli Apartheid Week, February 2017

During the last Israel Apartheid Week, one talk and a film show proceeded without problems at Leeds but two other events had more difficulty. 1. Just 24 hours before he was due to speak former ambassador Craig Murray was asked by the trustees of Leeds University Union to provide details of what he was going to say in his talk “Palestine/Israel: A Unitary Secular State or a Bantustan Solution”. With great reluctance Craig provided an outline in order to allow the lecture to proceed, despite seeing this a dispiriting step down a censorship path. 2. The student Palestine Solidarity Group was refused permission to mount a visual demonstration outside the Leeds Student Union Building, although they did put up a fairly inconspicuous banner display. They were also refused permission to have a stall inside the Students Union Building.

Example 5: Liverpool – Professor Michael Lavalette, required to agree to the IHRA definition for his talk to go ahead, February 2017

Professor Michael Lavalette of Liverpool Hope University was due to speak at a meeting at Liverpool University. At 3pm the day before his scheduled talk he was contacted by the student organisers to say that the university was requiring him to sign their ‘risk assessment’ for the event. The form of words was to be that he had read the Risk Assessment and specifically the clause within relating to the ‘[IHRA] definition’, and stating that he had read the definition and agreed with it. He emailed his response, to say that he had read the risk assessment; and that he was a life-long anti-racist (and had in fact organised a meeting on Stand Up To Racism the previous weekend). He did not acknowledge the definition. He heard nothing more and the meeting went ahead.
Source: Free Speech on Israel

Example 6: Manchester, March 2017

The University of Manchester allowed a series of talks marking IAW to go ahead, but that approval only came after several meetings and email exchanges and subject to a strict set of conditions.
“The university has heavily scrutinised every single detail of each event … the number of conditions the university has placed on us is unheard of,” reported the organisers, adding: “Other societies and groups do not face the same problems.” The conditions relate to the impartiality of event conveners and scrutiny of speakers.
The university vetoed the students’ choice of academic to chair an IAW event on BDS, citing concerns over her “neutrality”. Speakers also had to acknowledge the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The person ousted from chairing was Dr Lauren Banko, Research Associate in Israel-Palestine Studies in the Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies department of the University. She is author of The Invention of Palestinian Citizenship, 1918-1947.

Example 7: Manchester University censored the title of Holocaust survivor’s speech criticising Israel, March 2017

Manchester University censored the title of a Holocaust survivor’s criticism of Israel and insisted that her campus talk be recorded, after Israeli diplomats said its billing amounted to antisemitic hate speech. Marika Sherwood, a Jewish survivor of the Budapest ghetto, was due to give a talk in March 2017 about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, headlined: “You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me.” The Israeli diplomats visited Manchester on 22 February and met the university’s head of student experience, Tim Westlake. Later that day Michael Freeman, the embassy’s counsellor for civil society affairs, emailed Westlake and thanked him for discussing the “difficult issues that we face”, including the “offensively titled” Israeli Apartheid Week. Freeman claimed that the title of Sherwood’s talk breached the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The Sherwood event went ahead under a revised billing with the subtitle removed. She herself denied that the title of her talk could be characterised as antisemitic. “I was just speaking of my experience of what the Nazis were doing to me as a Jewish child,” she said. “I had to move away from where I was living, because Jews couldn’t live there. I couldn’t go to school”. “I can’t say I’m a Palestinian, but my experiences as a child are not dissimilar to what Palestinian children are experiencing now.” (The evidence of Israeli embassy involvement was not revealed until September 2017, through a Freedom of Information request.)

Example 8: expulsion of Moshe Machover from the Labour Party, October 2017

Retired Israeli philosophy professor Moshe Machover was expelled from the Labour party in October 2017. The official reason for his expulsion was not an accusation of antisemitism (this would have taken longer to prove), but rather for alleged association with organisations newly deemed undesirable (which he has denied). The letter from the Labour’s Head of Disputes informed Machover that an article he had written “appears to meet the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.” The article, “Anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism,” was published in a bulletin by the group Labour Party Marxists and handed out at the party’s conference in September 2017. Sam Matthews, the Labour official who wrote expelling Machover, did not specify which part of the article he claimed was antisemitic. The letter to Machover marks the first known time Labour Party officials have cited the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s document containing a “working definition” of antisemitism as a justification for “formal notice of investigation.” The controversial document has been promoted by Israel lobby groups, because it alleges that, for example, “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” is an example of “antisemitism.” However Labour’s leadership has only endorsed a two-sentence definition of antisemitism, contained in the controversial document, which does not mention Israel. This letter appears to contradict that distinction.

How to be ‘antisemitic’, on a porcelain plate,…

Mike Cushman

… without mentioning Jew, Israel, Zionism or any accepted or abusive synonym for any of these. Difficult, you might think, but according to Gillian Merron, the chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, leading Palestinian film maker Larissa Sansour has achieved this.

You can view her film until 1 September at password porcelain.

Still from ‘In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’
Still from Sansour’s film

Sansour’s film, co-created with Danish author, Søren Lind, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain is showing in the Barbican season ‘Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction’.

Merron has demanded that the Barbican remove the film from the exhibition. Among Merron’s discomforts is that the dialogue is in Arabic. The film is about the creation of false narratives, a recurring theme in historiography and political theory and one dealt with in a literary form by George Orwell in 1984. In this case it is Merron who is reproducing the character of Winston Smith and trying to excise that which does not fit with her preferred representation. Continue reading “How to be ‘antisemitic’, on a porcelain plate,…”

Pro-Israel Interference in Free Speech in the UK

How a Zionist campaign of distortions stopped audiences hearing Tom Suarez speak about his book State of Terror

Tom Suarez

State of Terror cover
State of Terror cover

Note: In late 2016, my work State of Terror : how terrorism created modern Israel was published in hardcover in the UK (Skyscraper Books) and paperback in the US (Interlink). This book was the culmination of several years’ research based primarily on British government source documents held by the National Archives (Kew), relating to Palestine during the four decades between the Balfour Declaration (1917) and the Suez Crisis (1956).

Book talks that were affected

1. SOAS (3 Nov)

My first publicised book talk was to students at SOAS. This was sabotaged by a handful of non-student outsiders, principally by well-known activists Jonathan Hoffman and, less flamboyantly, David Collier. Security was called, but Mr. Hoffman yelled “assault” when he was approached by a guard (who had done nothing), at which security declined to intervene. The student organisers were unable to control the situation and the Q&A was soon abandoned. The saboteurs had recorded the talk and uploaded out-of-context video snippets, labelling me as an anti-Semitic hate speaker.

A video of the talk that Tom managed to give in Cambridge despite harassment
Continue reading “Pro-Israel Interference in Free Speech in the UK”

Israel’s New Cultural War of Aggression

A Small Battleground in a Large Culture War

Richard Falk

This article first appeared on the author’s blog Global Justice in the 21st century and is reproduced by his permission

Cover of Palestine’s Horizon: Toward a Just PeaceA few weeks ago my book Palestine’s Horizon: Toward a Just Peace was published by Pluto in Britain. I was in London and Scotland at the time to do a series of university talks to help launch the book. Its appearance happened to coincide with the release of a jointly authored report commissioned by the UN Social and Economic Commission of West Asia, giving my appearances a prominence they would not otherwise have had. The report concluded that

Cover of suppressed UN report
Cover of suppressed UN report

the evidence relating to Israeli practices toward the Palestinian people amounted to ‘apartheid,’ as defined in international law.

There was a strong pushback by Zionist militants threatening disruption. These threats were sufficiently intimidating to academic administrators, that my talks at the University of East London and at Middlesex University were cancelled on grounds of ‘health and security.’ Perhaps, these administrative decisions partly reflected the awareness that an earlier talk of mine at LSE had indeed been sufficiently disrupted during the discussion period that university security personnel had to remove two persons in the audience who shouted epithets, unfurled an Israeli flag, stood up and refused to sit down when politely asked by the moderator. Continue reading “Israel’s New Cultural War of Aggression”

FSOI protests Scottish church cancellation

Mike Cushman

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”

Tell New Statesman: Don’t censor Palestinian voices

The campaign by FSOI and others has been successful and PSC released the following statement:

As most of you will be aware,  two weeks ago the New Statesman removed an article by Salah Arjama from its website. PSC had commissioned the article from Salah, the co-founder and Director of the Lajee Cultural Centre in Aida Refugee camp to be hosted on the New Statesman website. The New Statesman published the piece as part of a two year partnership between the PSC and the New Statesman.

The removal of the article followed two pro-Israel websites attacking the article which raised concerns about the New Statesman having responded to this lobby pressure.  PSC sought a clear explanation from the New Statesman as to the reason for the removal of the article but did not receive it. As the issue was in the public domain, we were left with no option but to publicly petition the New Statesman. Thanks to your response, the New Statesman was inundated with 25,000 emails. Several notable figures, including lawyers, politicians, trade unions and artists, also committed to signing an open letter. After the very large number of complaints the New Statesman received, and after we informed them of the forthcoming open letter, they requested to meet with the PSC.

We are pleased to announce that after discussions we have received an explanation from the New Statesman who have framed the removal in a wider context of reviewing all their commercial partnerships from a wider editorial perspective. We are pleased that the New Statesman have acknowledged the discourtesy done by not providing an explanation when requested.

The New Statesman have reassured us that the article was not removed because of lobby pressure, acknowledged that they had no issue with the contents of the article and have now most importantly provided a link to the article on their website, ensuring that readers can still access Salah’s words and perspective. We feel this outcome gives a clear message that any pressure to remove Palestinian voices from the media will be resisted. They have also given a commitment to ensuring that their coverage of Palestine will continue to include a range of perspectives.

The issues raised in Salah’s article which can be read here are of crucial importance. PSC believes it is essential that the voices of Palestinians facing injustice and the denial of their rights are heard in wider media coverage. Although we will have no continuing commercial partnership, we look forward to continuing our wider relationship with the New Statesman to ensure that Palestinian voices and perspectives from all sections of society are heard.

We could not have done this without you, and is fantastic news for all that are concerned with the representation of Palestinian experiences in the press.

Shame of the New Statesman

Statement from Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Dear friend,

Palestinian voices are being censored and silenced. We cannot let this happen.
Earlier this month PSC commissioned an article from Salah Ajarma, the co-founder and Director of the Lajee Cultural Centre in Aida Refugee camp. The New Statesman published the piece as part of a two year partnership between the PSC and the New Statesman. Two pro-Israel blogs attacked the New Statesman for publishing the piece, shortly afterwards, the New Statesman deleted it without speaking to Salah or to PSC. They have since refused to offer any explanation or justification for the removal of the article.

This is a disgraceful attack on freedom of expression, a clear case of censorship, and a deliberate attempt to silence Palestinian voices. By doing this, the New Statesman have politically censored a human rights campaigner, who is living under very harsh conditions of military occupation in a refugee camp. We cannot stand by and let this happen. We cannot be silenced.

Entrance to Aida refugee camp
A giant key (said to be the world’s largest) sits atop the entrance to the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, reminding residents to insist on their “right of return.”

It would appear the New Statesman have caved into political pressure to remove the article, and do not believe they owe Salah or PSC the courtesy even of a conversation: the editorial team won’t even take our phone calls. In an email to the PSC, the New Statesman stated that the article had been removed as a result of ‘reader complaints’, refusing any further elaboration and any editorial contact.

Salah’s article describes the experiences of young Palestinian refugees in Aida camp and talks about how settlements impact his life and the lives of people in his community. New Statesman editors approved and published the article.

The New Statesman’s actions are political censorship of a Palestinian human rights campaigner. We cannot stand by and let this happen.

This action does not align with the stated goals of the New Statesman to “hold our leaders to account and tell the stories that the world needs to hear”. What is happening in Palestine is a story that the world needs to hear, and the account of a Palestinian should not be censored. The lack of explanation and refusal to speak to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign or Salah goes against all good journalistic standards and common courtesy

We did not want to make this public, we attempted to resolve the problem directly with the New Statesman, giving them the benefit of the doubt and attempting to speak to editors countless times.

However, we have now been told that the editors will not speak to us and that the decision to remove the article would not be explained or reversed.

We have a duty to stand up for justice, honesty, and integrity and so we must raise our voices about this.

Tell the New Statesman to:

  • Republish the article
  • Offer an apology to Salah Ajarma for removing it without good cause
  • Make a clear public statement as to your commitment to upholding the principle of freedom of expression

Please write to the editors of the New Statesman now – and show them that we will not be silenced and will not allow Palestinians to be censored.

In solidarity,
The team at PSC

Read Salah’s article