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.
British university staff are being advised to “risk-assess and manage” events on campus relating to “contentious” issues including Palestine and criticism of western foreign policy in the Middle East in order to demonstrate their compliance with the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy.
Critics fear that the guidance, which is contained in an online training presentation, is already stifling free speech and political expression, with one institution, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), on Tuesday cancelling an event organised by a Friends of Palestine society because of concerns that it would not be “balanced”.
Other issues for which higher education institutions are being instructed to put in place measures to ensure that “extremist views” are challenged include opposition to Prevent itself following vigorous campaigning against the strategy by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU), which represents more than 100,000 university staff.
Free Speech on Israel, a Jewish-led organisation, condemns the decision of the London Assembly on Feb 8 to adopt a position on antisemitism that is a charter for censors. It threatens to make effective campaigning for justice for Palestinians impossible.
Antisemitism is an age-old visceral hatred of Jews simply because they are Jews. It must be vigorously fought against, along with all forms of bigotry. To confuse it with opposition to a state which calls itself Jewish, or to the founding ideology of that state, Zionism, is to obscure the real meaning of the term antisemitism and make combatting it more difficult. This is exactly what the motion passed by the Assembly does.
International “definition” of antisemitism threatens to limit criticism of Israel
This ‘international definition’ has no international status
The ‘definition’ deliberately emphasises criticism of Israel and Zionism as likely to be antisemitic
The UK government’s proposed adoption of it threatens to obstruct or even criminalise free speech
The UK Government has announced that it will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Were the definition to stop at that point its adoption by the Government could be applauded. But the major part of the definition is given over to examples of actions that should be investigated as purported to show antisemitic motivation. Of the eleven examples given, seven relate not to Jews as Jews, but to the state of Israel and its actions.
This emphasis reveals the motivation of those who have been promoting this definition for more than 10 years. It will be all too easy for governments, or others via litigation, ‘lawfare’, to employ it to limit criticism both of: Israel’s repeated breaches of International Law and abuses of the Human Rights of Palestinians; and critiques of Zionism as an ideology used to justify and excuse Israel’s actions.
There are already many examples of attempts to illegitimately stretch the use of the definition to censor legitimate political and moral debate. A particular target has been the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – a mass non-violent civil society campaign to hold Israel to account. Already Israel’s UK supporters have rushed to pre-emptively interpret the Government’s announcement as shielding Israel and its foundational political philosophy of Zionism, rather than protecting Jews.
There is a simple option for the Government that will allay fears that this definition will be used to suppress free speech. This is to adopt just the 40-word definition cited above, but not the contentious, partisan, politically slanted examples that accompany it.
Free Speech on Israel also urges the Government to adopt an equivalent definition of Islamophobia and promote it vigorously since attacks on Muslims, both verbal and physical, are a far greater and more frequent threat to the safety and security of British citizens and residents than is antisemitism.
Free Speech on Israel is a network of labour, green and trade union activists in the UK, mainly Jewish, who came together in April 2016 to counter attempts by pro-Israel right wingers to brand the campaign for justice for Palestinians as antisemitic. Their attacks form part of two highly orchestrated campaigns: one, to undermine the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, the first potential British Prime Minister to have a consistent record of supporting Palestinian rights; the other, to suppress the pro-Palestinian voices of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others of many faiths and none, campaigning for freedom, justice and equality for all.
Oxford University philosopher Brian Klug has proposed a more straightforward and easier to apply definition of antisemitism as: ‘a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.’ Use of Dr Klug’s definition was recommended by Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism in his report commissioned to assist the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism.
The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign was launched by Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005 and has attracted worldwide support. It is the object of concerted attack by the Israeli Government and its supporters in other countries.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is not a formal international organisation. It is a loose alliance whose founding purpose is to ensure, through education, that new generations are informed about that tragedy.