GLA gets it so very wrong on antisemitism

Mike Cushman

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.

My response to Duvall’s reply

Dear Len Duvall

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:

  1. Problematic legally
  2. Poorly drafted and incoherent
  3. Politically partisan and repressive

1.      Legal problems

The definition attempts to limit people’s rights to discuss Israel in a way which is inconsistent with Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. This article requires a convincing definition of any restrictions on the right to free speech and establishes a presumption in favour of permitting speech even if it antithetical to the wishes of the Government or large sections of public opinion. The Equality Act 2010 sets out in carefully defined terms the basis of restrictions on what may be said: limiting the restrictions to incitement to hatred, violence and discriminatory action.

Some of the egregious examples you list such as holocaust denial or many of the utterances of Steve Bannon would be illegal under the act and we would share your concern to combat them. However, the definition is not, unlike the Act, carefully constructed and its poor drafting makes its application dubious for UK public bodies.

2.      Poor drafting

Even the core definition is problematic. It states:

“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.”

Leave aside the great problem of trying to legislate for and constrain perceptions rather than words and actions. Even bypassing this, we are given the strange assertion that antisemitism may be directed to non-Jewish individuals and/or their property. This is not explicated in any of the eleven exemplars provided. It is true that a non-Jewish person who is mistaken for a Jew may be subject to abuse that may reasonable be interpreted as antisemitic, as Dr Brian Klug has demonstrated. However, if this is the situation anticipated it is entirely opaque from the wording. It leaves open the prospect that I, as a person of Jewish heritage, may in some unexplained circumstance be antisemitic towards a non-Jew.

The Government has made clear that the core definition cannot be separated from the exemplars and the definition must be taken a whole so the weaknesses of the exemplars vitiate the whole enterprise.

Even the most apparently straightforward of the exemplars are strangely worded. The first states:

Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion (my italics).

What is the import of the italicised words? Are there circumstances where calling for the killing or harming of Jews is not antisemitic? Given current circumstances these words are a dog-whistle to Islamophobia, the religion sadly, but constantly, linked to the term ‘extremist’ in too much of both broadcast and social media and in political speeches.

The third exemplar gives a clear expression of holocaust denial, such denial is clearly unacceptable, but the fourth confuses this. The question of Jewish, or more accurately in this case Zionist, exaggeration leads into more contested areas. The disputed claims are about the alleged misuse of the undoubted reality of the Holocaust to justify the current actions of the Israeli state: acting as a perennial get-out-jail-free card.

The sixth and eleventh items both arise from the re-iterated exhortations both from Israel and from many UK Jewish bodies for uncritical support for Israel and the identification by them of Israel with the global Jewish communities and indeed the repeated, if undoubtedly false, claims by Israeli leaders that Israel is the state of all Jews. Such calls lead to confusion as to loyalty and responsibility amongst both Jews and non-Jews and do not have any necessary link to antisemitism.

The seventh exemplar has no connection between its two halves. ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’. We are not dealing with a State of Israel but the State of Israel as it currently exists on the Eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean: a state that that privileges its Jewish citizens through at least 50 pieces of legislation as documented by the Israeli Human Rights group, Adalah.  Self-determination must reasonably include respecting the rights of others but the definition is silent on this.

The eight item about double standards misses the point entirely. The demands of those the definition seeks to constrain are exactly that Israel should behave no worse than other democratic states.

Item nine refers to the blood libel and if anyone were to accuse Jews of kidnapping and murdering Christian children to use their blood to make Matzo for Pesach that would be evil. However, the blood libel is referenced on too many occasions where Israel is accused of shedding blood in their repression of Palestinians (just as, for instance, Assad is also accused of bloody warfare). The accusation may be mistaken or unwelcome but it is not at all related to the blood libel.

I am concerned at the uncritical adoption of a document that has not been subject to the detailed scrutiny that legislation is subject to in order to eliminate loose wording, misleading analogies and ambiguous wording.

3.      Partisan and repressive

If, despite all this, the intent was to use the definition conservatively the situation would be less concerning. However, all the indications are that the definition is being used in the widest possible way to outlaw criticism of Israel.

First there was the conscious decision of the Government to ignore the strong recommendation of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee to add the caveat of needing evidence of antisemitic intent. Then there was the letter that Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Higher Education sent to Universities UK not only urging Universities to adopt the definition but linking the definition, without any supporting argument or evidence, to the imminent Israeli Apartheid Week as though IAW is self-evidently antisemitic. We may disagree as to whether Israel is an apartheid state but it is not antisemitic for me to advance the case that it is, particularly when Archbishop Tutu and many of the other leaders of the South African anti-apartheid struggle concur with me.

As a result of Johnson’s letter events at some Universities were disrupted or cancelled and gloating items appeared in the Jewish press celebrating the effectiveness of the definition in curtailing what they described as anti-Israel activities; the organisers would characterise them as pro-Palestinian. We are unaware of any evidence that any of the disputed events had antisemitic characteristics; rather they were subject to a wholly inappropriate political censorship, at variance with the duty of Universities to promote debate and argument.

We are receiving details of an increasing trend of suppression of support for Palestinian Rights on the basis of the invocation of the IHRA definition: speakers disallowed; venues cancelled; staff harassed; academic activities curtailed.

Although I would welcome your acceptance of my analysis of the situation in Palestine/Israel, I do not, at least in the short term, expect that. What I do expect is that you should respect my right to present this case publicly without risk of being reviled as antisemitic merely for criticising Israel: that right is under threat following adoption of this flawed definition.

You have met with Jewish groups supportive of the definition, I hope you extend the courtesy of meeting Jews who find their basic rights to free, anti-racist expression threatened.

Mike Cushman

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Duvall’s reply

Good morning

This is the response which is on behalf of the Labour Group.

Thank you for your email  about the anti -Semitism motion.

I believe this represents mainstream Jewish opinion about anti- Semitism and is a fair representation  of how Israel  can be criticised when necessary in a reasonable way. The motion says in terms:

‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic’.

Of course, there are minorities within the Jewish and other  communities  who will disagree from both a fundamentalist religious viewpoint and from an anti- Zionist  left view, but  I think criticisms of Israel should be expressed in a way that does not encourage or reflect anti – Semitic tropes, especially referring back to the Holocaust.

Anti -Semitism is fuelled by far right and far left views, in my opinion. On the right, believers that the world is engaged in a clash of cultures approve  of a strong Jewish state in the Middle East – they support  Israeli settlement building as part of a generational struggle rooted in Islamophobia. These same groups on the right hold in disdain the majority of diaspora Jews, who are overwhelmingly centrist liberals and generally do not support parties of the far right or far left  especially in the UK and North America.

This in the eyes of the alt-right  makes them enemies of their national projects. For example Steve Bannon, chief strategist to President Trump is on record using various demeaning terms about Jews.  When he refers to a shadowy group of “cosmopolitan elites in the media that live in a handful of larger cities.” He means Jews.  At a meeting of Jewish Republicans, President Trump stated how honoured he was to be in a room of ‘great negotiators’ and then went on to suggest that they wouldn’t like him because he doesn’t want their money. Another anti-Semitic trope.

And  when people from the left proclaim  that Israel is a Nazi state or compare Israelis to SS murderers, they are using the most horrific and personal imagery to Jewish people. To do so is not only anti-Semitic in itself, but also downplays the significance of the Holocaust and  the suffering of its victims and  survivors.

Equally it is wrong to call Israel an ‘apartheid’ state. To do so is not merely a sloppy and inaccurate analysis, it shows real  disrespect and diminishes the sacrifices made by the majority population in South Africa, to obtain the rights all Israelis have.

Israel does not deny Arab Israelis voting rights, nor enforce pass laws, nor insist, unlike Apartheid South Africa’s Afrikaans rules, that Hebrew should be the medium in schools.

Every person in Israel has full equal rights; 1.6 million Arab Israelis have the same rights as the 6.8 million Jewish Israelis; in Israel incitement to racism is a criminal offence; people have freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and they enjoy universal adult suffrage.

Israel is a place where women enjoy equality, religious minorities are free to practice their faiths, the media is unfettered and critical, an independent judiciary protects the powerless from the powerful, educational excellence and scientific innovation are pursued and a welfare state supports the poor.

Israel is a fully functioning and vibrant participatory democracy.

By the same token, any criticisms of Muslim states and the activities of the Palestinian Authority  should be measured, though many of those who demonise   Israel seem willing to turn a blind eye to them.

Those who criticise Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state should reflect  that whilst this does not form part of the country’s official name, ‘Islamic’ is  part of the official name of  quite a number  of countries; they  expelled their Jewish communities 60 years ago, (incidentally  in far greater numbers than displaced Palestinians), do not allow Jews to visit , do not promote religious  tolerance, criminalise homosexuals, have restrictions on the media, deny rights to women and are not functioning democracies

Such criticisms  can be advanced, as I just have,  without recourse to the insulting language that some critics of Israel feel they are free to  deploy against Israel.

Best wishes


Len Duvall AM

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FSOI letter to all GLA members

 Jewish led Free Speech group says London Assembly antisemitism vote is “A charter for censors”

Dear Assembly Member

We would like to draw your attention to this statement from the Jewish-led Free Speech on Israel campaign regarding the motion on antisemitism passed by the London Assembly on Feb 8.

In the statement, the group points out the worrying implications of the position the Assembly has taken – a position that could call into question the Assembly’s commitment to freedom of speech.

We invite you to look more carefully at the decision you made at the behest of Andrew Dismore, a prominent member of the lobby group Labour Friends of Israel.

briefing document from Free Speech on Israel explains how equating anti-Zionism (a valid political position) and antisemitism (a noxious form of race hatred) constrains discourse about Palestine under the rubric of protecting Jews from antisemitism. This can only have the unintended consequence of stoking new hostility to Jews who may be seen as attempting to determine what non-Jews may or may not say about a foreign state.

We have a large number of London-based Jewish members who would welcome the opportunity to talk to you, individually or as a group, about this important subject.

Yours faithfully,

Mike Cushman
for FSOI

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