Resist the attack on free speech on Israel

Photo: RNW.org Part of the wall which divides Palestinian villages and Palestinian land

Roland Rance looks at what the government’s new definition of antisemitism means:

The Tory government’s announcement that it accepts the recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee and will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance[1] definition of antisemitism means that Britain will be the first country to employ this latest incarnation of the discredited and tendentious EUMC “working definition of antisemitism”. This definition in effect criminalises opposition to Zionism, or criticism of Israel that goes beyond the bounds permitted by the Israeli state itself.[2]

The IHRA definition starts with a bland, almost uncontentious statement that “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.” This is the only part of the definition that has been reported in the media. However, the IHRA then goes on to illustrate this with concrete examples, most of which relate to criticism of Israel or of Zionism: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity… 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… Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation… Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.” As it happens, most Zionist groups, and the state of Israel itself, would fall foul of the last clause; while referring to “any other democratic nation” rather begs the question – and it should be noted that the state of Israel explicitly rejects the existence of an Israeli nation.

It is not yet clear how this decision will be put in to practice. The government has not announced any proposals for legislation, and apparently intends at present merely to issue “guidelines” to public bodies. Such guidelines, however, could themselves impose huge restraints on the freedom of expression and activity of campaigners. Among the bodies which will be required to use this definition are the police force, local authorities and university boards.

Since no new criminal offence is being created, it will presumably not be an explicit offence to oppose Zionism. However, since the police will be required to act according to these guidelines, a complaint by an Israel supporter of alleged antisemitism by a pro-Palestine activist will be investigated with the assumption that anti-Zionism is necessarily antisemitic. Further, “the Crown Prosecution Service will consider the words ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zio’ for inclusion as part of its current guidance for prosecutors”. So we should expect to see criminal charges in the future against people whose only “offence” is to oppose the Zionist pretension to speak for and in the name of all Jews.

Recent legislation, opposed by activists and trade unions, has banned local authorities from using any political criteria in regard to investment, thus banning divestment from arms companies and environmental despoilers as well as from Israeli companies. But the new guideline could be used to deny the use of any council premises for any solidarity activity, or even potentially for banning critical books from libraries. Again, all it would take is a complaint from someone that a particular activity (or book) was offensive and antisemitic. This could have a chilling effect on political discussion, even if it does not lead to any actual prosecutions.

However, it is in universities that the chilling effect of this decision is likely to be felt first. The government statement endorses the Select Committee’s criticism of the National Union of Students for its alleged “failure to take sufficiently seriously the issue of anti-Semitism on campus”, and goes on to argue that “left-leaning student political organisations have allowed anti-Semitism to emerge”. This flies in the teeth of the unsurprising evidence, reported by the Select Committee, that the overwhelming majority of antisemitic incidents are perpetrated by the right.

The government statement endorses and reinforces the attack on NUS president Malia Bouattia, and on all student unions which have endorsed the Boycott Divestment and Sactions (BDS) campaign or organised an Israel Apartheid week. The decision could restrict the work not only of student groups, but of all organisations which are currently able to use student union premises and facilities for their campaigns. And the decision is also an implicit threat to academic freedom, potentially preventing the teaching of certain courses or the use of some material. This is already happening in the USA, where, for example, the Chancellor of Berkeley University recently ordered the cancellation of a course on “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis”, while attacks on academics such as Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita, Sarah Schulman and Simona Sharoni are common.

Indeed, this decision needs to be seen in the context of a worldwide attack on supporters of Palestinian rights and BDS. In France, calling for BDS has been effectively criminalised, with acrtivists arrested even for wearing pro-boycott t-shirts. In Germany, a teacher is facing dismissal from his job because of his support (outside school) for BDS, and the bank account of the pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East has been shut by the bank (as indeed have dozens of accounts of PSC and pro-BDS groups in Britain, by the supposedly progressive Cooperative Bank). At the beginning of December, the Ontario Legislative Assembly passed a motion condemning BDS. And the US Senate has just unanimously passed the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” which, if passed into law, would make even arguing that Israel is not a democratic state a criminal offence.

Meanwhile, Israel is also increasing its harassment of perceived opponents. In early December, the assistant general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, was denied entry at Ben-Gurion Airport on the false allegation that the WCC supports BDS. In fact, neither Dr Phiri, nor the WCC (which represents some 600 million Christians) supports BDS. Dr Phiri, a Malawian academic, was the only African member of her delegation, and the only member refused entry.

Although this decision by the May government will be used to harass and intimidate activists, it will not put an end to the increasingly effective BDS campaign. But opposition to the decision has been undermined by the dismaying support of the definition by Jeremy Corbyn. This is all the more surprising since the approach of the IHRA is in sharp contrast to the recommendations and wording of the Chakrabarti report, which quite consciously avoided conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and located the latter in the context of racism and discrimination. It also seems that Labour’s equalities committee, which met on 12 December, with the participation of a representative of the “Jewish Labour Movement”,[3] failed to understand the crucial distinction. This position is both wrong in principle, and tactically inept. It will not put a stop to the continued barrage of false allegations against Jeremy Corbyn, other activists and the Labour Party as a whole; but, by conceding the legitimacy of this “definition” and implicitly approving its legal enforcement, spurious legitimacy has been granted to the false equation of anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Labour Party members who support the rights of the Palestinian people must argue against these decisions, which will do nothing to tackle real antisemitism but will rather be used to silence or intimidate campaigners for Palestinian rights.

Socialist Resistance will not be deflected from our support for Palestinian rights and our opposition to Zionism and to the apartheid Israeli state. We stand alongside Jackie Walker, Malia Bouattia, David Watson and the other targets of smears and false allegations; we support and work with Free Speech on Israel in its efforts to counter these lies; and we support the struggle of the Palestinian people for an end to the occupation, for the right to return to the homes and lands from which they have been expelled and dispossessed, and for full equality and the dismantlement of the Zionist structure of the state of Israel. One key part of this is the Palestinian led campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it permits the realisation of these Palestinian rights.


[1] The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is not a formal international body, but an informal association of western states.

[2] In a recent statement, Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee, who drafted the original EUMC text, noted that “the definition was never intended to be used to limit speech on a college campus; it was written for European data collectors to have a guideline for what to include and what to exclude in reports… it is wrong to say that BDS is inherently a form of antisemitism, and even if it were it would be improper to try and censor pro-BDS campus activity.”

[3] The Jewish Labour Movement, formerly known as Poale Zion, is the section in Britain of the party formerly known as the Israel Labour Party, now renamed the Zionist Camp. It is an affiliate of the World Zionist Organisation.

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