Response from Mayor Biggs to our Petition

We got the reply below from the Mayor last week. Obviously we are not pleased, however, we will not stop arguing for the right to campaign explicitly on Palestine in the Borough.

We are expecting the Big Ride for Palestine to be in London in early August 2020. We are shortly applying to use a Tower Hamlets park for the final rally.

Reminder of our Launch meeting in Newham next week

Dear Sybil

Thank you for your petition regarding the Council’s adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

I entirely understand your passion for this topic and I am sure many members, myself included, will hold personal sympathies and support for the Palestinian cause.

Similarly to the one we debated last year, this petition asks the council to adopt caveats to an internationally recognised definition which has been adopted by countries including France, Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom.  I have had correspondence in recent days from both sides of the argument and it is clear this issue is one on which there are significant differing views.

A definition of anti-Semitism is not an issue of restricting free speech, it is an issue of protecting those of a Jewish identity from abuse. Only recently we have seen anti-Semitic graffiti in the borough heightening the anxieties of Jewish residents and I worry deeply about what message those residents would take from a decision to start caveating an internationally recognised definition of anti-Semitism to reference the actions of Israel.

It is entirely acceptable to criticise the actions of any state including Israel, indeed many of us here regularly criticise the actions of our own Government. Equally it is right to be able to show solidarity with the people of Palestine but the definition does not seek to stop people doing that. While I stand with the people of Palestine in solidarity, I also have to stand by our decision to adopt the IHRA definition in full. In my view you cannot qualify or caveat a definition of racism.

With regards to the Big Ride, the Chief Executive has investigated and was clear. While the IHRA was considered, it played no role in the final decision not to give permission for this event. Personally I am disappointed that the Ride was unable to end in Tower Hamlets but it really isn’t for politicians to take a role in operational decisions like this. I have however instructed that a full review of our events in parks policy is carried out to ensure it strikes the right balance and fully takes into account the concerns raised by the Big Ride, this will be complete shortly.

In terms of recognising Palestine, the council doesn’t have the power to do this formally. I have no doubt many, if not all, members of the council, myself included, desire that Palestinians secure self-determination in a territory of their own. Indeed Labour councillors have passed such a motion and had submitted a motion to recognise Palestine for debate at a council meeting but it was ruled out of order by the Monitoring Officer as formal recognition is a matter reserved to the Foreign Office, and not one this Council has power over.

I want to thank you again for your petition and for the passion with which you presented it.

Yours sincerely,

Mayor John Biggs

Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets

East London PSC Launch!

Tower Hamlets PSC – Twin Jenin is moving eastwards!
Our launch meeting is on Friday February 7th 7-8.30 at Durning Hall, Earlham Grove, London E7 9AB

Stand with Palestine

Hazem Jamjoum – Al Shabaka
Abdulwahab Sabah – CADFA Abu Dis
Sybil Cock – Twin Jenin

Lobby of Tower Hamlets Council:
As soon as we have a written response from the Mayor we will post it here

Some information about the Lobby of Tower Hamlets Council on Jan 15th 2020

PRESS BRIEFING: Tower Hamlets Council and the IHRA

  • On Saturday 3rd August, it was revealed (following a Freedom of Information request submitted by Palestine Solidarity Campaign) that Tower Hamlets Council refused an event application from The Big Ride for Palestine because of secret concerns around the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

  • The Big Ride is an annual event now in its 5th year. It seeks to combine a love of cycling with awareness raising of the rights deprivations suffered by the Palestinian people and showing solidarity with their struggle for justice. It raises money for children’s charities in Gaza. The Ride has attracted significant and widespread endorsement from MPs from numerous political parties as well as prominent public figures.

  • In response to this story – which gained widespread media coverage at local, national and even international level –  PSC wrote to Mayor Biggs, the elected leader of Tower Hamlet Council, outlining its serious concerns over this decision and calling on him to take action.

  • Mayor Biggs agreed to meet with PSC representatives (both local and national) as well as a representative from The Big Ride to discuss these concerns in more depth. This meeting took place on 29th October.

  • One of the key asks from this group is for Tower Hamlets Council to adopt an additional caveat to the previously adopted IHRA definition of antisemitism which explicitly protects freedom to criticise the state of Israel.

  • This ask was previously made of Tower Hamlets Council via petition in November 2018 by local PSC activists, and it was rejected. Activists warned at the time that, without the caveat, the adoption of the IHRA definition posed a threat to freedom of expression and activism relating to Palestine. The Council asserted that this would not happen.

  • The IHRA definition of antisemitism has been criticised with regard to threats to freedom of expression by eminent lawyers, respected members of the Jewish community, academic experts on antisemitism, and bodies such as the Institute for Race Relations. Last year a group of prominent Palestinians wrote to the national press highlighting that “any use by public bodies of the IHRA examples on antisemitism that either inhibits discussion relating to Palestinian dispossession by ethnic cleansing, when Israel was established, or attempts to silence public discussions on current or past practices of settler colonialism, apartheid, racism and discrimination, and the ongoing violent military occupation, directly contravenes core rights”.

  • Local residents have submitted another petition to Tower Hamlets Council calling on them to once again consider adopting the caveat to the IHRA definition of antisemitism. This petition will be considered at a Council meeting on Wednesday 15th January. There will be a rally outside the council building at 6pm prior to the meeting, and inside the meeting proposers of the petition will have the opportunity to speak directly to the Council to make their case. The Mayor will then issue a response.

    Press are welcome to attend this event, and Palestine Solidarity Campaign representatives will be available for interview or comment. For further enquiries please contact

Stand with Palestine! Lobby Tower Hamlets Council on January 15th 6-7 pm Mulberry Place, E14 1SA

In 2019, Tower Hamlets Council refused to allow the Big Ride for Palestine to use one of its parks for the final Rally. The Big Ride for Palestine raises money for a children’s charity in Gaza. Information gained under Freedom of Information laws shows clearly that council officers refused permission because they were concerned that the Big Ride’s website, and one or more of the proposed speakers, might contravene the highly controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism.

We are petitioning the Council in January to provide robust safeguards for Palestine Solidarity in our Borough. Please come and show your support.

Standing with Palestine in Bethnal Green

A brilliant public meeting last week – 70 people heard our case against Tower Hamlets Council.   Earlier this year it refused to allow The Bug Ride for Palestine – a charity bike ride for children in Gaza, permission to us its parks for a welcome rally.  Through Freedom of Information requests, we discovered that the secret reason was that we might be contravening the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.

We need to safeguard the right to speak out about Palestine in Tower Hamlets.

Clare Short, Cllrs Gabriela Salva-Macallan and Ehtasham Hoque, Rob Ferguson of Free Speech on Israel, and Ben Jamal, director of PSC spoke.

watch Ben Jamal’s talk here

Our lobby of the Council has been postponed until January 15th 2020 because of the election.   Please join us – speakers will be announced shortly.

Facebook 2

Council blocks TH Palestine event over predicted IHRA definition misuse

A solidarity event to welcome cyclists raising awareness and money for Palestinian children suffering from the Israeli occupation was blocked by TH Council over fears they could be breaching a misguided definition of antisemitism.

The Big Ride 4 Palestine event was to be held in the borough with cyclists completing a 36m bike ride from Kensington to Bethnal Green on Saturday 27 July.

TH Council withheld the real reason for preventing one of their venues being used, however, subsequent release of emails between Council staff revealed in the Guardian show concerns over the definition of anti-semitism according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition.

TH Palestine Solidarity warned of the potential misuse of the IHRA.s definition in preventing free speech and legitimate support and campaigning for the Palestinian cause prior to the Council adopting it, but were ignored.

The full Guardian article can be read here. The letter to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, from Palestine Solidarity Campaign in protest can read here. A response from Free Speech on Israel can be read here.







Tower Hamlets Council must respect right to free speech

Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign press release on the lobby of and petition to Tower Hamlets Council on 21 November. The lobby, supported by Free Speech On Israel,  and the petition called on the Council to challenge antisemitism and respect the right to free speech and safeguard Palestinian solidarity.

On Wednesday 21st November, a group of  residents from Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign (TH PSC) presented a petition to the full council meeting, requesting that the council ‘Safeguard Palestinian Solidarity’ and addressed the Council in support of the petition. This was in response to the recent adoption of the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, without any caveat that would enable Palestinians and their supporters to continue to speak out freely about harmful actions of the Israeli government.

TH PSC are pleased that in response to our petition Councillors Sirajul Islam, Kevin Brady, and Mayor John Biggs made supporting statements in solidarity with Palestine. All three noted that it is not racist to criticise Israel. After the petition Councillor Andrew Wood suggested that Israel’s policies might be ‘war crimes’. Listen to a recording of the Council meeting.

In light of this, we are disappointed that the Mayor chose to reject our petition at full council, and not make a clear commitment to protect freedom of speech. We are also concerned that the Mayor condemned the petition as ‘offensive’, and questioned our right to petition, despite his earlier supportive comments. We are also concerned that the speaker allowed councillors to talk the petitioners out of time, in a further effort to silence us.

Anti-semitism on the rise

As we said at the meeting, antisemitism is on the rise across the world, and openly antisemitic governments are in power in Hungary, Lithuania, Austria – electoral success fanned by Trump’s racist policies. We were horrified at the murder of eleven Jews in Pittsburgh, in an attack clearly motivated by antisemitism and the hostile environment of current US politics.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi addresses the lobby.

It is clear that antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-migrant racism are on the rise in the UK. This is a particular concern to residents of Tower Hamlets. We have been actively involved in building opposition to this, including support for the Unity march against fascism and racism on 17 November, where we joined numerous Labour Party and Union members, including councillors from Tower Hamlets. We will march again on 9 December to oppose the rally called by Tommy Robinson and UKIP in London.

Problems with the IHRA definition

We believe that the IHRA working definition of antisemitism does not just fail to help in identifying or combating real antisemitism; it sows divisions amongst those that the far right target. The definition itself is vague, and many legal experts have questioned it, including Sir Stephen Sedley QC, Hugh Tomlinson QC and Sir Geoffrey Bindman.

Despite claims to the contrary there is widespread concern about the definition within the Jewish community.  The man who drafted the IHRA definition of antisemitism has condemned its use to curb freedom of speech.

Some of the examples attached to the definition threaten to silence Palestinian voices, and it is the responsibility of those campaigning for Palestinian rights to raise concerns.

TH Council adopts IHRA definition

We are aware that numerous councils across the UK have adopted the IHRA working definition in one form or another but are concerned that Mayor Biggs claims that it is an ‘international definition’.

The IHRA itself lists only eight governments that have adopted the IHRA’s working definition, and two of those include ruling parties that promote antisemitism and revisionist versions of Holocaust history, namely Austria and Lithuania.

We are extremely concerned that the adoption by Tower Hamlets Council of this working definition could lead to a situation where citizens expressing support for Palestine, or criticising Israel, could be subject to legal or work place sanctions. This has happened in Dudley where UNISON member Paul Jonson has been suspended from his council job for stating on social media that ‘Israel is a racist endeavour’. We support the solidarity campaign in defence of Paul by many trade unionists and others, including within his own union, UNISON.

Palestinian solidarity at risk

Criticising Zionism or Israel as a state does not constitute criticism of Jews as individuals or as a people and is not evidence of antisemitism. Allegations of antisemitism without further supporting evidence are unfair and unjust.  In the absence of this the necessity of holding the government of Israel, to account by the international community is prejudiced. We are particularly concerned that Tower Hamlets Council should be made aware of the misuse of this issue by the far right.

The real danger is that the adoption of the IHRA working definition will silence Palestinian voices. Its adoption by Tower Hamlets Council without caveat or due discussion, threatens division in Tower Hamlets between those who have a common interest in combating antisemitism, Islamophobia, and the rise of the far right.

Contact: Sybil Cock, Tower Hamlets Jenin Friendship Association and Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Lobby & petition against TH Council’s full adoption of the IHRA definition

TH Palestine Solidarity Campaign will lobby TH Council next month (5.45-7.30pm at the Town Hall on Weds 21 Nov) to express our concerns over the recent adoption of the full IHRA definition of antisemitism.

Councillors were reportedly pushed into voting in favour of it resulting in an unanimous vote that could restrict our ability to campaign for Palestine in the borough.

We are also urging supporters of Palestine and free speech, who live, work or study in Tower hamlets, to sign our petition (petition now closed) calling for the Council to include a caveat to the adopted IHRA definition that will protect our right to legitimately criticise the Israeli State, its policies, Zionist ideology, as well as support and advocate for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Please email us if you would like a paper version of the petition.


In an era when the far-right is growing in confidence it is more important than ever to stand against Holocaust denial,, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and any other forms of antisemetic prejudice and hatred.

However, many of the examples which accompany the IHRA definition systematically conflate opposition to Israel with antisemitism, threatening to undermine many years of practical solidarity with the Palestinian people in the face of decades of dispossession and occupation.

We note that the motion to adopt the full IHRA definition was moved by Conservative councillors, whose party has been at the forefront of promoting Islamophobia and the racist ‘hostile environment’ that has affected the lives of so many of our residents.

Click here to read more about the Council’s adoption of the full definition of the IHRA and our concerns.

Further information is also available on the excellent Free Speech on Israel website.

Statement on TH Council’s full adoption of IHRA definition

TH Palestine Solidarity will be protesting against TH Council’s full adoption of the IHRA definition at the Full Council meeting on Weds 21st November at Mulberry Place.

Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign (THPSC) and Jenin Friendship Association (THJFA) regrets TH Council’s decision of 17 September to adopt, in its entirety, the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the accompanying “examples”.

In an era when the far-right is growing in confidence it is more important than ever to stand against Holocaust denial, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and any other forms of antisemitic prejudice and hatred.

However, the examples which accompany the IHRA definition systematically conflate opposition to Israel with antisemitism, threatening to undermine many years of practical solidarity with the Palestinian people in the face of decades of dispossession and occupation.

We note that the motion was moved by Conservative councillors, whose party had been at the forefront of promoting Islamophobia and the racist “hostile environment” that has affected the lives of so many of our residents.

Opposed to all forms of racism

We are opposed to all forms of racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia. Tower Hamlets has a proud history of uniting our community against racism and fascism – from Cable Street to the EDL and Britain First. This includes unity across differences in view over Israel-Palestine.

It is vital that our borough, particularly given the threat of the far-right today, maintains this unity and defends freedom of expression over Israel-Palestine.

We therefore oppose attempts to widen the definition of antisemitism beyond its historic meaning of hostility towards or discrimination against Jews as Jews. PSC and THJFA have always opposed any expression of antisemitism, whatever the context.

A statement we can support

We therefore support the statement by many leading Jewish academics and others that:

Criticism of Israel is not antisemitic unless motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice. Examples of this can include: holding all Jews accountable for the actions of the state of Israel; engaging in conspiracy theories about the state of Israel that draw on antisemitic stereotypes about supposed Jewish power; accusing all Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel than to the interests of their own nations.

“Criticism of Israel, of its displacement of Palestinians and of its denial of their rights, is not antisemitic. Criticising laws and policies of the state of Israel as racist and as falling under the definition of apartheid is not antisemitic. Calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel to oppose those policies is not antisemitic. We call upon all public bodies and other organisations to apply these principles in addressing antisemitism within their own organisations and when challenging it within wider society.”

Problems with IHRA

We believe the Council’s decision to adopt the full IHRA definition, with all its examples, can only serve to suppress criticism of the Israeli state and support for the Palestine cause.

It is a decision that flies in the face of calls from Palestinians in the West Bank, the Israeli Knesset and in Britain, and OVER 40 international Jewish organisations  to reject the full IHRA definition. It will also disappoint the many Palestinians who have a personal connection with our borough.

Despite denials, the IHRA definition has already been used to suppress criticism of Israel. As the letter from Arab members of the Knesset makes clear, it specifically silences Palestinian voices in articulating the institutional and structural roots of their own oppression. Currently Israel has over 60 laws that discriminate against Palestinians.

Working together, getting it right

Since the formation of THJFA in 2002, our community, the Council, many councillors and our Mayor, have welcomed visitors from Jenin in Palestine. We have campaigned with the support of Tower Hamlets constituents, to further this friendship by twinning Tower Hamlets with Jenin.

We believe that adopting the definition sends a message that criticism of the Israeli state and solidarity with the Palestinian people will be discouraged in our borough and regarded with suspicion.

We aim to campaign that nothing in the Tower Hamlets code prevents our community from expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people and support for their struggle for equality and human rights or from discussing the reality and roots of their oppression.

We believe many in our community will be concerned at the adoption of the full IHRA definition. We intend to protest at the next meeting of our Council on Wednesday 21st November.

We will continue to highlight the struggle for Palestinian human rights; to build the solidarity campaign in our borough and to insist on the freedom to protest at the racist structures of power that have been employed to dispossess and oppress the Palestinian people.

Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Jenin Friendship Association