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

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