Council refuses to host Palestinian charity over anti-Semitic fears

30th Aug 2019
Council refuses to host Palestinian charity over anti-Semitic fears

(Photo: Owen Cooper/The Big Ride Team)

Elham Asaad Buaras

Tower Hamlets Council refused to host a charity event for Palestinian children in July and then withheld details that the decision was based on fears the organisers criticism of Israel could breach the anti-Semitism guidelines.

Internal emails released following a Freedom of Information request by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) shows the Council also thought the Big Ride for Palestine should be refused because of the row over anti-Semitism in the Labour party.

However, the Council simply told organisers their event had ‘political connotations,’ a reason repeated to The Muslim News. “The Council gave the application careful consideration and decided not to host the event, because we do not host rallies with political connotations, albeit without direct links to political parties,” said a spokesman.

The Council made no mention of the contentious International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) anti-Semitism guidelines. In fact, in the internal emails the Council’s Head of Arts Parks and Events, Stephen Murray, was withholding details of refusal to the organisers because of concerns that it would open “a can of worms.”

Behind the scenes, the Council staff raised fears of a ‘real risk’ that the event and its organisers could be seen to have breached the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism because of references on their website to apartheid and ethnic cleansing. One official said there were concerns “not least because of the recent furore within the Labour party over anti-Semitism [sic]”.

The emails revealed the Council attempted to assess the Big Ride website according to the rubric of the IHRA definition. The emails showed concern among Council officials over quotes on the Big Ride website that described the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as ethnic cleansing and drew parallels between Israeli policies and apartheid-era South Africa.

One section of the website said: ‘Active opposition to the crimes of the Israeli state is a responsibility, just as opposition to South African apartheid was a moral and political imperative for many’, while another said: ‘It’s blatantly obvious to recognise the parallels between Apartheid South Africa and the state of Israel… This is an Israeli issue, not a Jewish one, many Jewish friends oppose this oppression.’

Critics argue IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism conflates legitimate criticism of Israel with racism. Its supporters view it as a means of helping organisations assess subtler forms of anti-Semitic abuse.

The emails show Council staff had decided the event could be refused on the grounds it was “controversial and sensitive” before calling on colleagues to check it against IHRA criteria.

After examining the website, an official, whose name was censored, wrote: “Although the application form raises no issues, the contents of their website does raise the risk that the event will fall foul of the position the Council has adopted.”

The Council’s head of Sports, Leisure and Cculture said she felt the event should be refused because “the Council has recently adopted the [IHRA] definition of anti-Semitism and there are concerns about the content of the organisation’s website with regard to this.”

Spokesperson for the charity said its work was focused on helping the 300,000 children in Gaza showing signs of severe psychological distress. “It’s a dreadful thing when an over-scrupulous interpretation of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is used behind closed doors to prevent awareness-raising of the situation in Palestine and the need for humanitarian support,” the Spokesperson added.

PSC and 22 other signatories say that a Council’s refusal to host the charity event has vindicated concerns raised about the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism.

In a letter to the Guardian, Chair of the PSC, Professor Kamel Hawwash, said, “This use of the IHRA definition demonstrates the real threat to freedom of expression that it represents, ignoring its protection in our national rights legislation.”

He adds, “‘Tower Hamlets Council’s decision dramatically demonstrates that freedom of expression on Palestine in this country is now being suppressed. This is exactly what we and many others have repeatedly warned of. This dangerous silencing now under way must stop.”

His letter was co-signed by eminent lawyers, academic experts on anti-Semitism, prominent British Jews and bodies such as the
Institute for Race Relations, former Labour MP and Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, film writer and director Mike Leigh , Co-chair of Jewish Voice for Labour, Leah Levane, and Secretary General of the Public and Commercial Services Union, Mark Serwotka.

Speaking to The Muslim News, Director of PSC, Ben Jamal, branded the Council’s decision “appalling” and that the row is “ a wakeup call to all of those who have claimed that the IHRA definition does not threaten the ability of Palestinians to bring the facts of their dispossession into public spaces and the rights of those concerned about justice to advocate on their behalf.”

He continues, “Here is a clear-cut example of a council preventing an event that has support from cross-party figures and seeks to raise awareness and show solidarity being denied public space because of illegitimate concerns that it might contravene the IHRA definition… The fight against anti-Semitism is not enhanced by any conflation of anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel’s laws policies or the actions of its governments.”

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