Reject the IHRA
The decision of Tower Hamlets council to refuse to host the Big Ride for Palestine is both cowardly and shameful, writes Tony Greenstein
In what must count as one of the most shameful and racist decisions of a ‘Labour’ council, Tower Hamlets refused last weekend to host the Big Ride for Palestine.1
The reasons that council officials gave were that raising money to fund sporting equipment for Palestinian children had “political connotations”, which meant that the closing rally of this year’s bike ride could not go ahead in the borough “without problems”. One wonders whether raising money for Israeli Jewish children would also have had “political connotations”. The stench of hypocrisy is overbearing.
Officials told organisers there was a risk speakers might express views which contradicted the council’s policies on community cohesion and equality. Fancy that. You would never guess that we live in a democracy, but this is what free speech under a New Labour council is about. But I guess we should be grateful: if this were Israel we could be locked up without trial - it’s called administrative detention.2
What kind of Orwellian world do we live in, when supporting children in the world’s largest open prison, Gaza, might be thought to promote inequality? How could this possibly affect “community cohesion” - unless they are saying Jewish pro-Israel residents would be upset by the thought of supporting Palestinian children?
The real reason for banning the Big Ride was that supporting the event might breach the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s ‘working definition’ of anti-Semitism3 because of references on the Big Ride’s website to apartheid and ethnic cleansing.
In other words, calling Israel what it is - an apartheid state - and referring to ethnic cleansing is considered to be ‘anti-Semitic’. What this really means is that telling the truth is now anti-Jewish! But in fact the IHRA is effectively saying that Jews are racist, because if you are anti-racist you are anti-Jewish.
There is no doubt that Israel is a racist and apartheid state. It is a state where the chief rabbi of Safed, a government employee, backed up by dozens of other rabbis, issued an edict forbidding Jews to rent homes to Arabs.4 It is a state where hundreds of Jewish communities are legally entitled, under the 2011 Admissions Committee Law, to bar Arabs from their communities, and where hundreds of demonstrators came onto the streets in Afula to protest the sale of a house to an Arab.5 It is a state where education is segregated and, according to the 2006 Israeli Democracy Institute Survey, 62% of Israelis wanted the government to encourage local Arabs to leave the country and 75% of Jews did not approve of sharing apartments with Arabs.6 It is a state where not one single Arab village or town has been created since 1948, whereas hundreds of Jewish communities have been established.
As for ethnic cleansing, it is the official policy of the Israeli government, of whatever political hue, to increase the number of Israeli Jews and reduce the size of the Arab population. That is why no Palestinian refugees are allowed to return, whereas any Jew is allowed to ‘return’ whether or not they have ever been in Israel before.
It is a state where the ministry of education can ban a book, Borderlife, about a relationship between Jewish and Arab teenagers because it gives the ‘wrong message’. Education officials explained that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews, and certainly the option of formalising them through marriage and having a family... is perceived by large segments of society as a threat to a separate identity”.7
According to Dalia Fenig, a senior education official,
Young people of adolescent age tend to romanticising and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the identity of the people and the significance of assimilation.8
In other words, teenagers might not yet have had time to ‘assimilate’ the racist ideology behind a ‘Jewish’ state, which says that mixed relationships between Jew and Arab are forbidden.
As for ethnic cleansing, where would one begin? The demolition of 100 Palestinian homes in July in Sur Baher, Jerusalem might be a start.9
Of course, the IHRA does not actually say that calling Israel an apartheid state or a state that practises ethnic cleansing is anti-Semitic. It does not have to. It is vague enough for officials to interpret it cautiously - excluding anything controversial that might cause “problems” later. That is how bureaucracies operate.
Seven of the IHRA’s eleven “examples” of ‘anti-Semitism’ relate to Israel. The preamble to the examples states: “Contemporary examples of anti-Semitism ... could, taking into account the overall context, include ...” But, of course, council officials and politicians do not do context. They apply the definition as if the examples are inflexible and straightforward.
The IHRA ‘definition’ has been subject to excoriating criticism by a host of academics and legal scholars, such as Geoffrey Robertson QC, who labelled it as “not fit for purpose”. Hugh Tomlinson QC described it as “chilling” free speech and the Jewish former court of appeal Judge, Sir Stephen Sedley, was similarly critical. Even David Feldman, director of the pro-Zionist Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, described the IHRA as “bewilderingly imprecise”, while the person who drafted it, Kenneth Stern stated: “The definition was not drafted, and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus.”10
Last week even Dr Geoffrey Alderman - a maverick, rightwing, Zionist academic and former Jewish Chronicle columnist - slated the IHRA definition. Like Geoffrey Robertson, he described the IHRA as not fit for purpose.11 The IHRA’s 11 examples “embed numerous internal contradictions”, he said.
However, no amount of reasoned argument or logic can withstand the unanimity of bourgeois support for Zionism. The IHRA is a necessary defence of British foreign policy support for Israel. So, despite all of this criticism, the IHRA continues on its way, because it is important to dress up support for the west’s guard dog in the Middle East in rosy and comfortable colours.
The actions of Tower Hamlets council are, of course, outrageous. Tower Hamlets is a heavily Bengali and Muslim area and the idea that supporting the Palestinians is anti-Semitic is not likely to gain much support in the area. Activists need to campaign for the replacement of this politically corrupt and racist New Labour council, which owes its existence to the undemocratic removal of the previous independent left administration of Lutfur Rahman, by a combination of the high court and Tory rightwinger Eric Pickles.12
But, above all, it is incumbent on the trade unions, which were responsible for the Labour Party adopting the IHRA, to now recognise that their existing policies in favour of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign and Palestinian rights are incompatible with support for the IHRA.
My own branch of Unite has sent an open letter to Len McCluskey calling for the union to reverse its support for the IHRA. Activists in Unison and other trade unions should be working along the same lines. Our message should be simple - support the Palestinians, not Israeli apartheid and Zionism.
On October 12 the Palestine Solidarity Campaign will be holding a trade union conference. It has so far ensured that the IHRA is kept off the agenda, as the Socialist Action leadership of PSC is anxious not to come into conflict with the union leaders. It provides an ideal opportunity for us to raise the issue nonetheless.
Our message is that the IHRA ‘definition’ must go. It has nothing to do with fighting anti-Semitism and everything to do with supporting racism and apartheid in Israel.