IHRA seeks to ‘silence criticism of Israel’

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Downing Street demonstration in support of a Palestinian state
Downing Street demonstration in support of a Palestinian state

PALESTINIAN civil society groups issued a statement on Wednesday urging the UK Labour Party and trade unions to reject the ‘biased, anti-Palestinian’ International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism which seeks to conflate anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.

In the statement the groups claim the definition ‘aims to silence criticism of Israeli policies that clearly violate Palestinian human rights.’ The statement, signed by 24 Palestinian civil society groups including their trade unions, refugee networks and professional associations, is circulating on social media with the hashtag #DontSilencePalestine.

It reads: ‘Palestinian trade unions, mass organisations and networks, representing the majority in Palestinian civil society, call on the British Labour Party, trade unions, city councils, universities and civil society at large to reject the IHRA’s false, anti-Palestinian definition of anti-Semitism.’

The ‘discredited’ IHRA guidelines ‘deliberately conflate hostility to or prejudice or discrimination against Jews on the one hand with legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies and system of injustice on the other,’ the statement continues.

The Palestinian groups’ statement affirms that the IHRA definition ‘attempts to erase Palestinian history, demonise solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality, suppress freedom of expression, and shield Israel’s far-right regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid from effective measures of accountability in accordance to international law’.

The Palestinian statement urges Labour and UK trade unions to:

• Consistently uphold the UK Human Rights Act, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the right to freedom of expression.

• Unequivocally uphold the UN-stipulated rights of the people of Palestine.

• Officially endorse a military embargo on Israel.

• Unambiguously condemn all forms of racism and bigotry, including Israel’s more than 60 racist laws.

Ben Jamal, director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), said: ‘This is a hugely significant intervention from a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society organisations whose ongoing struggle for freedom, justice and equality is directly hindered by the IHRA.

‘We share these concerns about how the IHRA is being used to suppress discussion of the realities of Palestinian dispossession and the ongoing denial of their rights as well as a tool to quash the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Labour and the trade union movement must heed Palestinian voices.’

The IHRA definition is adhered to by 31 nations, the majority of which are European. Kenneth S. Stern, the man who drafted the IHRA definition has condemned its use to curb freedom of speech on Israel – insisting it was always a ‘working definition’ and had never been intended to be a legal framework on anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, earlier this month more than 80 prominent organisations from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in the United Kingdom (UK) rejected the definition of anti-Semitism, saying it ‘suppresses discussion of the “colonial history” of Palestine.’

In a letter published on Friday 17th August, the groups slam attempts to silence the discourse on Palestine. The letter also criticises the definition of anti-Semitism, which was adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA); critics say that the definition conflates anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of Israel.

The document also provides a list of expressions that it considers anti-Semitism, including ‘claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour’. The 2016 document warns against ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ – which is a tactic used by some Palestinian solidarity groups to highlight Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians.

The statement comes amid signals that sections of Britain’s Labour Party are pushing to adopt the full IHRA definition amid accusations of anti-Semitism against the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn. The letter pointed out the groups are deeply worried that current attempts to ‘silence public discussions of what happened in Palestine and to the Palestinians in 1948 (when over 800,000 Palestinians, out of 1.4 million who lived in historical Palestine, were forced out of their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel, to become refugees in neighbouring Arab countries, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.)’

The letter continues that these facts are ‘well established and accessible’, and that they are part of Britain’s historical record and the direct experience of the Palestinian people themselves.

‘The Palestinian community in the UK has raised the disturbing absence of key information about these past and current injustices, and highlighted the racism it exposes then and now.’

Britain had ruled Palestine in 1918, the end of World War I, until Israel was established in 1948. BAME organisations and groups said that public discussions of these historical facts would be ‘muzzled’ under the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism.

‘This silencing has already begun. Today we can freely describe the racist policies experienced in the era of British and European colonialism in our countries of origin (indeed it is taught in British schools), but the colonial history of the Palestinians is continually erased.’

The letter also says that ‘this is a dangerous breach of our own rights, and of the wider British public: we must all hear the full story of the Palestinians in order to make sense of the current discussions about racism and Israel.’

The UK had adopted IHRA’s definition in 2016; UK Prime Minister Theresa May had praised Israel at the time, comparing its alleged ‘inclusivity’ to that of the UK. May had said in a statement then that ‘Israel guarantees the rights of people of all religions, races and sexes, and it wants to enable everyone to flourish, our aim in Britain is the same: to create a better, fairer society, helping everyone to reach as far as their talents will allow.’ The BAME letter was signed by 84 organisations, including Arab, immigrant, African, Muslim and Asian UK-based groups.

• Tory Home Secretary Sajid Javid has this week called Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn a ‘threat to national security’ for criticising Islamophobia and racism in the UK. ‘A reminder of one of the biggest threats to our national security,’ Javid wrote in a tweet on Monday, while re-tweeting an old video of Corbyn where he discusses the reasons behind radicalisation of some Britons.

Concerned by the fact that some British youths had left the country to join the ISIS terror group in Syria, Corbyn says in the video that tackling Islamophobia and racism in British communities is key to tackling the ISIS terror group.

He then proceeds to criticise government measures in this regard, including denying the British nationals the right to return and revoking their passports. ‘I’m not a supporter of ISIS,’ Corbyn says in the video. ‘I’m not condoning what they do or what they are trying to achieve.

‘And I do think that the way to deal with this issue isn’t by a legal process, which seeks to ban people from travelling,’ he argues. The important thing is to deal with the issue politically and challenging Islamophobia and racism.’