“Dare to dissent” round table – 2: Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi

JVL Introduction

On 20th February 2021 Southwark Transformed, a local festival and political education group, organised a round table discussion on the theme of free speech.

We are reposting two of the introductory talks given at that event, those of Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi (below) and Barnaby Raine, here.

Beware anti-democratic politics in the language of liberalism

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi

Dare to Dissent is a great title, but what is legitimate dissent? Who decides? How is our oft-celebrated right to freedom of speech to be protected, or indeed circumscribed if judged to be dangerous?

The issue could hardly be more current or pertinent. Letters in the Guardian just yesterday took issue with the contradictory position being taken by Conservative Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. A Jewish academic wrote that Williamson is threatening to cut universities funding if they don’t adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the expanded definition which includes accusing Israel of being a racist endeavour, and is also proposing that universities allow people to sue for alleged breaches of “free speech”. So a lecturer who says they believe Israel to be an apartheid state will be subject to sanction. But then they will be able to sue the university for infringing their right to express their political opinions. This new regime would, logically, permit the shameful hounding of Ken Loach, film chronicler of humanity’s battle with injustice over five decades, we have recently seen played out in several Oxford colleges, but allow him redress in the courts.

What is going on here?

I, as a socialist Jew who dissents from the dominant pro-Israel narrative, have been suspended from the Labour Party for insisting on my right to express those views.  Dozens more, Jewish and otherwise, have also been suspended for defying diktats from the general secretary banning discussion of a range of subjects judged to be offensive to Jews. Members are told that their right to free speech is subordinate to the party’s need to mend its allegedly fractured relationship with “the Jewish community” – regarded as one undifferentiated entity united in hostility to Jeremy Corbyn and anyone who shares his opinions, on what constitutes antisemitism, how prevalent “IT” is in the labour party and any vaguely related subject. Free speech is a hot topic in the Labour Party.

Freedom of speech seems like an incontrovertible good, something moral, grounded – as Timothy Garton Ash argues – in civilised qualities of empathy and tolerance.  It seems axiomatic that – short of advocating murder or genocide – everyone should be free to express our thoughts as we wish.

But we know it’s not that simple.

Here’s a quote from the first episode, broadcast yesterday morning of a BBC Radio 4 programme examining Fascism in Britain. The presenter, historian Camilla Schofield, described how British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Moseley, at the height of his power in 1934, complained that individual hecklers at his mass rally in Olympia “were infringing on his free speech for simply voicing their opposition…. Like Mosley,” Schofield said, “the contemporary British far right relies upon a remarkably similar language of victimhood. They claim that their rights are being denied in the same breath that they deny the rights of others.”

With this in mind, listen to Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for North-West Leicestershire, interviewed by the libertarians of “spiked calling for abolition of the UK’s Hate Speech laws.

“They are an infringement on free speech. Right now, something is classed as a hate crime if it offends someone else, or anyone thinks someone else could be offended by it. …

“That gives justification to cancel culture. It also legitimises the fact that large corporations in charge of swathes of social media decide they don’t like what an elected president of the US is saying, so effectively delist him. This is not democracy.”

Well, he’s right isn’t he?

We don’t want the surveillance capitalists of Facebook and Twitter policing the communications of billions of people around the world.

There’s a petition in circulation right now, quite rightly challenging moves by Facebook to classify Zionism as a protected characteristic, so making critical use of the word “Zionist” a form of hate speech.

I would argue strongly against the activities of Stop Funding Fake News which has celebrated its success in persuading advertisers to withdraw from Canary, a small alternative media platform, one of the very few to offer space to anti-Zionist Jewish voices, alleging that it spreads falsehood about, and is hateful towards, Israel and is therefore antisemitic.

We must, without a shadow of doubt, defend Rivkah Brown against the attacks to which she has been subjected for her critique of Labour’s new AS Advisory Board in an interview with NovaraMedia’s podcast TyskySour last week.

Jewish News was aghast at her saying most of the appointees are “not anti-racist,” and that they would put the fight against racism in the party back by “lightyears.” She was dead right. We posted it on the JVL website.

The fact that Rivkah Brown, or the Canary, or pro-Palestinian Labour party members cause offence in some quarters, cannot be allowed to deprive them of their freedom to speak their minds. But it’s more complicated than this makes it appear.

Remember Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine which was subjected to a murderous Islamist attack in Paris in January 2015? 12 people killed in retaliation for publication of a few cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

Clearly it was outrageous, taking offence to a deranged degree. Remember all the world leaders, including Benyamin Netanyahu, parading through the streets of Paris declaiming  “Je suis Charlie”, defending freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

“Je suis Charlie”. But are we?

Three generations of my late husband’s Moroccan Muslim family (that’s where the Idrissi comes from), have lived in the Netherlands. They were among millions who suffered from the wave of Islamophobia that swept Europe along with the high-minded, liberal “Je suis Charlie” protestations of the sanctity of freedom of speech.

Because when it comes down to it, who is free to speak, who decides, who has the right to offend and who must hang their head and accept being offended, is a question of who has the power.

Earlier I mentioned Timothy Garton-Ash, author of a significant book published in 2016, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. JVL has just republished a commentary on it, A socialist approach to Free Speech by Sam Farber, writing in Jacobin at the time.

Farber says: “Like many European liberals, Garton Ash often conflates freedom with the free market, seeing any state intervention as an attack on individual rights.”

This is the same attitude that leads Private Eye, a magazine that prides itself on fielding frequent libel writs from the rich and powerful, to defend the corporate media against demands from the Leveson Inquiry for limitations on the power of the press. This is why we have a gutless Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) instead of a decent press regulator which could protect citizens harassed and abused by irresponsible newspapers. I say this as a life member of the NUJ with 20 years as a Reuters journalist behind me.

We can’t ignore the fact that, as Farber writes:

“[there is no] robust right to free expression, safe from erosion by powerful economic or governmental actors.”

“When union members physically block scabs from entering the workplace, or when the police and the employers smash a strike, power — not free speech — is at stake.”

He goes on to say:

“Supporting the right to offend as an element of free speech can still take into account whether the offended represent marginalized communities.”

Compare the rights of Europe’s demonised Muslims, obliged to suck up offences committed against them in the name of freedom of the press, with the right not to be offended afforded certain Jews in the Labour Party, overriding the right to free speech of other party members. Who decides?

Returning to historian Camilla Schofield and her examination of British fascism:

“Political violence and the domination of others are presented as defensive, against people of colour, against Islam, against a Jewish world plot, against the Left. With Mosely, we see how British fascism wraps anti-democratic politics in a language of liberalism.”

So where does this leave us, defending our right to defy the establishment and give voice to those who are silenced – I would say in particular, Palestinian voices, and the voices of people of colour who are met with supercilious contempt whenever they raise their heads. Witness the backlash against Black Lives Matter. At the same time we must take seriously our obligation to defy the encroachment of anti-democratic politics clothed in the language of liberalism. Andrew Bridgen and his fellow crusaders for the right to offend are not our allies.

One thing we must be clear about – as Barnaby has argued most cogently on many occasions – is the need to understand antisemitism as it really is. Not in essence a weapon to attack the left – the term is debased by it being used that way – but part of the systemic, structural, racism deeply rooted in British society. It can be expressed in terms of anti-Israeli outrage on the part of pro-Palestinian activists – mostly sincere and inept rather than malign and bigoted, but not always. Whichever form it takes it has to be challenged.

It cannot be “driven out” by zero tolerance –the crass, counterproductive language current in the Labour Party.

It can and must be discussed, debated and learned about, by all of us, together.

We need to beware of censoriousness in our own movement, people adapting to the hostility directed against outspoken comrades, sometimes uncritically accepting allegations against them. We’re in a situation now where anti-Zionist Jews are no-platformed; JVL is banned from holding education workshops designed precisely to develop that understanding of antisemitism that is so sorely lacking in the Labour Party; people who dared to dissent and were driven out with unjust allegations of antisemitism hanging over them – Chris Williamson, Ken Livingstone, Marc Wadsworth, Tony Greenstein and Jackie Walker, a black, Jewish, socialist, anti-racist fighter, treated like the character in Harry Potter – he who cannot be named. This is unacceptable.

No platforming is an issue that is harming and dividing our movement in other ways too. A women who is one of those suspended from the Labour Party in the current repressive wave was accused of having gender critical views and then dropped as a speaker at a rally on February 8th, organised – I’m sure the irony will not be lost on this audience –  to build a movement in solidarity with those unjustly suspended and to stand up for free speech and democracy in the Labour Party.

What happened caused much upset among trade unionists and party members, triggering a stern warning from the final speaker at the rally, Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack, of serious damage to the movement if we cannot respect different people’s views while uniting around things on which we agree.

I’ll conclude with the statement JVL put out soon afterwards:

“Denying a platform to anyone is an absolute last resort for behaviour so egregious that there is no room for doubt. Normally it is reserved for those promoting fascist views. It should not even be considered for those whose opinions we simply disagree with – however strongly. This is even more the case when the views in contention are not the subject of the meeting in question.

“As the antisemitism witch hunt has demonstrated, allowing any of our comrades to be pilloried for the views they hold on contentious subjects is a recipe for disunity and disaster. The right to free speech is an essential core value within our movement. We abridge it at our peril.”





Comments (4)

  • Amanda Sebestyen says:

    Super thoughtful speech which shows the destructiveness of no-platforming as well as disingenuous calls for selective free speech. I have already shared the text with 30 likeminded friends! A real shot in the arm.

  • Ian Kemp says:

    Anti Semitism is being misused . Sure People need education. But at the moment the Labour Party is engaging in a one sided narrow view of what A/S is about. It has now seriously undermined the real A/S out there. It is a form of McCarthyism, which is not helpful and only reinforces the Real Anti Semites out there.

  • It is now two weeks since I and, separately, another person wrote to Toby Young of the ‘Free Speech Union’ asking what he was planning to do about the blatant hypocrisy of Gavin Williamson, i.e. his revealing plans for a “free speech champion” with power to impose fines on universities that stifle freedom of speech, while persistently threatening to withdraw funding from Universities if they fail to adopt the IHRA ‘working definition’ of antisemitism. Toby must have understood the relevance of this to his purported mission, but so far, I haven’t heard a dickie bird back.

  • Further to my earlier message, Toby Young has indicated he is unwilling (or afraid) to speak up on this matter – to which you will say ‘no surprise’. When liberal and left-wing figures behave like this, we call it ‘Progressive-except-on-Palestine’ (PEP), but I cannot put a name to rightward leaning people claiming to be concerned with ‘free speech’ behaving in this way.

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