Lambeth Council rejects free speech on Palestine

On 10 October Lambeth Council had adopting the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism on its agenda.

Mike Cushman led a deputation to the full Council asking them to also adopt a deceleration on free speech to mitigate any threat adoption may cause to free debate on Palestine and Israel.

Mike said:

Mayor, Councillors

We are a group of Jewish Lambeth residents and a representative of the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

It shouldn’t be necessary but I have to make clear we recognise antisemitism as a problem and we are fiercely opposed to it.

I’ve personally experienced antisemitism working in Lambeth but not in the Labour Party whether in Lambeth or anywhere else. Contrary to the Leader’s letter to the South London synagogue. It is not true that ‘antisemitism continues to plague our party’ there is a continuing problem that is being addressed but it is not the greatest issue of racism challenging the Labour Party or Lambeth Council.

Even if it were the IHRA definition is a poor weapon for confronting it. As Hugh Tomlinson QC stated: “The phrase “a certain perception” is vague and unclear in the context of a definition. ….It is obviously most unsatisfactory for the Government to “adopt” a definition which lacks clarity and comprehensiveness in this way. It means that there is likely to be lack of consistency in its application and a potential chilling effect on public bodies which … seek to sanction or prohibit any conduct which has been labelled by third parties as antisemitic.” This is not speculation we already have too many examples of it being used to silence debate on Palestine and Israel. The Council may place itself in legal jeopardy if it uses it to bar activities.

Leading Jewish human rights lawyers like Sir Stephen Sedley and Sir Geoffrey Bindman have pointed out the deficiencies of the definition and when its original principal author Professor Kenneth Stern told the US Congress of the threat it poses to free speech he cited examples from UK as well as UK universities.

Its major problem is that it does not focus on the threats to Jews living in the UK; rather, seven of its eleven examples relate to Israel. If I say ‘Israel has racism embedded in its structure’ that is a political and ethical judgement that you may agree or disagree with but it isn’t antisemitic. If someone were to say ‘Israel’s behaviour is typical of the way Jews control everything’ then that is clearly antisemitic in the way that it talks about Jews and we don’t need the IHRA definition to tell us that.

We commend the FSOI/JVL declaration on antisemitic behaviour as document the Council should also consider.

Because of the risk of suppressing essential debate on Palestine and Israel the Council must also adopt a clear statement on Free Speech to mitigate any risks. We suggest the council adopt a statement like the one we are circulating*

Without such a clarification, Palestinians talking about the founding the state of Israel in the context of their expulsion and dispossession could be deemed antisemitic for recounting their own history. Palestinian residents of Lambeth must have this protection and must not be silenced.

Lambeth’s Jews and Lambeth’s Palestinians need protection of their human rights and from harassment not virtue signalling. That should be your priority, not excusing Israel’s behaviour.

Thank you

*Free speech declaration to accompany IHRA definition

Lambeth is committed to both challenging antisemitism and defending free speech.

We state it is not antisemitic, unless there is additional evidence to suggest anti-Jewish prejudice, to:

  • criticise the Government of Israel;
  • criticise Zionism as a political ideology;
  • describe any policy or law or practices of the state of Israel as racist, including acts leading to Palestinian dispossession as part of the establishment of the state;
  • describe Israel as an apartheid state;
  • advocate boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

We will interpret the IHRA definition in the light of these principles


The leader of the Council, Lib Peck, responded with a statement blithely dismissing any concerns and completely ignoring the history of the use of the definition to suppress free speech.

Because of the rules of Lambeth Council there was no debate on the motion. A Green Party amendment to insert a weak free speech protection was voted down by the Labour Group, with one abstention.

The Council then voted unanimously to adopt the definition.

There had been an earlier exchange of letters between Mike Cushman and Lib Peck pointing out the problems with the definition and asking to meet to discuss our concerns. This request was declined.


It gets worse

It has subsequently emerged that the Council adopted not the IHRA definition but a more extreme rewording promulgated by the Hasbara group ‘We believe in Israel’

Mike has written to the Leader of the Council and all Councillors protesting about this duplicity:

Dear Lib Peck

Why have you amended the IHRA definition?

In your response to our deputation on Wednesday, you claimed that the examples attached to the IHRA definition provided protection for free speech on Palestine and Israel. However the text of the motion adopted by the Council greatly weakens the limited protection that the Definition itself provides.

The IHRA document says:

To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations: Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be

regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:

Your motion replaced these limitations with

The guidelines highlight manifestations of antisemitism as including:

At no point did you draw the attention of your fellow Councillors to this significant alteration.

Can you explain why, when you claimed to adopt ‘the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, including its examples,

without amendment or omission’, you have in fact made a significant change.


Yours sincerely


Mike Cushman