No Free Speech in Tower Hamlets

JVL Introduction

We have always argued the IHRA definition of antisemitism is not fit for purpose. Chilling discussion of Palestine is its main achievement, not combatting antisemitism.

Now Tower Hamlets Council has used it to ban – illegally – use of a public park for a rally at the end of a bike ride in support of Palestine.

This article was originally published by Free Speech on Israel on Sat 3 Aug 2019. Read the original here.

No Free Speech in Tower Hamlets

Tower Hamlets Council banned the The Big Ride for Palestine from using its property for the end event to its ride on 27 July.

When the Government promoted adoption of the IHRA definition of Antisemitism we warned that not only was the definition poorly worded but that public bodies might make it even worse by going beyond its strict terms. Tower Hamlets have demonstrated that our concerns were fully justified and the IHRA definition is a threat to the free speech Britain prides itself on.

We warned that Councils would ignore the mildly limiting caveats in the definition that: ‘the following examples may serve as illustrations’; ‘manifestations might include’; ‘could, taking into account the overall context, include’. We feared that they would adopt a simple matching approach: matching a phrase, often taken out of context, to one of the eleven tendentious examples.

Indeed, the lobby groups We Believe in Israel and Local Government Friends of Israel promoted a version that omitted all these calls to context. This doctored version was circulated to all London councils by their coordinating body. Following pressure from Free Speech on Israel the body withdrew the illicit version but not until it had had wide circulation among council officers and members.

We had sought a legal opinion from a leading QC when adoption was mooted. He pointed out that, even interpreted narrowly, the definition conflicted with the rights of free expression guaranteed by the European Charter of Human Rights and the UK Human Rights Act. Further the document was so poorly worded that it could not, in any circumstances, be relied on to inform the actions of a public body. Any use would lay a Coiuncil open to legal challenge.

Despite this Tower Hamlets Council denied the ride access to its park. They did not give a reason but documents reluctantly released following a Freedom of Information application told the story. Council officers took exception to a reference to ‘Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians’ and one to ‘Israeli Apartheid’ on the Big Ride website. Each of these are legitimate political judgements and in no way constitute antisemitism. The correspondence clearly indicates that the officers made their decision in the light of their false interpretation of the IHRA document. However, they were anxious enough about the sensitivity of their action to decide to cover up their reasoning so The Big Ride were unable to contest their exclusion.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign and The Big Ride have written to The Mayor of Tower Hamlets informing him of the oppressive actions of his officers and asking to meet him to add to the Tower Hamlets resolution adopting the IHRA definition the following caveats to guarantee free speech in the borough.

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

The Guardian carried a report of these events on 3 August 2019

Comments (8)

  • TP says:

    This terrible unjust and frankly ridiculous situation is what we all feared from adopting the deeply deeply flawed IHRA definition on anti semitism.

  • Steven Burg says:

    The IHRA pseudodefinition is sham antiracism. Why wont Jeremy or Jenny pick up the phone to me to simply acknowledge this.

    Could there be clearer evidence that the Labour movement has been guilt tripped into supporting oppression?

  • Teresa Steele says:

    I fear for the UK’s future right now. This is so utterly wrong. When you are frightened to speak out as you witness blatant injustices then the last vestiges of freedom have been erased forever.

  • Carmen Malaree says:

    What a big mistake was to adopt the IHRA definition on antisemitism. There should be a legal challenge to this as it goes against freedom of expression.

  • Jackie walker says:

    The Labour Party was bullied into adopting the IHRA … the consequences were obvious. Whether this is termed political expediency, complicity with a racist ideology or simple cowardice, the consequences for the struggle for free speech, justice for the oppressed in Palestine and elsewhere, are unfolding as predicted. Anyone who thinks it’s all worth it as long as we get a Labour government is living in a fantasy where decisions have no consequences. This will continue to eat away the moral heart of the labour movement, undermine the leadership and those who support it.

  • Lesley Crompton says:

    Tower Hamlets should reconsider their decision and adopt the above caveats to the IRHI, in order to guarantee free speech in the borough!

  • Sara says:

    The terrible definition is totally UNDEMOCRATIC and unacceptable. Hope when the witch hunt and hysteria has been defeated it will be overturned. We are so sorry for all of our great friends who have suffered from the vile bullying lynch mob. I hope they are all doing well and know how much they mean to us. Wonderful to hear from the magnificent Jackie Walker 😃

  • Brigid Harbour says:

    So An Israeli lobby has interfered with a local council and a peaceful political protest in the UK. This is not OK.

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