Waltham Forest folly over antisemitism

Photo: Rada Daniel

Far Right support for council adopting IHRA document

The IHRA definition of antisemitism, with its accompanying examples, was adopted by Waltham Forest council in east London on Thursday, winning accolades from far-right pro-Israel activists who clashed noisily with free speech campaigners within and outside the council chamber.

Ambrosine Yolanda Shitrit, a notorious Islamophobe and acolyte of Tommy Robinson’s, addressed councillors to support consolidation of the controversial IHRA document into council codes of conduct, claiming that it would safeguard Jews against an imminent new Holocaust and protect Israel from “antisemites” who want to boycott it.

She was vocally supported by a collection of other far-right individuals who routinely try to shut down pro-Palestinian events. They had mobilised from across London to counter local residents protesting against adoption of the IHRA document.  Demonstrators concerned about the serious threat to freedom of expression it poses came from Jewish Voice for Labour, Waltham Forest Palestine Solidarity campaign, Stand Up to Racism, local trade unions and a number of left organisations.

Roland Rance, a Walthamstow CLP member and representative of Free Speech on Israel, and Steve White, secretary of the Waltham Forest branch of the National Education Union, addressed the council before Shitrit. They made clear that the IHRA document makes no contribution to combating real anti-Jewish racism and that – despite having no legal force – it serves to curtail support for the Palestinian people by suppressing forthright criticism of the state of Israel.

“Rather than blocking antisemitic racism, it is an attempt to police speech on Israel and Palestine, and potentially to penalise councillors, council workers and residents of the borough for exercising their right to oppose Israel and its practices,” Rance said in his statement to councillors.

Every councillor had received information from Free Speech on Israel, appended below this report, in advance of the meeting, giving incontrovertible evidence of the dangers of adopting the IHRA document. But there was no opposition in the council chamber to the move which was supported not only by the small number of conservative councillors in the borough but crucially by the dominant Labour group, taking its lead from the Tory Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid. In a letter to local authorities appended to the relevant council agenda item, Javid told them that “although not legally binding” he would “strongly encourage you to formally adopt the definition and consider its application in your own authority.”

Other documentation includes the incorrect advice that IHRA adoption carries no legal implications.  

The Labour Group leadership made it clear that any councillor voting against or even abstaining would be suspended and removed from the list of suitable candidates for future elections. Two chose to “go sick” in order not to have to vote for something they could not support. Two more refused a request to speak in favour.

In total there was a group of a dozen Labour councillors who insisted, in talks before the full council meeting, that there should be guarantees of union consultation and a protective statement roughly in line with Labour Party policy. Extraordinarily, union officials representing local government employees had been told nothing about the impending significant change detrimental to their rights.  

A statement saying that “Adopting the IHRA definition does not interfere with officers’ right to express their views about the policies of the state of Israel or in support of the people of Palestine, as long as those views are not antisemitic” is supposed to appear online, not on the council website, but on the website of Waltham Forest Labour.  

This mealy-mouthed concession offers little reassurance to anyone in Waltham Forest alarmed by the McCarthyite threat that now hangs over them.

Letter to Waltham Forest councillors from Roland Rance on behalf of Free Speech on Israel

Dear Councillors

I note from the agenda published on the Waltham Forest Council website, that on Thursday the Council will discuss a proposal to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, including the working examples, into the Council’s codes of conduct for Members and officers. I am a local resident, active in Jewish Voice for Labour and Free Speech on Israel, and I am writing to express my concern at this, at a number of levels.

In the first place, the actual definition itself is so bland as to be almost meaningless. It is vague, non-specific, and hedged with ambiguities.  The eleven so-called “working examples” were not formally adopted by the IHRA (which is itself an intergovernmental body of almost entirely European states); they were circulated as addenda to the definition, not part of it, but have since been uncritically accepted, without any justification, as part of the definition itself.

The examples are not presented as a definition of antisemitism. They are offered as “examples (which) may serve as illustrations… taking into account the overall context”. Of the eleven examples, seven relate unambiguously to statements critical of the policies and practices of the state of Israel, rather than to attacks on Jews. And paradoxically, several of these, by claiming that opposition to Israel is equivalent to antisemitic hatred, themselves fall foul of the eleventh: “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”. This is not a serious way to combat antisemitic racism.

In fact, the definition and examples offer no guidance about how to block the very real threat of violent antisemitic racism coming from the far right. Instead, they focus on the secondary, and relatively minor, phenomenon of the inappropriate use of language when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The IHRA document has been criticised by many leading authorities on antisemitism. Antony Lerman, the former Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and editor of Patterns of Prejudice, has described the document as “so flawed it should be abandoned, not tinkered with”. Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, has described the document as “bewilderingly imprecise” and even dangerous, and concludes that it will not help Jewish people because of “its failure to make any ethical and political connections between the struggle against antisemitism and other sorts of prejudice”.

It has also been criticised on legal grounds. Former Appeal Court judge Sir Stephen Sedley has shown in detail how the IHRA definition could be in contravention of both the 1998 Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. In a written opinion, the eminent QC Professor Hugh Tomlinson concludes that “The IHRA ‘non-legally binding working definition’ of antisemitism is unclear and confusing and should be used with caution… Any public authority which does adopt the IHRA Definition must interpret it in a way which is consistent with its own statutory obligations, particularly its obligation not to act in a matter inconsistent with the Article 10 right to freedom of expression… Properly understood in its own terms the IHRA Definition does not mean that activities such as describing Israel as a state enacting policies of apartheid, as practicing settler colonialism or calling for policies of boycott divestment or sanctions against Israel can properly be characterized as antisemitic. A public authority which sought to apply the IHRA Definition to prohibit or sanction such activities would be acting unlawfully”. In the light of this, it is very difficult to understand the assurance given to you by the Head of Electoral and Democratic Services in clause 6.2.1 of the Background Information Paper that there are no legal implications of incorporating this definition into the Council’s Code of Conduct.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the use of the IHRA definition to curb free speech or to penalise people has been condemned by the author of the document, Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee, who in testimony to the US Congress in 2017 pointed out that the definition was written in order to assist in data co-ordination between states which used different definitions, and was never intended to be used to restrict free speech. He explicitly referred to the misuse of the definition in Britain as “McCarthy-like”.

You should also bear in mind that more than forty Jewish organisations across the world have issued a statement stating that “We urge our governments, municipalities, universities and other institutions to reject the IHRA definition and instead take effective measures to defeat white supremacist nationalist hate and violence and to end complicity in Israel’s human rights violations. Israel does not represent us and cannot speak for us when committing crimes against Palestinians and denying their UN-stipulated rights”.

The IHRA “Definition of Antisemitism” is unacceptable. It purports to speak in my name, while determining what I, as a Jew, may or may not say. It seriously restricts the right of Palestinians to speak up and to describe and define their own oppression. And it potentially criminalises non-violent and anti-racist activity in support of human rights and international law.

Adopting and implementing the IHRA definition would have significant negative implications for Waltham Forest councillors, for council employees, and for all residents of or visitors to the borough. And, as noted above, it could potentially leave the Council in breach of the 1998 Human Rights Act and of the European Convention on Human Rights. For these reasons, I urge you to reject this proposed amendment to the Council’s Code of Conduct.

Yours sincerely

Roland Rance


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