London council to debate banning those calling for Israel boycott on grounds of ‘antisemitism’

PNN/ London/

Barnet Councillor Brian Gordon is to propose a motion effectively outlawing organisations that support Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The motion [1] cites the hotly disputed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) document on antisemitism as justification for the move.

The motion calls for the London Borough of Barnet to ‘consider the legality of ensuring’ it does ‘not to provide or rent any space’ to individuals and groups supporting the BDS movement – effectively seeking a ban on events promoting sanctions against Israel for its violations of international law.

Councillor Gordon’s motion specifically quotes the contentious guidance notes to the IHRA document in order to claim that BDS is antisemitic, because other countries are not similarly targeted. However no other country that the UK treats as an ally has been in illegal occupation of another country for over 50 years, suppressing the human rights of its inhabitants.

The motion has national significance because the Labour Party – which has adopted the 38-word IHRA definition of antisemitism – has been criticised for not fully adopting the guidance attached to it, including the two examples cited in the motion.

Jonathan Rosenhead, Vice Chair of Free Speech on Israel, said “Those criticising Labour for failing to adopt the full IHRA guidance claim the document poses no threat to freedom of expression. This motion being put forward in Barnet clearly demonstrates that they are wrong and vindicates the adjustments made by Labour’s National Executive Committee.”

Ben Jamal, Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said Palestinians have a right to describe their history and the continuing racist injustices that deny them their rights, whether as unequal citizens of the State of Israel, living under military occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, under siege in Gaza, or as refugees denied the right of return.

“Others have a right to hear this information and, in line with a commitment to fighting racism in all its forms, to respond to the Palestinian call for global action via Boycott Divestment and Sanctions,” he added.

Despite the clear warning from distinguished lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC in his legal opinion on the IHRA document [2], groups lobbying for Israel have continued to press public bodies both to adopt the IHRA definition and to use it to suppress both legitimate criticism of Israel, and calls for action on behalf of the Palestinian people. In March, a delegation including Joan Ryan MP, Chair of Labour Friends of Israel , Matthew Offord MP of Conservative Friends of Israel petitioned Theresa May at 10 Downing Street, calling for action to  prevent events on UK campuses that describe Israel as an apartheid state, citing the IHRA document as justification.

Campaigners for Palestinian rights including Free Speech on Israel, Jewish Voice for Labour and Palestine Solidarity Campaign are calling for the motion to be withdrawn. They have also called for the UK government to issue a clear statement that no public body should use the IHRA definition to prevent legitimate criticism of the state of Israel (which includes describing its laws and policies as “racist” and meeting the legal definition of “apartheid”). Nor should they use it to prevent calls for peaceful actions including boycott divestment and sanctions in response to Israel’s continuing violations of Palestinian human rights.

[1] Text of the Barnet Council motion

 The motion notes that Barnet Council was the first local authority in the UK to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism in January 2017. It goes on to say:

“The IHRA’s guidance rightly points out that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled [sic] against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. However, Council believes the aims, methods, and rhetoric of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and believes its go well beyond this, and are consistent with the IHRA’s guidance on the definition of antisemitism.”

It instructs its Policy and Resources Committee to consider the legality of ensuring that: “The London Borough of Barnet does not provide any space or areas for clubs, organizations or even individuals who support the activities of the antisemitic BDS movement”; to instruct its companies to do likewise; Nd “appeals to landlords” to do the same and resolves not to “make any donations or grants to associations, organisations or other groups which support the activities of the antisemitic BDS movement.”

[2] Status of the IHRA definition and guidance

 In March 2017, Hugh Tomlinson QC addressed concerns that the IHRA conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel and could be misused to curtail campaigning on behalf of Palestinians.  In a key finding he stated: “Properly understood in its own terms the IHRA Definition does not mean that activities such as describing Israel as a state enacting a policy of apartheid, as practising 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.”

[3] The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement

The BDS movement was launched in 2005 by a coalition of 170 Palestinian civil society bodies inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement. The Palestinian BDS call urges those of conscience around the world to apply nonviolent pressure to Israel until it complies with international law by meeting three demands: ending the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza; ensuring equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and recognising the right of return of Palestinian  refugees expelled from their homes in 1948 and 1967.

[4] Definition of apartheid in international law and pertinence to Israel

The Rome statute defines apartheid as “inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.

Numerous scholars and political commentators have provided evidence that the system of rule Israel has established over Palestinians, both those living under occupation and those living as citizens within the state of Israel, meets the legal definition of apartheid. In a 2007 report, U.N. Special Rapporteur for Palestine John Dugard reported, “elements of the Israeli occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid, which are contrary to international law”. In March 2017, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia produced a comprehensive report that in the words of its then Executive Secretary “clearly and frankly concludes that Israel is a racist state that has established an apartheid system that persecutes the Palestinian people”.

In July 2018, Israel passed the Jewish Nation State Act, a law that further entrenches institutionalised discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Even prior to the new law, civil rights organisation Adalah had previously identified more than 60 laws that discriminate against Palestinians who make up 20% of the citizenry of Israel.