London council uses IHRA antisemitism definition to shut down fundraising event for Gaza

Palestine Solidarity Campaign/ London/

The Tower Hamlets Council in London rejected an application from The Big Ride for Palestine to hold a welcome event in a council-run park because of concerns that the event was too “controversial” and conflicted with the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism.

Now in its 5th year, The Big Ride is an annual cycle ride that raises money for children suffering the effects of living under military occupation in Gaza. In March, organisers applied to Tower Hamlets Council to hold an event in a council-run park to welcome the riders, featuring Palestinian food, music and speeches from a number of supportive figures including acclaimed comedian Mark Thomas.

To the organisers’ surprise, the Council ultimately rejected their application after a month-long delay, citing concerns that the event provided too many difficulties around risk assessment. However, a Freedom of Information request submitted to the Council by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), who support The Big Ride, revealed that discussions around antisemitism – specifically the IHRA definition – were at the heart of the decision.

In private emails, Council staff members highlight two particular comments on The Big Ride’s website as potentially problematic with regards to the IHRA. One is a reference to “ethnic cleansing” carried out by the Israeli state against Palestinians, and another is a comparison between Israel’s policies and South African apartheid. Neither of these comments are in contravention of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

Staff members also claim that not having a fully confirmed list of speakers at the point of application posed a problem because it was not clear whether all of those speakers would “subscribe to the IHRA”.

When discussing how to relay the decision to organisers, one staff member suggests they “would personally avoid the antisemitism aspect re: their website as this could open a can of worms and come back to bite us”.

Following these revelations, a letter has been sent to Mayor Biggs – elected leader of Tower Hamlets Council – from national and local branches of Palestine Solidarity Campaign as well as organisers of The Big Ride. The letter demands an apology and calls for the Council to add a caveat to the IHRA definition which explicitly protects freedoms to criticise Israel.

The letter states that the authors “have taken legal advice and have been informed that the decision was unlawful. Most fundamentally, the Council’s decision constituted an unlawful interference with the freedoms of expression, assembly and conscience combined with a misapplication of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.”

The letter also highlights that the IHRA definition of antisemitism “has been criticised with regard to threats to freedom of expression by eminent lawyers, respected members of the Jewish community, academic experts on antisemitism, and bodies such as the Institute for Race Relations.”

Last year a group of prominent Palestinians wrote to the national press highlighting that “any use by public bodies of the IHRA examples on antisemitism that either inhibits discussion relating to Palestinian dispossession by ethnic cleansing, when Israel was established, or attempts to silence public discussions on current or past practices of settler colonialism, apartheid, racism and discrimination, and the ongoing violent military occupation, directly contravenes core rights”.

An official petition is set to be launched by Tower Hamlets residents calling on the Council to revisit the IHRA definition and add in a caveat protecting the rights to criticise the state of Israel. A campaign was led by Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Autumn 2018 to lobby the Council to amend its adopted version of the IHRA definition to safeguard these rights, but the Council rejected these calls at the time.

Antony Lerman, founding director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, JPR, and Senior Fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna, said: “Justifying its decision to reject The Big Ride’s closing rally in a Tower Hamlets park by misreading the IHRA Working Definition of antisemitism, the Council has made egregious misuse of what anyway is a deeply flawed and highly controversial definition of Jew hatred. It shows a blatant disregard for Article 10 of the Human Rights Act which protects freedom of speech. I previously warned that the act of Palestinians wanting simply to tell the truth about their dispossession and oppression, based on internationally accepted historical research undertaken by Israeli historians, would fall foul of this iniquitous and highly politicised definition. It has happened, and this case is a further and truly appalling example of this. It is pressing that this definition is reviewed in favour of the common sense on why criticism of Israel and its repressive policies towards the Palestinians must be unequivocally accepted as the expression of perfectly acceptable political opinion and judgement. Only then will we all be far better placed to challenge the deepening discrimination and racial hatred causing such damage to our societies.”

Ben Jamal, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “This appalling decision should be a wake up call to all of those who have claimed that the IHRA definition does not threaten the ability of Palestinians to bring the facts of their dispossession into public spaces and the rights of those concerned about justice to advocate on their behalf. Here is a clear-cut example of a council preventing an event that has support from cross party figures and seeks to raise awareness and show solidarity being denied public space because of illegitimate concerns that it might contravene the IHRA definition. Tower Hamlets Council and all public bodies must act to ensure that the rights of Palestinians and those advocating on their behalf are protected. The fight against antisemitism is not enhanced by any conflation of antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel’s laws policies or the actions of its governments.”

A representative of The Big Ride for Palestine said: “The UN estimates that up to 300,000 children in Gaza show signs of severe psychological distress. Our focus is on humanitarian support to them as well as letting the Palestinian people know they have not been forgotten. It’s a dreadful thing when an over-scrupulous interpretation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is used behind closed doors to prevent awareness-raising of the situation in Palestine and the need for humanitarian support. We are proud that people of all faiths or no faith come together under the banner of The Big Ride for Palestine to show their solidarity with the Palestinian people.”