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The Israel lobby wants to retain freedom of speech for itself, on its own terms

In an interview with the Times (6 May), Israel's ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, is reported to have "complained about "extremism in British universities" which caused his deputy "to flee anti-Israel activists after she gave a talk at Manchester University". According to Mr. Prosor, "We have a serious situation where Israel is being delegitimised and demonised on a variety of issues which convey Israel as if it were really not the way we really are – a democratic country."

But does criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories – occupied by Israel in defiance of international law and UN resolutions – really "delegitimize" or even "demonise" the Zionist state? And doesn't the "we are a democratic country" argument actually place an extra responsibility on Israel to behave like one? Democracies don't as a matter of state policy colonise occupied territory and expel its inhabitants, and they don't commit war crimes and crimes against humanity in those territories; if they do, they are taken to task by the international community. Israel, it seems, demands – and gets, it could be argued – special treatment. Ron Prosor's interview in the Times is an example of this.

The Ambassador wants us all to give his country "a big hug" because "people are not enough aware" of the "challenges we have against us". Israel's biggest challenge is, of course, to grow up and behave like the mature democracy it claims to be. However, this demand for special treatment extends to efforts to deny citizens of democracies the right to freedom of speech when it comes to criticism of the State of Israel. Such criticism is, claim the Israel lobby, "anti-Semitism".

In an extraordinary motion discussed by the University of Birmingham's Guild of Students (its students' union), "The President of the Guild of Students" is called upon "to reject a speaker if they have a history of Anti-Semitic language in line with the EUMC definition". Anti-Semitism, like all racism, is despicable and on the face of it this would appear to be a sound motion worthy of support. So let's look at the "EUMC definition" to which the motion refers. The EUMC is, or was, the "European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia"; since 2007 it has been called the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). According to this august body, anti-Semitism includes "manifestations [that] could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity… e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour… applying double standards requiring of it behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation… and drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis."

Let's put to one side the fact that Israeli army officers have been quoted as saying that to find an effective way to deal with the Palestinians they should look to the methods used by the Nazis to deal with the Jews of Warsaw; outrageous. The interesting point in this definition is that critics of Israel are accused therein of anti-Semitism by applying double standards in expecting Ambassador Prosor's "democratic country" to behave like a democratic country; meanwhile, Mr. Prosor and the Israel lobby call for special treatment and dispensation from such expectations. Commentators have described the EUMC/FRA definition as "highly contentious" for trying "to proscribe legitimate criticism of the human rights record of the Israeli Government." Quite rightly, the same commentators say that it "does not sufficiently distinguish between criticism of Israeli actions and criticism of Zionism as a political ideology on the one hand and racially based violence towards, discrimination against, or abuse of, Jews".

To use the EUMC/FRA's slanted definition of anti-Semitism would result in the unjust labeling of some of the world's most high profile and courageous speakers as anti-Semites. This would include, for example, the Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu who has been outspoken in his criticism of Israel's illegal occupation and human rights violations. He has also supported UC Berkley's call to divest their university's money away from companies that profit from the illegal occupation and this alone would classify him as an anti-Semite if this loaded definition is to be used. Similarly Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, would also be labelled as anti-Semitic (despite being Jewish himself) for his criticism of Israel's policies which subjugate the Palestinian people and breach international law. Many other similarly high profile campaigners for justice and human rights will be labelled unfairly as anti-Semitic if this definition is allowed to prevail.

If Ron Prosor is really sincere about the need to have freedom of speech and opportunities to allow his country and its supporters to state their case in universities and other forums, he should seek to have references to criticism of Israel removed from this definition of anti-Semitism so that genuine dialogue can take place without the threat of prosecution hanging over participants. At the same time, perhaps the Ambassador could stop his embassy staff from advising Jewish student groups not to share the platform with "terrorists", their definition of anyone opposed to his country and its oppressive policies against the Palestinians. The Israeli government and its lobby friends in Britain should have neither uncritical support for their actions nor the power to curb the freedoms of those who seek justice for Israel's victims. If it is really a democracy, let Israel start acting like one.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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