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Freedom of speech is too valuable to be lost through pro-Israel legislation

With the appalling rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes across Europe, arguably as a consequence of political decisions being implemented elsewhere, there is an urgent need to separate Jews and Judaism from the colonial policies of Israel. This is evident by the growing numbers of Jews who are distancing themselves from the actions of the State of Israel.

A failure to assert this distinction in public discourse has resulted in attacks on Jewish communities outside Israel. Not only is this polarising communities, but it also makes it extremely difficult to have a reasonable conversation about Western foreign policy in the Middle East and its direct correlation with security in Europe.

An illustration of the toxic effect of linking all Jews to Israel was seen on last week's Question Time on the BBC; the programme reflected the passion evoked by this issue with arguably one of the most heated discussions ever seen on the show. Recorded in Finchley, an area with a large Jewish population known for its support of Israel, Question Time featured as a panellist George Galloway MP, who is not known for his love of the Zionist state. He was left to fend off accusations of anti-Semitism after his condemnatory comments about Israel, from an audience which, he claimed, had a "lynch mob mentality". The intimidation that Galloway faced with, it seems, the collusion of both the presenter of the programme and at least one other panellist, was an example of how far people will go to convince others that criticism of Israel is de facto anti-Semitism.

This agenda comes in many guises. In Israel, the Knesset voted last year to declare the country officially as the nation state of all Jewish people everywhere. The draft bill asserted Israel's Jewish character over its secular democratic credentials.

The "ingathering of the exiles" to Israel as the solution to the age-old persecution of Jews around the world remains a key policy of Zionism, Israel's founding ideology. In a very real sense, Zionism thus depends on anti-Semitism for its raison d'être; it feeds on hostility towards Jews and rarely has this been advanced so shamelessly as in the wake of the atrocities in Paris last month. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took advantage of the tragedies to try to persuade European Jews that they only have one real home: Israel, not France, and not Britain.

In 2008 Netanyahu was reported by Haaretz as saying that the 9/11 attacks on the USA were "good for Israel". Indeed, Israel and its army of lobbyists often exploit such bad news with glee. They insist that anti-Israel "rhetoric" is merely one kind of anti-Semitism that needs to be checked through legal measures by criminalising vigorous condemnation of the state's penchant for breaking international law with apparent impunity. The lobbyists maintain that mission creep from criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism is inevitable, if not one and the same thing; at the very least, they allege, critical free speech about Israel's brutal occupation of Palestine and the effect it has on the Palestinians is a symptom of political radicalisation.

To-date, their lack of success in getting legal sanction for this spurious fusion is not because of a lack of effort; it is, rather, an example of good sense amongst legislators and policy-makers in Europe. They have, so far, resisted the incessant pressure and temptation to cave in whenever overzealous pro-Israel lobbyists cry foul.

Such legislative clear-headedness was demonstrated in 2013 when the European Union dropped its working definition of anti-Semitism, adopted in 2005, because it stretched it from the timeless and totally unacceptable hatred of Jews to include legitimate criticism of Israel. The EU's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) removed the document outlining the "working definition" from its website; it had contended that describing the foundation of Israel as a "racist endeavour" was tantamount to anti-Semitism.

News of this burial of the working definition, wrote Ben White in 2013, prompted dismay amongst those who had been deploying it with enthusiasm. At the same time some — including the Israeli government and the American Jewish Committee — sought to put fresh pressure on the FRA to adopt the text formally. The definition had been drawn up by the FRA's precursor, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), in close consultation with several pro-Israel lobby groups.

Now, it seems, the political and social conditions in Europe and Britain appear to favour another surge by pro-Israel propagandists to succeed where they had failed before. The killings in Paris have opened up possibilities for a new front. Jewish leaders, backed by a host of former EU heads of state, have called for Europe-wide legislation outlawing anti-Semitism, which is laudable until you read the small print; the definition of anti-Semitism is to include criticism of Israel.

Heading this drive is the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, co-chaired by the President of the European Jewish Congress. The Guardian reported last month that council officials are touring the parliaments of Europe trying to drum up support for a consensus that would get many, if not all, of the proposals adopted; these include a ban on the burka, FGM, forced marriage and the rather vague and controversial "overt approval of a totalitarian ideology, xenophobia or anti-Semitism." They are particularly keen to see Britain enact legislation, similar to that in Germany or Austria, criminalising Holocaust denial.

Since its 2008/9 offensive against the Gaza Strip, Israel has recognised that it has a massive image problem around the world; its policy-makers have singled out Britain as the main hub of the global pro-Palestine (and thus, it is deduced, anti-Israel) campaign, marking it out as the main target for the pro-Israel lobby. The influential Reut Institute, a think tank advising the Israeli government on global strategic issues, identified London specifically as the centre of a "de-legitimisation" campaign against Israel and has advised players in public diplomacy, both in Israel and the UK, to reassess their strategy and work together, on a local and global scale, to fight against this onslaught.

With the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill (CTS) being rushed through Britain's House of Commons before the general election in May to avoid a less hawkish government from easing its draconian content, it appears that the lobbyists have been given a helping hand by David Cameron. Conditions in Britain, they hope, are sufficiently hostile and suitably polarised to make greater headway in shielding Israel with a "political Iron Dome" by conflating anti-Semitism with "anti-Israelism".

If passed into law, the CTS Bill will make it harder to make the critical distinction between racial hatred and legitimate political criticism of a foreign state. The latter would be criminalised and there is a strong possibility that this, in turn, will increase anti-Semitism, not reduce it. That, as noted above, may well be the aim of ardent Zionists who wish to "encourage" more Jews to migrate to Israel. However, there is a real danger that by insisting on going after "ideas which are used by terrorist groups that purport to legitimise terrorism" and creating a culture whereby schools, universities, GPs, prison staff and even nurseries are obliged by law to report "symptoms of terrorism", it will turn Britain into a quasi-police state. The apparent targets of the legislation at the moment are Britain's 3 million Muslims, but who knows who it will be in future. In any case, everyone who campaigns for justice for the Palestinians is also likely to fall foul of the CTS if it becomes law.

As such, the government's proposed act of parliament undermines democracy and basic freedoms, the fear of which has been voiced widely. According to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, "Broad terms such as 'extremist' or 'radical' are not capable of being defined with sufficient precision to enable universities to know with sufficient certainty whether they risk being found to be in breach of the new duty."

The former head of MI5, Britain's domestic security agency, cautioned that the bill will undermine academic freedom and compromised British values: "It is a profound irony in seeking to protect our values against this pernicious ideology," Baroness Manningham-Buller told the parliamentary Select Committee, "we are trying to bar views too vaguely described as non-violent extremism, which falls short of incitement to violence or to racial or ethnic hatred or the other legislative constraints on universities."

Cases that were once rare are likely to become routine such as that of Nasser Amin, a Masters student at London University's SOAS. He was mistreated* by the University for writing an article defending the right of Palestinians to resist Israel's military occupation, by force if necessary. Amin received death threats on Zionist websites, and calls were made in parliament for action to be taken against him. The incident was also used by pro-Israel groups to justify a need for legislation covering incitement to religious hatred even though Amin filed a grievance case and received public apology and compensation from the university.

The untenable backlash encountered by Amin suggests that if the CTS Bill does indeed become law it will be used routinely and more forcefully against those critical of Israel's aggressive actions against Palestinians and neighbouring states.

The pro-Israel lobby is keen to move the issue of criticism of Israeli policy from one of freedom of speech to the criminal arena. Having lost the public debate and seen Israel condemned more regularly as a pariah state, and more disliked than even Iran according to a survey carried out by Chatham House, the lobbyists are manoeuvring for legal muscle in demanding special protection for Israel by obstructing free speech and conflating anti-Israel rhetoric with anti-Semitism.

During the passage of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, and during its consultation period, it appears that the British government was lobbied to include within it provision for action against "anti-Israel political discourse"; the lobbying was conducted by pro-Israel groups such as the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA). The CAA reported that in a private meeting convened in the Home Office on 8 January, it called for action to formally adopt "a definition of anti-Semitism which includes anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israel political discourse".

To equate anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel is a travesty and diminishes the sacrifice of those Jews murdered by genuine anti-Semites. Having already furnished Israel with every kind of political, financial and diplomatic support needed for it to continue with its colonisation of Palestine, this is one legal shield that the British government must not and should not grant. If we have learnt anything at all from the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher Supermarket killings in Paris, it is that freedom of speech is much more valuable than pandering to the pro-Israel lobby.

Note: This page was at 10.30 BST on April 8th, 2015.

Note: This article originally claimed that Mr Amin had been reprimanded by the University. However, we would like to point out that at no stage was Mr Amin reprimanded by the University but in fact was awarded compensation for the mistreatment he received.

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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