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The absurd reaction to actor’s Palestine flag badge reflects a wider taboo in Britain

August 5, 2016 at 4:58 pm

British actor John Altman was invited to appear on TV show “Loose Women” recently to discuss the release of his new book and his battle with alcoholism. Moments into his appearance on-screen, people took to social media to express outrage at what he was wearing in his lapel; a pin badge of the Palestinian flag.

The British tabloid Daily Express was quick to feature an article about this, documenting the “disgust” of some viewers at Altman’s so-called “political statement” and the support he received from others. The polarised reactions to the badge appeared to be driven by viewers’ opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict; that’s understandable. What is arguably more worrying is the fact that there were people insisting that the production company should have not let him appear on the programme wearing the badge in the first place.

The fact that such anti-Palestine sentiments were expressed almost immediately takes the issue further than Altman’s decision to wear the badge; he is, by the way, a long-term, outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights. The aggressive reaction is further evidence that support for Palestine in British society is becoming increasingly controversial, and pushes the idea that neutrality is in fact the most moral approach in this conflict.

This is even more obvious in a political climate that is becoming more and more unforgiving about showing support for Palestine. Indeed, Palestinian activism is under scrutiny not only in Britain but also other parts of the world. The non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been denounced as “terrorism” in Israel. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is vehement in his opposition to BDS, insisting that it has “no place on Canadian campuses.” In the UK, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson described it as “completely crazy” and described BDS supporters as “corduroy-jacketed, snuggle-toothed, lefty academics.”

More recently, a 15 year old British-Palestinian girl won a regional final of the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge for delivering a speech on the occupation of Palestine and Israeli brutality against Palestinian civilians. However, she was then expelled from the national contest on the grounds that “a speaker should never inflame or offend the audience or insult others.”

It is clear that complicity in Israel’s occupation of Palestine is becoming normalised in the mainstream British narrative on the conflict; speaking out about the rights of Palestinians is becoming a controversial move. The reaction to John Altman’s badge should not, therefore, be a surprise. Nevertheless, it signifies a serious threat to Britain’s much-vaunted free-speech and the dynamics of press freedom.

It brings to mind the words of English philosopher John Stuart Mill who wrote in his book On Liberty in 1859, that, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.” Whether this opinion is built upon fact, or not, censorship is unhealthy and could begin to nullify the “entire courage of human kind.”

When it comes to the issue of Palestine, though, it is more than intellectual freedom and the value of speech at stake. Wearing a Palestine badge, for example, not only represents the wearer’s moral standpoint, but also displays respect for international law. It must not be forgotten that UN General Assembly Resolution 194, adopted in 1948, states explicitly the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their land; it has never been allowed by Israel. The UN General Assembly voted near-unanimously for resolution A/67/L.28 to recognise Palestine as a state; though it is not binding, Israel’s colonial-settlements built on occupied land beyond the 1967 borders and intended to be the territory of that state clearly violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It is also important to note that in 2014, British MPs voted to recognise Palestine as a state, so the controversy created around showing support for Palestine in public contradicts international norms and official British policy.

Such undermining of free speech when it comes to support for Palestine signifies a degree of complicity in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. It is also destructive to the social fabric of this country, because taboos and censorship, especially in terms of who is and is not worthy of benefiting from humanitarian law and human rights, create additional unnecessary divisions and polarisation within society.

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