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London council seeking to outlaw BDS citing IHRA definition of anti-Semitism

BDS protesters [Twitter]
BDS protesters [Twitter]

A London council is taking steps to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement using a controversial definition of anti-Semitism. If the move succeeds it is likely to have national implications with organisations and individuals penalised for their support of the global campaign to end Israeli occupation.

A Conservative Councillor in Barnet, Brian Gordon, is spearheading the campaign to ban BDS by using the hotly disputed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) document on anti-Semitism as justification for the move. The proposed motion will effectively outlaw organisations that support BDS against Israel and prevent individuals from accessing council services.

The motion calls for the London Borough of Barnet to “consider the legality of ensuring” it does “not 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.

Gordon’s motion specifically quotes the contentious guidance notes to the IHRA document in order to claim that BDS is anti-Semitic because no other country is targeted in the same manner as Israel. BDS campaigners have consistently rejected this argument insisting that no other country, treated as an ally by the UK, has been occupying another country illegally for over 50 years and supressed the human rights of millions of people.

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The motion has national significance because the Labour Party – which has adopted the 38-word IHRA definition of anti-Semitism – has been criticised for not fully adopting the examples cited in the guidelines. The same controversial examples are now being used in the motion against BDS. Supporters of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have persistently pointed out that the sections of the IHRA definition omitted by Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) were open to abuse and could be exploited to supress free speech against Israel.

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.”

Concerns over sections of the IHRA document were also raised by distinguished lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC. The lawyer warned of the potential danger the document posed in supressing free speech if the document was adopted in its entirety by public bodies.

Arguing that any public body banning activities on the basis of the IHRA definition maybe acting illegally, Tomlinson said that the guidelines endorsed by many organisations conflate anti-Semitism 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 characterised as anti-Semitic. A public authority which sought to apply the IHRA definition to prohibit or sanction such activities would be acting unlawfully.”

These concerns were further fuelled by persistent efforts to supress pro-Palestinian activism, including by people that have been elected to guard the enshrined principal of free speech. In March, a delegation including Joan Ryan MP, chair of Labour Friends of Israel, and 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.

The text of the motion notes that Barnet Council was the first local authority in the UK to adopt the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism in January 2017. Citing IHRA’s guidelines it states that the aims, methods and rhetoric of the BDS movement go well beyond criticism “levelled at any other country” and are therefore “consistent with the IHRA’s guidance on the definition of anti-Semitism.”

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, organisations or even individuals who support the activities of the anti-Semitic BDS movement”;  it further instructs companies to do likewise; and “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 anti-Semitic BDS movement.”

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