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If free speech is to mean anything at all, its principles must be applied equally

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, speaks after the announcement of his victory in the party's leadership election, in Liverpool, Britain September 24, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn [REUTERS/Peter Nicholls]

Britain’s two major political parties have been gripped by accusations that they have a problem with racism. In the case of the Labour Party, this allegedly takes the form of anti-Semitism, while in the Conservative Party, it is alleged Islamophobia. Clouding the anti-Semitism issue, somewhat, is the fact that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of such odious racism includes examples which conflate irrational and unacceptable hatred of Jews with opposition to the State of Israel and its policies against the Palestinians.

It has been difficult to avoid the controversy over the Labour Party’s handling of the accusations of deep rooted anti-Semitism against its members. Its Executive Committee’s caution about adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in full, without first considering its impact, has been welcomed by supporters of free speech, including Palestinians and their supporters. Having free and open discussion about the creation of Israel and its impact on the Palestinian people would be very difficult, if not impossible, without falling foul of the IHRA definition of contemporary anti-Semitism.

“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” cites the IHRA by way of an example of such anti-Semitism. It explains this further with, “e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

As far as Palestinians are concerned, the “ethnic cleansing” of their homeland — a description given by an Israeli historian — refers to the mass expulsion of over 700,000 men, women and children from Mandate Palestine in 1948. Israel has refused to allow the Palestinian Arabs to exercise their legitimate right to return to their land, while giving a “right of return” to any Jew from any part of the world. It is reasonable, I believe, to call that out as racism from the very birth of the state. Fast forward 70 years, and the recent passing of the Nation State Law by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, confirms that not only was Israel created through racism, but it also continues to this day; this law basically self-certifies Israel as an Apartheid state. Palestinians believe that they have every right to talk about such issues openly and honestly without being accused of anti-Semitism. This was articulated very clearly in a recent letter to the Guardian newspaper.

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The Labour Party’s attempt to develop an anti-Semitism code that contextualises the examples in the IHRA relating to criticism of Israel, and ensures that its adoption will not have a negative impact on freedom of speech, has been slammed by a number of Jewish organisations in Britain. The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, which claim to speak for all Jews in the UK (although not all Jews agree that they do) led the procession against Labour’s decision, building on their distrust of party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to root out anti-Semitism in the party which goes back almost to the day that he was elected leader in 2015.

Prior to that leadership victory, Corbyn never faced accusations of racism; rather, he was acknowledged as a tireless campaigner against racism in all its manifestations. He has now been accused of racism and anti-Semitism by some of his own colleagues, including veteran MP Dame Margaret Hodge, who initially faced disciplinary action for the manner of her protest; that action was subsequently dropped.

No evidence has been presented by any of Corbyn’s critics, with not one example being provided of the Labour leader demonstrating anti-Semitic tendencies either as a backbench MP for more than three decades or as the leader of HM Opposition for three years. However, and this is possibly the crux of the matter, there is ample evidence of his support for the Palestinian people. Unlike the Conservative government, which has flatly refused to recognise Palestine as a state following Parliament’s decision to call on the Government to do so in 2014, the Labour leader has promised to recognise Palestine as a state if his party wins the next General Election.

Objective observers of the wall to wall coverage of this controversy simply have to conclude that those applying pressure on Labour to adopt the IHRA definition in full are motivated by their mission to protect Israel from criticism. Its supporters imply that it is an internationally-accepted definition, when in fact the “international” arises solely from the name of the organisation that developed it, which has a membership of just 31 countries.

The impact of the adoption of the IHRA definition in full will make anyone — a Palestinian or a supporter of the Palestinian people; individuals or organisations — think twice before speaking about Israeli racism, holding events to commemorate the dispossession of the Palestinians (the Nakba) or labelling Israel as an apartheid state. I am not aware of any other definition of bigotry, discrimination or prejudice against any ethnic, racial or other group, which brings the name and actions of a particular state into the equation.

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Islamophobia is another issue; former Foreign Secretary and Boris Johnson MP is in hot water having been accused of anti-Muslim hatred. There is no international definition of Islamophobia, but none of the dictionary definitions that I have seen brings a foreign state into it; most are variations of “hatred or fear of Muslims or of their politics or culture”. This mirrors traditional definitions of anti-Semitism, which were based around the “hatred of Jews because they are Jews” type of thing. The IHRA definition thus goes much further.

The Islamophobia charges against Johnson arose from his column in the Telegraph written following a visit to Denmark, which has banned the burka or full face veil, the niqab. While the headline above his article was “Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it” and was clearly against the Danish ban, he could not resist having a swipe at those women who wear the face veil. “It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes,” he wrote.

Jack Straw, UK's foreign secretary, at MEMO's 'Saudi in Crisis' conference, on November 19, 2017 [Middle East Monitor]

Jack Straw, UK’s foreign secretary, at MEMO’s ‘Saudi in Crisis’ conference, on November 19, 2017 [Middle East Monitor]

“If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly. If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto.”His “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” comments prompted outrage across large sections of the Muslim community and brought demands for an apology from Prime Minster Theresa May and Conservative Party chairman Branden Lewis; at the time of writing, Johnson has still not given any indication that he will apologise. Conservative Peer Lord Mohamed Sheikh asked for the party whip to be withdrawn from the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and 100 Muslim women have written to Lewis saying that an apology would be “insufficient”.

Johnson, they insist, must have chosen his words very clearly, making a “deliberate choice” to “inflame tensions in a way that makes it easier for bigots to justify hate crime against us.”Being the person he is, the former London Mayor and Foreign Secretary has generated much debate about the issue. While there has been a general rejection of the “letter box” and “bank robber” labels, it is notable that many contributors to radio and television discussions have rejected the calls for him to apologise, claiming that this would “inhibit free speech”.

The past year has seen a spike in hatred towards Islam and Muslims, though some try to separate the two, claiming that their issue is with Islam and its teachings rather than individual Muslims. This is certainly the position taken by the right-wing UK Independence Party, UKIP, and the recently-formed anti-Islam party For Britain, which is led by “far-right” Anne Marie Waters, a former UKIP leadership candidate. Both parties view immigration as a major issue, but it is Islam and immigration from Muslim countries and how to combat both that figures prominently in their policies. They are also both against the EU; former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has led a campaign for two decades to get the UK to leave the EU.

Nigel Farage, UKIP

Nigel Farage, UKIP

The Leave campaign won the Brexit referendum in 2016. Farage has expressed surprise at the attack on Johnson and used his LBC radio show to castigate Theresa May for requesting an apology from her former Cabinet colleague.The language used by Waters and Gerard Batten, the current leader of UKIP, when talking about Islam is undoubtedly Islamophobic. At a recent rally in support of far-right activist and former leader of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson — who was imprisoned for contempt of court — Batten referred to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as a “paedophile”. He also claimed that “rape gang members are predominately followers of the cult of Muhammad… But we, the infidels and kaffirs, are not supposed to talk about it. And people who do face possibly criminal prosecution under our so-called ‘hate laws’.”

The Conservative Party has been accused by a number of organisations and individuals of not doing enough to combat Islamophobia, including its former Chair, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. She pointed out that she has been warning the party “of its ‘Muslim problem’ for far too long,” and called for a “full independent inquiry” into Islamophobia therein.

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It is unfortunate that Boris Johnson’s words about the burka and his refusal to apologise will give comfort to the likes of Waters and Batten and their supporters. He may also play to the right-wing gallery of the Conservative Party, whose members also have a problem with Islam and Muslims and have backed his refusal to apologise. They include, of course, many of the people whose support he may need to win a leadership election.

What I take from the recent debates is that free speech must only be protected vehemently when Islam and Muslims are the topic under discussion, but it must be curtailed severely when references are made to Israel and Jewish support for its racist, apartheid policies. That much is clear from the relentless push for the Labour Party, local councils and other public bodies to adopt the IHRA definition in full and without question.

A combination of the toxic debate on Brexit and its focus on immigration two years ago; the open questioning of the value of a multicultural society; terrorist incidents; and the rise of the far-right has led to a rise in Islamophobic incidents in Britain; there has been an increase of 40 per cent in London alone. If Britain is to improve community relations then free speech must come with responsibility; those who seek to express hatred and bigotry must be challenged. The principles involved, though, must be applied consistently without fear or favour for one group or another.

Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have done more than any other party to deal with anti-Semitism but he has had to apologise repeatedly for not doing “more” under pressure from supporters of Israel. It seems that they will not rest until he is ousted. Accusations are now levelled at Muslims that they are raising Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and gunning for Boris Johnson to counter the attacks on Labour and Corbyn. The Labour leader’s critics from the Jewish community, by the way, tend to ignore the fact that there is more rampant anti-Semitism amongst right-wingers than those on the left. This has prompted one Rabbi to denounce Jewish “sympathy” for the far-right.

Those who claim the necessity for freedom of speech to challenge Muslims or the teachings of Islam cannot at the same time exclude other groups from similar robust exchanges. The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism does just that, curtailing free speech on Zionism and Israel by setting boundaries that are not set for any other form of discrimination or bigotry. This is unacceptable, and advocates of free speech should be loud and clear in their rejection of the definition’s adoption in full.

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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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