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UK council’s ban on cycle ride for Palestine proof anti-Semitism definition is about protecting Israel

The Big Ride for Palestine in London, on 27 July 2019 [Ovais Mughal]
The Big Ride for Palestine in London, on 27 July 2019 [Ovais Mughal]

Last week the Palestine Solidarity Campaign revealed that a council in East London had banned the use of any of its parks by a charity bike ride for Palestinian kids.

The Big Ride for Palestine holds annual sponsored events in London and Manchester to raise money for Palestinian children’s charities.

This year its chosen cause was the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which focuses on the mental health of those traumatised living under Israel’s vicious military dictatorship.

It has raised tens of thousands of pounds for such good causes over the years.

Organisers back in March had gone through the whole rigmarole of filling in the necessary applications to use Tower Hamlets’ public parks for the final rally for the event.

READ: Big Ride for Palestine takes the message to Manchester and beyond

It took more than a month’s worth of follow-up emails for council officers to finally give their reply to the organisers’ application: it was declined.

The reasons given seemed nebulous – “rallies with political connotations” were deemed “problematic” especially if one of the speakers was to “say something controversial”.

The email also talked vaguely about “community cohesion and equality issues.”

Nothing in the email, however, mentioned alleged anti-Semitism, or the discredited IHRA “working definition” of anti-Semitism – which the council adopted last year.

Organisers, however, smelled a rat. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign then put in a freedom of information request, and eventually obtained 158 pages worth of council officers’ emails discussing the application.

They reveal the real reason for the council barring the event from using any of its public parks or open spaces.

The stated justification in the refusal email to organisers – that “rallies with political connotations” are not allowed on council facilities – was a smokescreen.

(This was transparently untrue in any case – Altab Ali park, which the Big Ride initially asked the council if it could use, has been used for rallies many times in the past, including by none other than Tower Hamlets’ own mayor, John Biggs, during his election campaign in 2015.)

The real reason was that council officers, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that the Big Ride for Palestine’s website was “anti-Semitic” based on the fact that it condemned “the crimes of the Israeli state” and spoke of “the parallels between apartheid South Africa and the state of Israel.”

READ: The fifth annual Big Ride takes the Palestine issue onto the streets of London

The council manager in question ignored – seemingly deliberately – a sentence on the same webpage stating the group’s unequivocal opposition to anti-Semitism.

To justify this twisted and bizarre inversion of reality, the manager, Oudwa Idehen, invoked the IHRA “working definition” of anti-Semitism in some detail, claiming that the examples quoted from their website would “fall foul” of the document.

The definition was written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, but based on a much older and almost identical discarded and discredited definition written by a US Israel lobbyist.

It is a confusing definition, far longer than would be necessary for any real anti-racist work. Even worse, several of its “examples” of anti-Semitism bring Israel into the mix, when not necessary.

The whole purpose of the document is to attack Palestine solidarity campaigning. This incident in Tower Hamlets makes that clearer than ever.

The Tory government in 2017 first put the pressure on local authorities to “formally adopt” the IHRA definition, even while admitting it has no legal standing.

But the Labour Party too has helped to censor Palestine solidarity by adopting this document. It did so last year, after a massive pressure campaign by the right-wing of the party, by many MPs, and by the Israel lobby.

All the while, critics in local communities and in the grassroots of the Labour Party were constantly gaslighted by the right and by the Israel lobby groups, and even by some figures on the Labour left, like Jon Lansman.

READ: ‘Cycling is a form of resistance’ in the occupied West Bank

We were told we were making a fuss over nothing, and that the definition did not prohibit “legitimate” criticisms of “the Netanyahu government” that didn’t go beyond their permissible boundaries.

This was always a lie. But the evidence in Tower Hamlets is a slam dunk.

You could not imagine a more, cuddly, fluffy, family-friendly form of Palestine solidarity than the Big Ride to Palestine.

These was not the radical, hard left, anti-Zionist organisation of the Israel lobbyists’ fevered imaginations. This was simply a fun way to raise much-needed cash for a children charity – some of the most vulnerable children in the Middle East, if not in the world.

But for the anti-Palestinian racists behind the constant push to adopt the IHRA “working definition”, the problem is not the way solidarity with Palestine is expressed, it is the very existence of Palestine that is the problem.

And that is what the IHRA’s poisonous definition is all about – erasing any support for Palestine and Palestinian existence from this country.

Anyone concerned about resisting this, should therefore struggle to overthrow the IHRA definition it its entirety.

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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