Palestine Solidarity at the Crossroads

New strategy and hard-nosed determination are needed. But where is the unity and leadership?

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Lord Polak: who does he work for? (photo credit, UK Parliament)

Last week we saw how Baroness Jenny Tonge was cruelly maligned in the House of Lords by Lords Pickles and Polak. Pickles invited the minister and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) to join him in condemning Jenny for “suggesting that the murders in Pittsburgh were caused by the actions of the Israeli Government”.

He accused her of causing “great pain in Pittsburgh” and (horror of horrors) falling foul of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.

Jewish News reported that Pickles and Polak, both high-ranking figures in the Israel lobby, slammed her “callous inflammatory” remarks which, they claimed, were “in clear violation of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the UK Government. For a Member of the House of Lords to publish such hateful thoughts brings Parliament into disrepute.”

Polak (pictured), according to this report in The Guardian, appears to work pretty much full-time for Israel and has abused the privilege of peerage. Many might think that brings the British Parliament into far greater disrepute.

So what did Baroness Jenny say on her Facebook page to warrant such a nasty personal attack? “Absolutely appalling and a criminal act, but does it ever occur to Bibi and the present Israeli government that its actions against Palestinians may be reigniting anti-Semitism? I suppose someone will say that it is anti-Semitic to say so?”

The PSC issued a statement complaining she “suggested Israel’s policies and its treatment of the Palestinians could be contributing to a rise in anti-Semitism generally” and the PSC regarded her post as “deeply troubling… and risked being read as implying that anti-Semitism can only be understood in the context of a response to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Such a view risks justifying or minimising anti-Semitism.”

As if their snottiness towards one of its founders and patrons wasn’t enough the PSC told Jewish News they were considering “further steps”. Baroness Jenny is a founder and long-time member of the PSC and a courageous fighter for Palestinian rights. At that point, given the PSC Management’s uncalled-for hostility, she thought it best to spare her many friends embarrassment and resign.

Now a petition is being put to the PSC by members expressing outrage that instead of defending her the PSC’s Executive joined in the Zio attacks. It insists that nothing she said was anti-Semitic, adding that “it is perfectly reasonable to link Israel’s murderous behaviour with attacks on Jews”. It calls for the Executive to apologise and ask Jenny to reconsider her decision to resign.

But would she? Jenny Tonge might do better hitching her wagon to a reinvigorated, turbocharged BDS movement, at least until the PSC is purged of its head office idiots.

‘The Inquisition rules’

Two weeks earlier the Jewish Chronicle and the British Medical Journal reported another craven act against the Baroness, this time by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine which withdrew its invitation to Jenny to be a panellist at a meeting on maternal health. The reason? Because of “very recent media reports and allegations of anti-Semitic sentiment which are contradictory to our organisational ethos, and which we do not feel are complementary to this event.” What sort of organisational ethos confuses anti-Semitism with maternal health issues in developing countries?

Jenny said: “I was un-invited after complaints from an unknown source, claiming that my presence would disrupt the meeting. I was not allowed to know who the complainant was… How they thought I could bring criticism of the government of Israel into maternal health I do not know.

“Criticise the Israeli government and you are excluded from other things too. The inquisition rules.”


The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine subsequently told the BMJ: “There was external concern that a successful debate… would be sidetracked by public questions related to the extensive anti-Semitic issues linked to the Labour Party that were dominating the UK media at the time of the event.”

Feeble excuse. It doesn’t say much for whoever chairs their meetings if they cannot stop the discussion from being sidetracked and going off-topic.

How many anti-Semitism claims have a legal basis?

Hugh Tomlinson QC recently warned that if a public authority did decide to adopt the IHRA definition (though it wasn’t obliged to) then it must interpret it in a way that’s consistent with its statutory obligations and doesn’t cut across the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Freedom of expression applies not only to information and ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive, but also to those that “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”. Unless, of course, they amount to a call for violence, hatred or intolerance.

A further obligation put on public authorities is “to create a favourable environment for participation in public debates for all concerned, allowing them to express their opinions and ideas without fear, even if these opinions and ideas are contrary to those defended by the official authorities or by a large part of public opinion, or even if those opinions and ideas are irritating or offensive to the public”. A public authority seeking to apply the IHRA definition to prohibit or punish such expressions “would be acting unlawfully.”

Pickles and Polak should remember this next time they rise to speak in the House of Lords or anywhere else.

Retired Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Stephen Sedley, pointed out that the 1986 Education Act established an individual right of free expression in all higher education institutions “which cannot be cut back by governmental policies”. He called for the Government to retreat from its “naively adopted” stance.

So according to top legal opinion the IHRA Definition does not make calling Israel an apartheid state or advocating boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) against Israel anti-Semitic. Also, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes “the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

As for the ghastly truth about Israel on top of all the other evidence, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) produced a report establishing that Israel, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is a thoroughly vile apartheid regime. Such was the fuss kicked up when it appeared that it has been withdrawn from UN websites.

But don’t worry, you can read about it here.  Among its conclusions:

  • The authors urge the United Nations to implement this finding by fulfilling its international responsibilities in relation to international law and the rights of the Palestinian people as a matter of urgency, for two reasons.
  • First, the situation addressed in the report is ongoing….. In the case of Israel-Palestine, any delay compounds the crime by prolonging the subjugation of Palestinians to the active practice of apartheid by Israel. Prompt action is accordingly imperative….
  • Secondly…. since the 1970s, when the international campaign to oppose apartheid in southern Africa gathered momentum, apartheid has been considered in the annals of the United Nations and world public opinion to be second only to genocide in the hierarchy of criminality.
  • This report accordingly recommends that the international community act immediately, without waiting for a more formal pronouncement regarding the culpability of the State of Israel, its Government and its officials for the commission of the crime of apartheid….
  • The prohibition of apartheid is considered ‘jus cogens’ in international customary law. States have a separate and collective duty (a) not to recognize an apartheid regime as lawful; (b) not to aid or assist a State in maintaining an apartheid regime; and (c) to cooperate with the United Nations and other States in bringing apartheid regimes to an end. A State that fails to fulfil those duties could itself be held legally responsible for engaging in wrongful acts involving complicity with maintaining an apartheid regime.

No wonder it was hushed up.

What next?

Miko Peled, in my recent interview with him, underlined the need for activists to shift up a gear and accelerate from solidarity to full-on resistance. This means wider involvement, better co-ordination, revised targeting and sharper strategy. In effect a BDS Mk2, turbocharged. And it involves treating Zionism and those who promote or support it with far less tolerance. As Miko said on another occasion, “If opposing Israel is anti-Semitism then what do you call supporting a state that has been engaged in brutal ethnic cleansing for seven decades?”

Indeed. And what do you call people in public life who adore and defend that state and intimidate anyone who voices disapproval?

Things are changing. The Stop the War Coalition last weekend brought together a number of experts in a conference about “re-framing the debate” on Palestine. That whole discussion is long overdue and I’m waiting to hear what came out of it. For example, robust measures must be put in place to counter bogus accusations of anti-Semitism stifling free speech

It might be no bad thing if someone came forward with a proposal for a centralised legal unit to reprimand the Zio-extremists who overstep the mark and use false accusations of anti-Semitism to pour hatred on the likes of Jenny Tonge.

Efforts must be made to ensure public institutions like Parliament don’t provide a platform for such odious behaviour. It would also be the unit’s task to launch into the public domain a working definition of anti-Palestinian racism similar to the one recently proposed by Jewish Voice for Labour.