This perspective on the legitimacy of non-violent action, including the legitimacy of boycotts in the context of Israel’s brutal Occupation of Palestinian territory, was recently affirmed in the Jerusalem Declaration on anti-Semitism, drafted by 200 Jewish scholars in part as an antidote to the woefully inadequate, tendentious IHRA definition. I’ll be discussing the declaration in more detail in a future article, but in the context of this article its worth drawing attention to the Declaration’s confirmation that:
‘Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic
The wider issue
Put to one side for a moment the foreign policy implications of Starmer’s stance, what sort of message does Starmer’s action send to Muslim communities here in the UK, and to the wider public realm? How comes it that support for non-violent, legal protest is trumped by a lobby that knowingly, willingly, supports actions that break international and humanitarian law?
It seems we have become so inured to what amounts to the curtailment of free thought and speech in so far as it touches on Israel, that this violation goes largely unremarked. Starmer’s action implies that it is wrong to promote non-violent, legitimate political action. Now in respect of Palestine/Israel, next in respect of….
But that’s not the half of it.
Infringement of academic freedom
Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has sought to impose on university vice-chancellors the requirement to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in the absence of which he would take action, alluding to potential funding cuts. The purported purpose of this imposition is that the IHRA definition constitutes some sort of tool to expel anti-Semitism from campuses.
The IHRA definition is accompanied by what are described as examples of what may constitute anti-Semitic speech or behaviour. A number of these focus on what may be said about Israel, the intent being to taint any Israel-critical speech as anti-Semitic.
There is a strong body of opinion, and indeed evidence, that the purpose of the IHRA definition, with examples, is to throw a protective wall around Israel and its behaviour such that it is rendered immune to scrutiny or criticism. In this it has been depressingly successful notwithstanding that both the definition and key examples have been demolished in terms of their cogency, accuracy and utility in any genuine attempt to counter anti-Semitism.
In a letter published in the Guardian in January 2021, a group of legal experts warned that Williamson’s requirement that universities adopt the IHRA definition was ‘legally and morally wrong’. They went on to say, ‘The legally entrenched right to free expression is being undermined by an internally incoherent ‘non-legally binding working definition’ of antisemitism. Its promotion by public bodies is leading to the curtailment of debate.’ They continued, ‘The definition… has no legislative or other authority in international or domestic law,’ adding that noted scholars of antisemitism, ‘have criticised its shortcomings’.
Once again, put to one side for a moment concerns about anti-Semitism, Israel and Palestine, is it not a wonder that Williamson’s direct assault on academic freedom has raised no wider outcry. In full view, our liberties and freedoms are being curtailed, paradoxically, by stealth, yet in full view.
UK foreign policy subject to ‘The most disgusting interference’
Former Tory Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan accused pro-Israel lobbyists of ‘the most disgusting interference’ in British politics, and of negatively influencing the country’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Duncan also claimed that Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) went ‘ballistic’ and blocked him from taking on a new post covering the region’s affairs.
In his recently published book, ‘In the thick of it: The private diaries of a minister’ Duncan claims that his new role was agreed until the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson alerted him to the fact that CFI ‘are going ballistic’. He insists that he was blocked from taking the post because he believes in the rights of the Palestinians.
In a diary entry Duncan is scathing about Conservative MPs’ fawning over Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Britain. He was ‘ashamed’ of the British government, accusing officials of allowing Netanyahu to ‘peddle pro-settlement propaganda’.
In an interview with Michael Crick, Duncan described the culture of fear created by CFI. ‘A lot of things do not happen in foreign policy or in government for fear of offending them because that’s the way it’s put to them by the CFI.’
He warned: ‘It’s a sort of buried scandal that has to stop… they will interfere at a high level in British politics in the interests of Israel on the back of donor power in the UK.’ Ultimately, he pointed out, the influence of the pro-Israel lobby group came at the expense of the Palestinians.
Contamination of the body politic
It is fair, correct and necessary to condemn the malign effect bodies such as the Board of Deputies, the IHRA, and the Conservative Friends of Israel have on public discourse about Israel and Palestine. But there is also a sense that, well, they do what they are set up to do, they fulfil the purpose they have assigned to themselves. That purpose being to endorse and embed Israel’s domination of Palestine and Palestinians, and erase any possibility of a just conclusion to the Palestine/Israel impasse. Justice is not their concern.
But, more widely, we, UK citizens, are witnessing the contamination of our body politic by entities that appear to have no care for it. Distortion, falsehood, intimidation, aggressive lobbying, the deployment of fear, undue influence, the silencing of voices are the methods by which they pursue, single-mindedly, their support and protection of the Israeli State. In plain sight, but by ourselves obscured, our public realm is damaged and rendered flawed.