Monthly Archives: January 2022

Latest Position (29.01.2022) on the Shame of Sheffield Hallam University

For this post it is sufficient to quote the words of Shahd Abusalama and to reiterate that the matter is a long way from being settled satisfactorily. The hope is that readers of this blog will add their voice of protest to Sheffield Hallam University.

Shahd Abusalama’s position

I am reinstated, which shows how powerful our voices are when they are joined together. Yet, it’s not over. We need to continue to stand #InSupportOfShahd.

Demand that Sheffield Hallam University reviews its adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism that is designed to protect a racist settler-colonial state and distract from its crimes, and listen to the UCU and staff opposition. #StopIHRA #InSupportOfShahd

Demand that SHU must put policies in place that ensure that Palestinians and pro-justice in Palestine are not subject to such malicious censorship and breach of freedom of speech and confidentiality. #InSupportOfShahd #StopIHRA

The shame of Sheffield Hallam University – letter of protest

Introduction

Along with many others, I have written to Sheffield Hallam University protesting the suspension of Shahd Abusalama from her teaching post. That letter appears below after this brief introduction.

The suspension appears to be based on accusations made by Jewish News and the Israel lobby group Campaign Against Antisemitism that she had been fostering hostility to Jews. She was preparing to teach her first class on 21 January when an administrator informed her the evening before that her class was canceled and her students would be notified.

The basis of the accusation appears to be based on Twitter posts in which she discussed accusations of antisemitism made against a member of the Sheffield Hallam Palestine Society, this arising from a banner created during a banner-making session, which stated “Stop the Palestinian Holocaust”. She made clear that she herself would not use that term in relation to Palestine.

More background can be found here, here,, and here.

My letter:

Professor Sir Chris Husbands
Vice-Chancellor
Sheffield Hallam University
By Email: c.husbands@shu.ac.uk

26 January 2022

Dear Professor Sir Chris Husbands,

Re: The investigation of Shahd Abusalama and cancellation of the class she was scheduled to teach.

According to reports, Ms Abusalama is under investigation by Sheffield Hallam University for social media posts published on Twitter on 4 December 2021.  There is no need to repeat the details here – they have been set out across social media and in other letters to the university – save to say that Ms Abusalama sought to explain what might have motivated Palestinian students to create a banner stating ‘Stop the Palestinian Holocaust’.  At the same time, she made clear that she would not herself have used the term ‘Holocaust’ in the context of Palestine. Ms Abusalama’s speaking about this, apparently, has been sufficient to sustain a prima facia accusation of antisemitism against her.

The first and obvious point to make is that, on the facts of the matter, Ms Abusalama was fulfilling the role of educator and critical interlocutor to the students in an exemplary manner. In other words, her actions, as reported, were directed to explaining, to critiquing, to, in effect, challenging the students’ thinking in respect of linking the term ‘Holocaust’ to Palestinian issues.  An aspect of this process was articulating, and respecting, the perspective of the Palestinian students who created the banner. Anyone who has even the faintest understanding of the brutality daily visited upon Palestinians by the Israeli state should have some insight into the surrounding circumstances that prompted those particular words on that particular banner.      

It is sometime since I attended university, but my understanding has always been that one of the key functions of a university is to serve as a haven where ideas can be freely explored, and challenged, without fear of penalty or retribution. In this matter, it appears that Sheffield Hallam University has been derelict in its duty to secure that space for, in this case, Ms Abusalama and indeed Palestinian students in general.  This should be a cause of shame for your institution.

It appears that the undergirding for the accusation of antisemitism is based on the university’s formal endorsement of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. This is a definition that has attracted extensive and authoritative critique and disavowal by scholars – Jewish and not Jewish – legal experts and civil society groups. And, as a Jew, it gives me no comfort at all; and I object to its use in attempting to negate Palestinian voices.   The IHRA definition is a messy, confused, over-embellished jumble of ideas that is having, as predicted, a chilling effect on free speech in relation to Palestine/Israel issues. Indeed, one of the authors of the definition – Kenneth Stern – has made it clear that the IHRA definition is not designed to be a guide as to what constitutes permissible speech in universities.

The definition has in fact become weaponised by those who wish to silence legitimate Israel-critical speech. Your university now stands charged with being complicit in this silencing and is so doing joins those who wish to stifle, indeed erase, Palestinian voices.  It is a shameful for a university to put itself in this position, in effect hollowing-out your university’s own pledge in respect of the IHRA definition:

‘Adoption of this definition will not limit legitimate criticism and debate. The University will continue to uphold and protect the rights of students and staff to hold legitimate debates on issues related to Israel, Palestine and the Middle East.’

In closing, I endorse the demands as formulated by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies that Sheffield Hallam University:

  • immediately inform Ms Abusalama of any accusations against her; of the evidence of any such accusations; and give her the right in consultation with her union to respond to those accusations;
  • uphold Ms Abusalama’s right to freedom of expression such as it is guaranteed under the law, particularly when it comes to speaking about her experiences as a Palestinian refugee from Gaza;
  • publicly apologise to Ms Abusalama for the breach of confidentiality committed against her when the university informed the media of an investigation into her social media posts;
  • revoke the decision to cancel the class she teaches;
  • uphold its duty of care towards Ms Abusalama both as a student and member of staff at Sheffield Hallam University;
  • rescind the use of the IRHA definition of antisemitism as a tool in complaints and disciplinary procedures.

Yours sincerely,

Bernard Spiegal

December 4, 2021. Tuba, South Hebron Hills (David Shulman)

A richly evocative article in words and pictures. It connects readers, as much as any medium can, to the lived experience of the villagers, and Israeli activists supporting them, as they suffer and resist the brutalities of the agents of the Israeli state.

Touching Photographs

Tuba in 2018. credit: Margaret Olin

It’s 8:00 on a winter morning as we arrive in South Hebron, and immediately there is a call: settlers attacking in Tuba. Five of us—Guy, Yigal, Noah, Yossi, me—tear off over the gravel-and-goat paths , through the desert, to Tuba. Guy is driving as if he were flying a plane or flogging a horse. The car careens over the rocks, kicking up dust. They need us. Now.

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Palestine, Israel and the Labour Party: Is it racism that I see?

Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, struck the right tone in his tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who died on the 26 December 2021. He described Tutu as:

‘a tower of a man and a leader of moral activism’ who ‘dedicated his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed…’His impact on the world crosses borders and echoes through generations’.

But his words ring hollow. Starmer’s encomium to the Archbishop sits ill with positions the Labour Party leader has taken on a cause close to the Archbishop’s heart: Palestine.

As is well known, Tutu was a consistent advocate for justice for Palestinians, and a critic of Israel’s repressive policies towards them.  Tutu also drew parallels between Apartheid South Africa and the Israeli state. Here’s the archbishop:

‘I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces…Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.’

The Archbishop was equally explicit on the need and justification for boycotts and sanctions against Israel as non-violent means to persuade/compel Israel to change its policies in respect of Palestine/Palestinians.

In South Africa, we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime’

The same issues of inequality and injustice today motivate the divestment movement trying to end Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory and the unfair and prejudicial treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them’.

Starmer’s position

Some weeks prior to the Archbishop’s death, Starmer had addressed a meeting of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) at which he effectively endorsed, unblinkingly, standard Zionist positions. I’ll come to those further into this post, but first let’s look at Starmer’s position on BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions).

Notwithstanding Starmer’s tribute to the Archbishop – ‘a tower of a man…leader of moral activism’ – he made it clear to the LFI meeting that:

‘And let me be clear, too, the Labour party does not and will not support BDS….Its principles are wrong – targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state.’

In the light of these remarks alone, Starmer’s tribute to Archbishop Tutu looks like so much posturing. He said the sort of thing he said in his tribute because the occasion demanded it.

The real and present concern must now be that Starmer, with the Parliamentary Labour Party, may end up backing Conservative moves to legislate against BDS. Conservative MP Robert Jenrick has said:

‘What we want to do is pass a piece of legislation…I’m confident that it will be in the next legislative program…in the spring of next year [2022], which will outlaw BDS in the UK… There’s a question of how broad that law can be, obviously I want it to be as broad as possible, so there’s next to no avenue that BDS could continue’

Notwithstanding that a recent survey found that 61% of Labour Party members support the global BDS movement, it seems entirely possible that Starmer could support moves to take legislative measures to curtail it. Whether he does or not, it must strike any democrat as odd that a Labour Party Leader should be so stridently against a non-violent form of political expression.

The architecture of silencing

Turning now to related matters. In an earlier post I discussed the folly of the UK Government banning Hamas – that banning needs to be understood as part of a wider project to stifle Israel-critical opinion.  Where one stifles free speech, and in effect promulgates certain words and ideas as heretical, and others permitted, even required, one comes perilously close to creating the conditions for witch hunts.  We have reached that point.

A key component of the architecture of silencing is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, complete with what are dubbed ‘examples’, a good number of which are designed to place off-limits criticism of Israel.

A witch hunt, notwithstanding its own version of itself, has little interest in impartial, objective evidence. It seeks convictions, findings of guilt. It requires guilty verdicts because they have an effect wider than the individual conviction. The aim is to cower into silence dissenting voices. To stifle heterodox thought even before it is uttered. And if you survey the people and institutions that have been victims – academics, students, opinion formers – of the IHRA definition and its zealots, you will see just how successful they have been.

Once an atmosphere of witch hunt has been created, fantastic propositions, in the form of accusations, can be made and be unquestionably accepted. The reference points that should tether us to informed inquiry – impartiality, objectivity, innocent until proven guilty – become severed.

This can be the only rational explanation for the current pursuit by the Labour Party of at least forty Jewish members of JVL (Jewish Voice for Labour) who are under investigation, charged with antisemitism.  As JVL put it in evidence to the Labour Party:

‘…a new feature is that the Labour Party is targeting those who question its interpretation of antisemitism and in particular its adoption of one particularly, contested definition of antisemitism, in effect determining as antisemitic, and worthy of expulsion, disagreement over the methods used for combating antisemitism.’

In an earlier post I discussed the IHRA definition, and so will not in detail do so again here. But it is perhaps instructive to focus on just one of the ‘examples’ (there are others) simply to see the architecture of silencing in action.

One of the ‘examples’ states: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’

The reference to ‘denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination’ is the intellectual equivalent of throwing sand in your eyes, the better to disorient and blind. Self-determination can take many forms, it has no necessary connection with ideas about statehood. Still less so when the price of Israeli Jewish self-determination as a state spawns the systematic, brutal and sustained denial of Palestinian self-determination.  To discuss this, or point to this, is to offend against this ‘example’ and potentially stand accused of antisemitism.

Similarly, the ‘example’ states that characterising ‘Israel as a racist endeavour’ is, of itself, a potential example of antisemitism.  Readers will know that the Israeli human rights organisation, B’tselem, has found Israel to be an Apartheid state. Human Rights Watch has similarly come to the same conclusion. Archbishop Tutu, of course, sometime before, had compared Israel to South Africa when it was an Apartheid state. But charging Israel with Apartheid is unpermitted speech notwithstanding the evidence.  

Undue influence

Complementary to acts of silencing, is the amplification of, and subservience to, permitted voices.

Starmer had been due to attend (virtually), in April 2021, Open Iftar, a fast-breaking event organised by the Ramadan Tent Project. But he withdrew after objection was raised by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle. The reason? One of the event’s organisers, CEO Omar Salha, supported a boycott of Israeli dates.

Boycotting dates from Israel is a non-violent action, the sort one imagines Archbishop Tutu would support. But this was to no avail in the light of objections from the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle. Tal Ofer, deputy at the Board of Deputies, tweeted: ‘Glad to see that after I raised up this issue, Keir Starmer withdrew his participation at the event.   Labour sources confirmed  that Ofer’s concerns had been taken into consideration by the leader

This is alarming on two levels. One, that the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle seem to wield a disproportionate amount of influence – the power of their voices is amplified and succumbed to. Two, Muslim voices and interests are marginalised, treated with disdain.

This is deeply disturbing, borne out in a survey of Labour Muslim members and supporters which found that some 29% directly experienced Islamophobia in the party; 44% did not believe the party takes the issue of Islamophobia seriously; 48% said they did not have confidence in Labour to deal with Islamophobia effectively.

In addition, 46% of Muslim members and supporters disagreed with the statement ‘I believe the Labour Party represents the Muslim community effectively; 59% said they did not feel ‘well represented by the leadership of the Labour Party’; 56% told the Labour Muslim Network they did not feel that ‘the shadow cabinet team’ put together by Keir Starmer ‘represents the Muslim community effectively’.

The concern about the direction of travel by Labour under Starmer has been echoed in a letter signed by over 25 Palestinian Labour members:

‘Some of us have been members of the party for decades under different leaders and never have we experienced a party environment so hostile and unwelcoming to us as it has been since you took over its leadership,” the statement reads. “Not even during the dark days of the illegal war on Iraq.

“Our community of traditional Labour voters is therefore deeply concerned and alarmed, and we fear that without your immediate action, their growing alienation from the Party will become a permanent rift.”

Malleable and subservient

The question arises, how is it that Starmer can pay such (overly) sensitive heed to concerns about antisemitism, be so malleable in response to particular sectional interests, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish Labour Movement to name but three, and yet be the leader of a party that appears to treat with disdain Palestinians, Israel-critical Jews and Muslim members. This against a background of 70% of Muslims reporting they had experienced religion-based prejudice in 2017-2018, whilst more than half of religiously-motivated attacks in 2017-18 (which rocketed by 40% in comparison to the prior year) were directed at Muslims.

A line crossed

There’s something deeply concerning about Starmer’s stance on Israel and Palestine. It’s not simply about policy positions he takes on the issue. It’s as much, perhaps more, about the framework of reference he deploys when addressing them.

At the LFI event, he quoted approvingly an earlier Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who had praised Israeli ‘Social democrats who made the desert flower’.

In referencing this remark, Starmer echoed, and implicitly endorsed, one of the founding myths of state Zionism: that prior to European, Jewish colonisation, Palestine – the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River – was near-barren and essentially uncultivated by the indigenous Palestinians.  The land was simply waiting for beneficent settlement by European Jews.  This essentially racist trope went hand in hand with the self-serving Zionist myth that Palestine was a land without people, for a people without a land. For Palestinians, both phrases are deeply hurtful, and dismissive of their history and agency.  And implicitly racist.

Starmer did not stop there but went on to effectively endorse the notion that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism. This is to muddle two distinct concepts: anti-Zionism is a political stance that opposes the colonial, racist ideology underpinning the Israeli State. Antisemitism is the hating of Jews, because they are Jews. The effect of Starmer’s words is to add to the lexicon of heretical, impermissible speech – anti-Zionism now defined as antisemitism. 

In April 2020 Starmer said ‘I support Zionism without qualification’. Without qualification? 

Without noticing the militant Zionist Settlers, who daily attack Palestinians and steal their land? Without regard for non-trial administrative detention of Palestinians, adults and children for six month and more at a time?  Without uttering a peep against the Israel Basic Law, one of the clauses being ‘The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people’?

The whiff of racism?

This thoroughly depressing post is not intended as an ad hominem attack on the Leader of the Labour Party. Rather, it is an attempt to highlight what are, at base, modes of thought and ideological orientations that are deeply disturbing.

If we consider the stated positions of the Labour leader on Palestine/Israel/Zionism/antisemitism as set out above, and take full account of Muslim and Palestinians (Christians and Muslim) experience of Labour under Starmer, then it is unavoidable to detect the whiff of racism – conscious or otherwise – seeping into Labour’s thought and action. If that’s correct, it is both intolerable, and shameful.