Campaigning for Palestine: Victories, threats, and resolve

There’s been a cluster of events, of which I shall mention only four, that have gladdened the heart, prompted admiration, and that serve to reinforce resolve.

Ambassador sent on her way

One was the protests undertaken by Cambridge University students against the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, Tzipi Hotovely. She was giving a speech at that university. The only thing that can be said in Hotovely’s favour is that her appointment presents to the UK the unvarnished truth of Israel’s position vis a vis Palestine and Palestinians.

Hotovely has reportedly denied Palestine’s existence, designated the Nakba ‘a great Arab lie.’, and opposed any Palestinian claim to the occupied West Bank, Gaza, or East al-Quds, at the same time supporting the expansion of Israeli Jewish-only settlements. It’s worth adding that the university students’ actions are, arguably, not an example of ‘no platforming’. The ambassador was representing – she was not speaking as an individual – a country guilty of multiple floutings of humanitarian and international law, a country designated an apartheid state in no less than four reports, the latest by Amnesty International . There is no obligation to offer a platform to the representative of such a state. There are other places where her toxic views will be well-received.

Direct action works

Palestine Action is rightly proclaiming a number of direct-action victories, a key one being the closure of the Elbit (Israeli arms manufacturer) in Oldham.  More widely, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) seems to be recognising that it has little chance of securing convictions against individuals taking conscientious action.  Activists blockaded the UAV Engines factory in Shenstone, Staffordshire, in November 2020, preventing operations at the drone-engine factory. This follows two trials dropped in January – after a ‘not guilty’ verdict delivered in December. Over the past two months, the CPS has failed to secure successful prosecution against any of the 11 activists whom they had charged. (Shades of the acquittal of the – statue overturning – Colston Four.) However, there are potential threats on the horizon, more of which below.

Labour drops case against Jewish woman for alleged antisemitism

Diana Neslen, an 82 year old Jewish woman and Labour Party member, was accused of antisemitism, in particular on the basis of one of her tweets when she said ’the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour and I am an antiracist Jew’. She instructed lawyers to inform Labour that she would bring a lawsuit for discrimination and harassment, claiming that anti-Zionism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act.

Initially Labour did not respond, but after the Guardian published details of the case it told her they were dropping the investigation. Prior to this, Neslen was sent a ‘reminder of conduct’ the same year (2018) that Labour adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism that included the (so-called) example: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of a taste of Israel is a racist endeavour.’ 

Whether because of the threat of legal action, or publicity in the Guardian, or a combination of the two, the dropping of the charge is the appropriate action. There is, however, a wider point to consider, and Diana Neslen makes it well: ‘I’m pleased they dropped it because it exposes the fact that they shouldn’t have done anything in the first place.‘   But she goes on to say, and this is the strategic insight, ‘But I also feel that I would have liked the issue of protected belief to have been addressed because I believe there are a lot of people who also, like me, are anti-Zionist, believe that it’s a perfectly legitimate belief, and they have no recourse.’ I’ll touch on this again in remarks below.

Sheffield Hallam University – the case of Shahd Abusalama

I’ve reported on this in previous blog articles and shared my letter of protest to the university.  Briefly, Shahd was suspended by her employer, Sheffield Hallam University, from teaching her class the evening before it was scheduled to take place. The basis of the suspension were accusations of antisemitism by Jewish News and the Israel lobby group the Campaign Against Antisemitism, two entities whose relationship with truth and accuracy are somewhat strained.  Underpinning the false accusation was the university’s endorsement of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, again, more of which later.

Shahd, with ever increasing support, led a magnificent campaign that culminated in what can only be described as a victory. She posted on Twitter:

We’re celebrating a fantastic victory for Palestine…[the university] will not be progressing with any further investigation…I have been wholly exonerated of the false charges of antisemitism, brought under the unfit-for-purpose IHRA definition…I will also be offered a more secure contract…That wouldn’t happen without your support so THANK YOU.’

It needs to be added that Shahd, is reporting in her tweets that she is being subject to continuing attacks by ‘Zionists’.

But considerable threats and barriers remain intact

It’s right to say that Sheffield Hallam University’s reversal of its earlier shameful decision to suspend Shahd’s teaching position is a victory, not only for her, but also for Palestine. It’s one battle won, but, arguably, the current immediate strategic advantage remains with those who oppose Palestinian self-determination.

It is the ‘unfit-for-purpose’ IHRA definition of antisemitism, along with its working examples, that form part of the architecture of strategic threat to achieving justice – between the river and the sea – for Palestinians.  In that regard, it’s good to see that a joint project comprising the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, British Committee for Universities of Palestine and Jews for Justice for Palestinians have created a web site on how to combat the IHRA definition, aimed in particular at universities and local councils. The web site offers comprehensive tool kits suggesting the sort of actions that can be taken along with a range of authoritative opinion and evidence to support the case against adopting, or where already in place, rescinding the IHRA definition.  This is really excellent. The questions remain, however, what more needs to be done, who is yet to be influenced, or rigorously opposed?  Are there lines of attack that have yet to be explored, or revisited?

The thinking of Diana Neslen, quoted above, suggest there is at least one avenue to be explored. As she said, she wished she could have had the opportunity to go to court to make the case that being anti-Zionist was not racist, that it was a protected philosophical belief under Equalities law.  This of course does not presume she would have won if the matter had gone to court.  But the strategic merit of thinking in this type of way is that it focuses on the foundations upon which IHRA rests not only on its individual manifestations.  

The IHRA is not the only strategic threat. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) is, here in the UK, under the threat of potential anti-BDS legislation by the current Conservative Government. It’s unclear whether the proposed ban will be limited to local councils and other publicly funded institutions. Robert Jenrick MP, as recently as 15 December 2021 announced that a bill banning the BDS (Boycott Divestment, Sanctions) movement will be presented to Parliament in the coming months. He is also a maximalist in terms of desired scope and has said, ‘Obviously I want it to be as broad as possible so there’s next to no avenue for BDS to continue here.’

The Bridges for Peace web site comments, ‘Given…a significant majority of Parliament seats, it seems reasonable to expect that the Conservative Party will be able to achieve its commitment to ‘boot BDS out of the UK’ in the very near future.’ If successful, the UK will join Austria, Germany and Canada in banning BDS. This must be opposed.

Wider context

The IHRA definition along with threats to BDS are Palestine-specific concerns, though of course they are aspects of wider threats to free speech, and the curtailment of legitimate political action. But fast coming toward us – in fact terrifyingly imminent – are Bills currently before Parliament and, if they hold their course, will soon be law. I refer to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill and, potentially on the horizon, the findings of an inquiry into the Human Rights Act 1998.

Whilst the latter two – Judicial Review and Courts Bill, the inquiry into the Human Rights Act 1998 – may seem somewhat remote to the immediate concerns of Palestine supporters and activists, it is not unfeasible that a situation may arise where, for example, a pro-Palestine organisation or individual may wish to seek judicial review of a government or other bodies decision. The proposed Act on judicial review would limit both the grounds on which a review could be instituted, and also the potential scope of remedy.

Similarly, there is no reason to be confident that a conservative-initiated review of Human Rights legislation will result in fundamental rights, not least the right to a fair trial, being comprehensively secured. At present, the Human Rights Act protections apply to, for example, foreign nationals, or people in prison. Given this Government is not ashamed to have as a matter of policy the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ in respect of asylum seekers and refugees, there is reason to be nervous of what may soon come our way.

The imminent threat

But it is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that represents imminent threat, potentially undermining our ability to take to the streets to demonstrate and protest. In brief, some – draconian – proposed measures have been defeated in the House of Lords and can only be reinstituted in a new Bill; that is, the current Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill cannot be the vehicle for reintroducing the fallen measures – it would require a new Bill. There is no reason to be confident that, given the conservatives’ large majority, that this might not be undertaken.

The fallen clauses include proposed offences such as ‘locking on’ or being equipped to lock on to a structure or, I think, a person; causing nuisance; no-suspicion stop and search powers related to protest; and Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (protest banning orders). It is not hard to see how these measures, were they to be reintroduced in a new Bill and become law, would potentially hinder mightily the freedom to demonstrate and protest; and, in particular, place in jeopardy, for instance, Palestine Action.

But these other clauses are still in prospect

There are other clauses, defeated in the Lords but able to be reintroduced into the current Bill by MPs. Once again, with such a large conservative majority, this must be a cause of anxiety – and opposition.

The clauses that can be re-introduced include: Giving police power to impose noise-based restrictions on protest; Giving police power to impose restrictions on public assemblies; Creating a ‘buffer zone’ around Parliament; Criminalising one-person protests; Creating the offence of wilful obstruction of the highway (amended to only include the Strategic Road Network. Again, one can see how these clauses, if law, will hinder, potentially criminalise, legitimate public protest.

Arguably, it is the ‘creating a ‘buffer zone’ around Parliament’ that is so symbolically resonant of the Bill’s spirit. It is to marginalise dissenting voices of any ilk, to neither hear nor see injustices, still less to address them.

Strategic threat, Strategic advantage

This article started on what might be called a ‘high’ – ‘a cluster of events…that have gladdened the heart’ – then headed downhill to consider threats and challenges. But it can’t end there.

Notwithstanding purblind Governments – the UK, Germany, Austria, Hungary, USA, to name but a few – there is the palpable growth of international civil society rallying to the Palestinian cause, in particular, but not only, among younger generations. That’s like having a down payment on the future, for those hearts beat strong. Palestine shall prevail.

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