Freeing Palestine. Current strategies necessary. But sufficient?

Part one, in summary, looks at the nature of some of the threats that Israel-critical/Pro-Palestinian advocates confront. It then asks whether there is a need for more joined-up, durable approaches in responding to key threats, ones that so negatively affect the Palestinian cause.  (3 minute read)

Part two looks at some examples of the threats to Palestinian interests. It is illustrative, not comprehensive. (8 minute read)

Part three: End word (30 seconds)

Part one. To confront a strategy, ensure one has one’s own

The forces arrayed against Israel-critical individuals and organisations are formidable, multi-faceted, wide-ranging and well-resourced.  Those forces have the capability to direct their fire at a multiplicity of targets – academic and cultural institutions, local government, business, civil society organisations – and to do this simultaneously; an indication of their breadth and resource. The merest hint of Israel-critical comment and/or support for a Palestinian perspective triggers attack from Israel’s more zealous supporters.

It hardly needs asserting that underpinning the unrelenting, multi-front assaults on Israel-critical perspectives is a strategy. And a strategy, by definition, is long term, integrative, creating the context for generating and marshalling any number of disparate, short-term initiatives within an overarching framework directed at achieving long-term goals.  It is a tool for the determination of priorities, along with the identification of strategic threats, and potential strategic advantages. A strategic approach is also about energy: where and how to expend it, where to conserve it; how to deplete the energy of one’s opponents.

The question arises: Whether, here in the UK, sufficient attention has been given to creating strategic – that is durable, sustained, cross-organisational – responses to the threats that confront Israel-critical, pro-Palestinian advocates. One potential strategic aim being to undermine, overtime and by diverse means, the credibility and (supposed) moral authority of the sources of the attacks.  

Arguably, insufficient attention has been given to creating and sustaining such an approach. The threats include, at the very least:

  • the IHRA definition and examples, deployment of which are scything their way through any number of organisations, groupings and institutions; and linked to this the just announced (see below in Part two section on ‘Government and Opposition’) establishment of an antisemitism task force aimed, it seems, at educational institutions.  
  • mainstream media’s institutional bias, aspect blindness, and timidity in the way it reports and analyses Palestine/Israel issues;
  • the threat that legislation will be introduced to ban or curtail support for BDS.

There surely is a case to be made for the establishment of – or at least the exploration of the merits of establishing – standing cross-organisational working groups able to draw in a range of expertise and political nous supportive of the Palestinian cause. Such working groups could examine weaknesses and lacunae in current approaches and formulate medium and long-term approaches to countering them.   That is to say what might be done beyond demonstrations, petitions, letters of support, necessary though these modes of action are.

Taking the mainstream media strand first, the sort of questions that could perhaps be usefully asked: Is there a strategic gap in how pro-Palestinians interests engage with mainstream media? Is there a case for a – hypothetically named – Palestine-UK Media Group the purpose of which is to change over time the way at least some mainstream media report on Palestine/Israel issues?  To say this is not to succumb to naivete. Of course mainstream media is shot through with institutional bias in favour of Israel, and has a grim and disreputable history in marginalising or ignoring Palestinian voices. But to say this is simply to describe part of the problem, it does not of itself yield remedy. 

Looking at the IHRA/antisemitism strand: Is there a case for a more focused, unified and sustained approach to objecting to IHRA, this as part of a wider strategy? There is a sense in which we present as potential targets waiting to be picked off. When the attack comes, defensive mobilisation is often swift and can be effective.  But is there more that can be done to undermines the authority of the IHRA? If so, this is not the work of a moment, but the need for persistent burrowing at the foundations of the text itself and the credibility of those who so strenuously promote it.  

Nothing said above detracts or minimises the significance of pro-Palestinian advocacy that is daily underway in a variety of ways, tackling every aspect of Israel’s oppression.

Part two: Strategic threats and their bearers – a very partial overview

IHRA

It surely is a move of strategic brilliance that the Israeli state and its cohabitees saw just how potent accusations of antisemitism could be in their unrelenting bid to silence, indeed demonise, Israel-critical, pro-Palestinian voices.  The vehicle for the propagation and dissemination of the accusations is of course the IHRA definition of antisemitism along with its so-called examples (henceforth ‘IHRA’).

In fact, I do not know whether Israel, along with its uncritical handmaidens, initially grasped the potential utility of the IHRA in silencing and demonising Palestinian voices; or whether they themselves have been surprised (and gratified) at its apparent catch-all utility as a multi-functional attack weapon, yet which also affords full-spectrum defence against criticism or censure of IHRA and its proponents. For that is how the IHRA functions: as a public relations shield for Israel, diverting attention away from Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians’ homeland and onto the supposed antisemitism of Israel-critical individuals and organisations.

It’s true there have been some inspiring and effective pushbacks against the IHRA. But the need to fight on this front, which in its narrow formulation is about protecting civil liberties and free speech, has a cost. That cost is the time, trouble and resources deployed to counter accusations of antisemitism and to defend free speech, thus, arguably, diluting attention that should properly be paid to the core issue: Israel’s daily, on the ground oppression of Palestinians.

Whilst each attack on pro-Palestinian interests can be said to emanate from a single source, or at least from sources closely aligned to each other, and likely as not functionally coordinated – a manifestation of a strategic approach – the targets of attack are often local and individual having to rely on their own, local capabilities and resources, notwithstanding acts of solidarity, joint protest and fraternal support from a range of pro-Palestinian individuals and organisations

UK Lawyers for Israel

UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) is nothing if not industrious in pursuing all manner of what they judge to be unlawful actions by a wide range of authorities, commercial companies and other organisations and individuals.  Among UKLFI’s objectives are:

‘to provide, assist in providing, procure or promote the provision of legal support including advocacy, research, advice and campaigning in combating attempts to undermine, attack and/or delegitimise Israel, Israeli organisations, Israelis and/or supporters of Israel’

‘to contribute generally as lawyers to creating a supportive climate of opinion in the United Kingdom towards Israel.’

The implication here is that UKLFI support for Israel is, in effect, unqualified.

I do not comment on the correctness or otherwise of their legal perspective in any particular case, but here’s a partial – stress ‘partial’ – snapshot of their activities, all dated in the period January 2022 – March 2022, a mere three months.

  • The President of City University’s Israel Society, with assistance from UK Lawyers for Israel, has reported the City Students’ Union to the Charity Commission for conducting an unlawful BDS campaign targeting Israel.
  • A petition calling for Edinburgh to be twinned with the Palestinian city of Gaza was pulled from the agenda of the city council. This follows UKLFI’s letter to Edinburgh council’s head of legal services last week, warning that the Councillors will probably commit criminal offences if they participate in twinning between Edinburgh and Gaza City.
  • UK Lawyers for Israel has written to the 82 Local Government Pension Scheme Chairs in England and Wales, to warn them that a UN Rapporteur is unlawfully interfering in the management of their pension funds.
  • Wirral Council’s Pensions Committee, which administers the Merseyside Pension Fund, has voted against a proposal to progress towards divesting from businesses operating in the West Bank. UK Lawyers for Israel had written to Wirral Council’s Pensions Committee, explaining in detail why the Merseyside Pension Fund should not divest from certain businesses which operate in the West Bank and which appear on a database prepared by the UN Human Rights Council.
  • Following a complaint by UKLFI in January 2022 that those living in Israel were excluded from joining YouGov as panellists, YouGov has now allowed people living in Israel to share their opinions for market research.

And, as I briefly set out below, UKFLI is now pursuing the National Union of Students’ appointment of Shaima Dallali as its new President (to take up post in July 2022).

Pre-emptive caution

It’s clear from the activities set out above, and the list of UKLFI’s Patrons and Directors, that they command significant fire power which they deploy seemingly most effectively.

Putting to one side the question of the legal rightness or wrongness of their position in any particular case, it’s not hard to imagine the intimidatory effect a UKLFI letter, replete with references to statute and case law, will have on any number of organisations targeted. They will not wish to end up in court given the cost and time and trouble that requires, and therefore the tendency will be to submit to complaint. But beyond the particular targeted organisations, others which might have otherwise considered supporting, for example, BDS may feel that not addressing the question is the better part of valour; or at least the better part of pragmatism.

We believe in Israel

We Believe in Israel,an organisation whose title neatly summarises its stance, has directed its ire against the musician and activist Lowkey, accusing him of ‘incitement’ against Israel and pushing for his songs to be removed from the streaming service Spotify. Luke Akehurst, Director of We Believe in Israel and a member of the Labour Party’s national executive committee said:

‘Spotify has a responsibility to uphold its platform rules which quite clearly state that content promoting, threatening, or inciting violence is unacceptable. Our research has identified dozens of such breaches…The presence of Lowkey’s music is particularly offensive.’

The attack on Lowkey, essentially an attack on free speech and Palestinian advocacy, has prompted a petition in his support. When last I looked (19/04/2022) it had attracted over 42,000 signatures.

Low Key’s lyrics for Long Live Palestine Part 2 can be found here. Worth reading, but uncomfortable for We Believe in Israel, for the lyrics suggest that their belief in Israel is misplaced.

Students and education a target

In another attempt to silence Lowkey, a planned appearance at a conference organised by the National Union of Students in Liverpool was cancelled following a campaign from the Union of Jewish Students to get him removed from the panel.

The same student organisation, along with the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, is raising objection to Shaima Dallali’s election as president of the National Union of Students, this based on her pro-Palestinian stance and comments she made when a teenager which she has acknowledged as wrong, and apologised for them. However, this has not quietened opposition to her appointment.  UKLFI reports in its blog dated 24 April that:

UKLFI strongly believes the statements [by Shaima Dallali] are contrary to NUS policy. UKLFI considers these statements are antisemitic when judged against the IHRA’s working definition and that this should result in disciplinary action….Following UKLFI’s letter, which was sent on 11 April, the NUS has called for an independent inquiry into allegations of antisemitism.’

The complaint has served its function, whether it is determined as valid or not. Time, energy, finance will be devoted to dealing with the complaint and the IHRA’s role as an intimidatory tool will be further enhanced. Attention will be diverted away from Israel’s policy and actions in respect of Palestinians, the focus moving to consideration as to the degree IHRA can be said have been breached. Nothing, or next to nothing, will have been done to undermine the credibility of the IHRA itself.

A notable, welcome success. But…

There was also the ultimately failed attempt by Sheffield Hallam University to suspend the Palestinian graduate student, Shahd Abusalama, from teaching based on a smear campaign by supporters of Israel. Accusations against her revolved around her purported antisemitic actions and words. Leading the initially successful charge against her were the Campaign Against Antisemitism and that organ of balanced, dispassionate reporting, Jewish News

In the end their immediate efforts were nullified by a brilliant, widespread campaign in her support. That’s a battle won.

But now, as set out below, coming into play is the newly formed Antisemitism Task Force aimed, it appears, particularly at education and students.  Expect an escalation in attacks on student bodies and individuals.

Government and Opposition

So far as the UK government is concerned, it, with the Opposition trotting along behind – or is that side-by-side? – both have to all intent and purposes determined that criticism of, and opposition to, Israel’s policies and actions in respect of Palestine/Palestinians amount to antisemitism and are therefore to be condemned and countered.

Boris Johnson expounded on the matter in Parliament, claiming that ‘our universities have for far too long have been tolerant of casual or indeed systematic antisemitism’. He called for ‘rapid and irreversible change’, and the establishment of ‘an Antisemitism Task Force devoted to rooting out antisemitism in education at all levels.’ According to a blog from the very active UKLFI,  the establishment of this task force was formally announced at a Parliamentary reception hosted by Lord Mann on 5 April 2022.

In addition, the Conservative MP Robert Jenrick, has said that the government aims to outlaw BDS in the next Parliament.   Both these stances represent significant threats to Israel-critical campaigning. The Labour Party – formally speaking, Her Majesty’s Opposition – on Palestine/Israel issues is simply a busted flush, taking positions that in effect mimic that of the Government.

The Labour Party leader has set his face against BDS and, most recently, has opposed the recent Amnesty International report that finds Israel guilty of creating a ‘system of Apartheid’.  (It should be noted that Amnesty claims not to have designated Israel an ‘Apartheid State’ but, as stated above, a state that has created a ‘system of Apartheid’. Explanation of this distinction, if such it is, can be found here.

Above I noted that Luke Akehurst, the director of We Believe in Israel, is also a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, as of course he is entitled to be. At the same time, we are entitled to ask the degree to which he is able to offer the Labour Party a balanced account on Palestine/Israel matters. 

Act.IL

The most succinct way to explain about Act.IL is to quote directly from the Electronic Intifada report of the June 2019:

A global influence campaign funded by the Israeli government had a $1.1 million budget last year, a document obtained by The Electronic Intifada shows.

Act.IL says it has offices in three countries and an online army of more than 15,000. In its annual report, from January, Act.IL says its goal is to “influence foreign publics” and “battle” BDS…

Through its app, Act.IL… directs comments towards news websites in support of Israeli wars and racism, while attacking Palestinians and solidarity campaigners. The leaked report claims Act.IL’s app completes 1,580 such missions every week.

Part three: End word

I doubt that much objection can be raised at my characterisation of the strategic threats confronting Israel-critical, pro-Palestinian advocates.  Similarly, it is hardly new information that the forces arrayed against Israel-critical, pro-Palestinian advocates are formidable and well-resourced. Their capacity to disrupt and attack on multiple fronts is, in its own terms, impressive. 

Be you student, local authority, pension fund, journalist, bookseller, or simply a member of the public wanting to display the Palestinian flag, you can, and often will be, targeted by Israel’s allies, the strategic aim being to silence you directly and, more widely, to create a culture of inhibition such that one self-censors’ Pro-Palestinian expression.

The question raised in Part One seems to me to force itself upon us: Whether, here in the UK, sufficient attention has been given to creating strategic – that is durable, sustained, cross-organisational – responses to the threats that confront Israel-critical, pro-Palestinian advocates. One potential strategic aim being to undermine, over time and by diverse means, the credibility and (supposed) moral authority of the sources of attack.  




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