It’s that word ‘may’ that tells you something fishy is going on. Something not quite right. Where the need is for certainty, for assurance that an idea, definition or policy can stand on its own two feet, ‘may’ suggests uncertainty, even evasiveness.
A ‘may’ in a sentence prompts the thought, ‘well, maybe not’. Odd, then, that the weak-kneed ‘may’ is housed in two key paragraphs, both of which are designed to justify far reaching policy decisions the effect – and the intention – of which is to stifle the free flow of political speech and action in respect of Palestine/Israel.
One of the two paragraphs in question is to be found in the Government’s attempt at justification of its proposed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill; the other is in the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism.
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill
In the recent Queen’s speech to Parliament – delivered by Prince Charles – the Government announced that it is to legislate a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill, ‘empowering Government to ban public bodies that are already subject to public procurement rules from conducting their own boycott campaigns against foreign countries or territories.’
It is no secret the proposed Bill is aimed primarily at curbing the increasing success of the pro-Palestinian BDS movement – a non-violent form of political expression.
Much could be said about the Bill and what might reasonably be thought to be its assault on fundamental democratic values by, for example, curbing elected local authority councillors, or pension fund trustees, from determining how funds in their charge can be deployed. In effect, once the measure becomes law, spending/investing authorities could end up in a situation of having to buy goods and services, or invest in activities, that contravene international law, for example, by having to have financial dealings with Jewish-only Settlements illegally situated on stolen Palestinian land. Such is this Government’s commitment to upholding the rule of law.
In setting out the ‘benefits’ of the proposed Bill the assertion is made – for that is all it is – that BDS somehow undermines community cohesion and that:
‘There are concerns that such boycotts may legitimise and drive antisemitism as these types of campaigns overwhelmingly target Israel.’ (Emphasis added)
Here the Government attempts to justify the notion that criticism of Israel is tantamount to being antisemitic. But the ‘may’ suggests that it doesn’t really believe its own justification, for if the Bill were based on genuine, evidence-based data, presumably it would have said. Since it cannot convincingly do that, and yet is so committed to shielding Israel from the consequences of its illegal actions, it must therefore press ahead with this Bill no matter how flabby its justification.
An irony here is that the linkage made between support for BDS and antisemitism might itself be deemed antisemitic since it assumes that all Jews, because they are Jews, identify with, or support the political, racist endeavour that is the State of Israel. That is palpably not the case. But, as noted, the assertions, which are attempts at justification, all hang on the fragile thread of a ‘may’. Well, may be boycotts don’t ‘legitimise and drive’ antisemitism. And what on earth are all those Jews that support BDS doing there? Is it their intent to stoke the fires of antisemitism?
The proposed Bill is also an example of this Government’s seemingly unembarrassed capacity for rank hypocrisy that I discussed in ‘UK Government and allies supports BDS’. In that article I suggested that the extraordinarily wide range of UK Government sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine were based, at least partially, on what it says is a commitment to the principle of self-determination, in this case, for Ukraine. In addition, the BDS being implemented against Russia is being undertaken in the belief that such measures will – eventually – prompt changes in Russia’s actions in respect of Ukraine. This may be right or wrong, but what counts here is Government’s belief, or its claimed belief, that BDS can prompt policy change. This of course is the claim and aim of BDS in respect of Israel vis-a-vis its dealing with Palestinians.
Israel denies, violently and persistently, any form of meaningful Palestinian self-determination. BDS against Israel is founded on the principle of non-violence. Consistency to principle would suggest that BDS in respect of Israel should be endorsed by Government, not banned.
International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism
I’m beginning to suspect that, in matters relating to Palestine/Israel, there is an Inverse Law of the Flimsy Premise at play, such that where an assertion, policy or definition rests on a weak or flimsy premise – expressed as a ‘may’- the greater the real-world negative impact it is likely to cause. This is at least partially demonstrated by the rather odd IHRA definition of antisemitism, more often than not shackled to a series of so-called examples. It has had a profound negative affect on the ability of organisations and individuals to speak critically of Israel. It is deployed as a major weapon against free speech on Palestine/Israel issues.
The definition, along with a number of the examples that accompany it, form what amounts to a protective cocoon around Israel and its actions such that it can brutalise, kill and oppress Palestinians, be they man, woman or child, with impunity. It does this daily.
The IHRA definition entangles itself thus:
‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’ (Emphasis added)
The word-jumble claims to be a definition. But definitions need to be certain. Surely, the use of a ‘may’ cancels out the sentence’s purported purpose: to be a definition. For where there is a ‘may’ there also is a ‘may not’, stated or not.
And what is a ‘certain perception’? And ‘non-Jewish individuals’ can also, apparently, be victims of antisemitism. I’m puzzled by this universalising of antisemitism; it seems to drain the term of meaning.
Hugh Tomlinson QC has given an Opinion on the IHRA ‘definition’. He says:
‘The use of language is unusual and therefore potentially confusing. The phrase “a certain perception” is vague and unclear in the context of a definition. The use of the word “may” is also confusing. If it is understood in its usual sense of “possibility” then the definition is of little value: antisemitism “may be expressed as hatred towards Jews but may also be expressed in other (unspecified) ways’.
Jonathan Rosenhead of JVL (Jewish Voice for Labour), is also puzzled by the ‘definition’:
‘Those two sentences do not make an adequate definition. Inspect that box [i.e the paragraph above]: A ‘certain’ perception? ‘May’ be expressed? There is an almost total lack of specificity. It could be this perception, or that, or indeed the other. And if antisemitism only ‘may’ be expressed through hatred, what are the other ways? This is a rank failure in defining. With hindsight it seems plausible that this vagueness was deliberate – to necessitate interpretation, to facilitate the inclusion of critiques of Israel within the dragnet.‘
The UK Government, with the Labour Party now limping along behind it, promotes, somewhat militantly, the IHRA definition, thereby reinforcing the hostile environment for Israel-critical voices across a range of institutions, not least universities. In so doing, the UK Government and the Labour Party, by deed and by word, become complicit in support of a racist state.
Part of a wider pattern
The planned restrictions to be placed upon public bodies in respect of BDS, along with the IHRA ‘definition’ of antisemitism has one overriding purpose: to silence and erase Palestinians and to hide from sight Israel’s brutal, unrelenting oppression.
The assault on Israel-critical, pro-Palestinian voices will continue. It intensifies by the day.
Attempts to curtail BDS already represent an escalation in the policing of speech and action in respect of Palestine/Israel. This will be further reinforced with the now established Parliamentary Antisemitism Taskforce which will have the mission, according to the Prime Minister, ‘of rooting out antisemitism in education at all levels’ because, apparently, ‘our universities have for far too long have been tolerant of casual or indeed systematic antisemitism.’
So, perhaps its merely ‘casual’, on the other hand it may perhaps be ‘systematic’. Or, perhaps more convincingly, legitimate concerns about antisemitism are the subject of boosterism, the purpose of which is to deflect attention away from the very real and present assault by Israel on Palestinians
Given that Israel-critical, pro-Palestinian speech is being dubbed the ‘new antisemitism’, the stage is set for an increasingly vigorous clamping down on legitimate Israel-critical speech. I wrote about this back in April 2021 under the heading of The Israelisation of British Politics. It is a process that continues.
Such is the way a ‘may’ heralds in misbegotten endeavours.