Activists campaign for free speech after Tower Hamlets’ ban on Palestine charity cycling event

Image courtesy of The Big Ride for Palestine

By Miriram Scharf

Campaigners in Tower Hamlets organised a successful public meeting on 6 November, addressed by Clare Short and Palestine Solidarity Campaign director Ben Jamal,
Rob Ferguson, Jewish activist and  author of the pamphlet “The Far Right, Zionism and the Left” and several local councillors in an ongoing battle over the council’s ban on a charity cycling event – The Big Ride for Palestine – to use any of the local parks as a finishing point. Freedom of information requests revealed that council officers believed the event might contravene the “working definition” of antisemitism adopted by the council in 2018.
When the council voted for this, the local and national PSC warned it could be used to prevent solidarity action with Palestine. It happened. The IHRA definition was used to curtail free speech. As Ben Jamal said, ‘There is nothing anti-semitic about a ride for children in Gaza’. He made clear the difference between criticism of Israel and antisemitism and went on to say the need for international solidarity is more urgent than ever as Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s ‘Deal of the Century’ aims to extinguish the collective rights of Palestinians.
Clare Short was an MP when Tory MPs supported Thatcher’s statement that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. She recalled how the same MPs were crawling over each other to get a picture with Mandela after he became an acknowledged great statesman. She reminded the meeting that Mandela said there can never be peace until the Palestinians achieve freedom, that Desmond Tutu said that apartheid was worse in Israel/Palestine than in South Africa, and that both would have been pronounced ‘anti-semitic’ under the IHRA definition.

Rob Ferguson outlined  the wider consequences of the implementation of the IHRA definition: “We have seen campus meetings on Palestine banned, or threatened with restrictions; the banning of Anti Apartheid Week events, and a chilling effect on pro-Palestinian voices, including within Muslim communities such as here in east London.

These consequences are not restricted to the UK. The German Bundestag has deemed the non-violent strategy of Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions, called for by Palestinian civil society to be antisemitic. I find it chilling that in that debate the deputies of the far-right AfD and its neo-Nazi wing, bayed for an outright legal ban and criminal prosecutions.

In Germany and Austria, artists have been banned from festivals and denied awards for refusing to condemn BDS or refusing to play in Israel. The director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin was forced to resign for signing a statement defending BDS against the charge of being antisemitic, even though he did not support BDS. In the United States the Trump administration is threatening Middle East Studies programmes with withdrawal of federal funding; academics have been hounded from their posts, campus meetings and campaigning for Palestine suppressed.”

Three Tower Hamlets councillors made contributions and
Cllr Gabriella Salva sent a message of solidarity to the meeting. Cllrs Ehtesham Haque and Puru Miah explained how upsetting it is to be targetted as ‘antisemitic’ completely unjustly, but that it would not stop them standing up for human rights of Palestinians and others.
Tower Hamlets PSC and Tower Hamlets Jenin Friendship Association will lobby the council on January 15th, 6.15pm, Mulberry Crescent, London E14 1SA and present a petition to amend the IHRA so that it safeguards the right to campaign for freedom and justice for Palestine. The meeting ended with a call to action on Palestine.
Additional reporting by Sheila McGregor
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