Palestine solidarity campaigners are hitting back after an east London council refused to allow a rally in aid of Palestinians because it could be antisemitic.
Officials from Tower Hamlets council refused permission for The Big Ride for Palestine—a charity bike ride—to hold a rally in one of the borough’s parks. Council officials said the event could be antisemitic because the Big Ride’s website refers to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
They said there was a “real risk” that the event could breach the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition.
An example of antisemitism linked to the definition says it could be antisemitic to describe the existence of the state of Israel as a “racist endeavour”. And calling Israel a racist state, or describing the expulsion and exclusion of Palestinians from Israel as ethnic cleansing, could be seen as antisemitic.
Labour-run Tower Hamlets council endorsed the IHRA definition last November. It came after the right whipped up a furore over the party’s initial refusal to adopt the example that restricts criticism of Israel.
Chair of Tower Hamlets PSC Sybil Cock told Socialist Worker that campaigners had petitioned the council to also adopt sentences protecting the right to criticise Israel.
These included the right to criticise Israel’s founding political ideology Zionism, to advocate boycott divestment and sanctions against Israel, and to call it an apartheid state.
But she said Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs said “he found it offensive that this petition had even been brought”. He assured them that the definition would not be used to restrict campaigning for Palestine.
The council’s official explanation for refusing permission for the rally was that speakers might express views that contradicted its policies on community cohesion and equality. It didn’t mention antisemitism to the event’s organisers.
But emails revealed by a freedom of information request revealed council officials feared the event would fall foul of the IHRA definition. One official said there were concerns “not least because of the recent furore within the Labour Party over antisemitism”.
Sybil said this was a clear example of how the IHRA definition could have “a chilling effect on campaigning in solidarity with Palestine.”
It’s not the first time the IHRA definition has been used in this way.
In 2017 an investigation by Socialist Worker revealed how the University of Central Lancashire used the definition to stop students discussing a boycott of Israel.
Sybil said campaigners are fighting to get Tower Hamlets council to confirm the right to criticise Israel in light of the revelations. They plan to present another petition to a full council meeting, with a demonstration outside.
She said the battle should be a “test case” in how the IHRA definition can be applied and challenged. “We hope that this will have an impact on other councils if they feel the need to deny PSC or other organisations to hold events,” she said.