by Dec 1, 2023Amandla 90/91, International

ON AN ALMOST DAILY BASIS, criticism of Israel and support for shutdown; for example, the Wei Wei exhibition in London has been closed, and exhibitions in Paris, Berlin and New York have been called off. The world has seen a huge groundswell in support of Palestinians, who are being pulverised in Gaza, and this has caused great consternation amongst our political leaders and the Jewish establishment.

The UK

The Interior Minister in France, Darmanin, announced an outright ban on pro-Palestine protests throughout France, citing a potential disruption to “public order”. In Paris, activists were met with water cannons and tear gas.

In the UK, the (now former) Home Secretary (Minister of Home Affairs) labelled the enormous protests in support of a free Palestine “hate marches” and tried to get them banned. Even though she has now been sacked, the government is still considering changing the law to enable such bans. Inevitably huge media publicity is reserved for the very few people who did, for example, wear a Hamas headband at the protests – tiny numbers out of a crowd which, on 11th November 2023, numbered up to a million people. It included a large Jewish Bloc, who were greeted with warmth and applause. 

The UK’s opposition Labour Party has banned its members from discussing the issue. They use a similar argument to the one used against the marches – Jewish people would feel uncomfortable. Never mind how uncomfortable Palestinians and their supporters might feel. The Labour party has failed to provide meaningful opposition to the government and so instructed its MPs to vote against a ceasefire motion in parliament. Only a quarter of Labour MPs disobeyed this edict, ten of whom held official positions, from which they have consequently been sacked or had to resign. Local elected representatives have been told not to call for a ceasefire or attend pro-Palestinian marches.

Labour suspended MP Andy McDonald for saying at a large demonstration, “We won’t rest until we have justice, until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty”. His “crime” – using the expression “between the river and the sea” to express support for peaceful coexistence. They claim that saying “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is antisemitic and this was too close to that phrase.

European suppression of protest

As to demonstrating, Germany has seen the largest amount of repression, followed by France and the UK. In Austria, police have cancelled vigils and demonstrations, also often citing the use of the slogan “from the river to the sea”. At one cancelled event, hundreds turned up anyway and were “kettled” (kept in a designated area by police). They were released one by one, but only after giving their personal information. Similar bans on protests for Palestinian rights have also been imposed in Hungary.

The Interior Minister in France, Darmanin, announced an outright ban on pro-Palestine protests throughout France, citing a potential disruption to “public order”. But across France, including in Paris, Strasbourg, and Lyon, demonstrations took place anyway, with a strong police presence. In Paris, activists were met with water cannons and tear gas. President Macron has now become the only European Leader backing a ceasefire. Will this position weaken the clamour to criminalise anti-zionism with up to five years in jail?

In Germany, Wieland Hoban, the chair of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, described the police’s letter relaying the cancellation of a demonstration they had organised as “a copy-and-paste of what they’ve used for the last two years, since they’ve regularly started banning demos.” He noted that the letter included familiar language speculating about “the emotional Palestinian community” and “the likelihood of acts of violence”. He pointed out that this was “racist terminology, used exclusively against Arab communities.” Protests have also been outlawed in Berlin, Mannheim, Munich, and Frankfurt

Being Jewish is no protection

These “sensitive times” are used to prevent people from speaking out, and being Jewish is no protection. Indeed, as Jews speaking up for Palestinian rights, we can evoke greater anger and hate. We are called all sorts of offensive things – “traitors”, “sham Jews”, “self-hating Jews” and even “kapos”.

Sole protestors can also be arrested, and being Jewish, Israeli, or descended from Holocaust survivors is no protection. In London, Yael Khan, an elderly Jewish woman was arrested because her placard “could give offence” – it had some very hard-hitting language, including “Nazi Israel” on one side. On the other, it said:

Stop using anti-Semitism to enable Israel to genocide Gaza. Stop using the Holocaust [which exterminated my family] to enable Israel to exterminate 2.4 million Palestinians in Gaza … We Israelis live on the land stolen from the Palestinians by Zionist terrorism. 

In Berlin another Jewish woman, Iris Hefets (interviewed by Yanis Varoufakis) was arrested after walking, alone, holding a placard saying, “As an Israeli and a Jew: Stop the genocide in Gaza”. Liverpool Hope University postponed a talk by Israeli-British historian, Avi Shlaim. His recent book Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew, like most of his work, challenges Israel’s official historical narrative. The university said it had made its decision taking into consideration the wellbeing and safety of students and staff.

Deliberately confusing anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism

The widespread adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance: of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Working Definition of antisemitism, despite objections by leading jurists and academics with expertise in antisemitism, has provided the framework for much of the clampdown on free speech. Seven of the eleven examples in this working definition relate to Israel. As a result, Palestinians are prevented from using language such as “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid”. Comparison with the Nazis is beyond the pale.

So, what words should Palestinians use to talk about their experience of the past 75 years of being, at best, second-class citizens, or living under siege, under a brutal military occupation? Every family has at least one member who has been jailed, with their land stolen and attacked by settlers, for which there is almost never any punishment.

The IHRA’s widespread adoption, often under great pressure, has led to job losses. Some students have been prevented from applying for Masters degrees or threatened that pro-Palestinian activism could jeopardise future job prospects. When these things happen, others inevitably self-censor, further narrowing the space for free speech.

But some Palestinians have refused to accept the IHRA working definition. In Britain Dr Shahd Abusalama, born in Gaza’s Jabalia Refugee Camp, was accused of antisemitism three times based on that “definition”, while employed by Sheffield Hallam University. Each time she was exonerated, but, because of her suspension and the time and energy spent fighting the allegations, she felt obliged to resign. Twenty-three members of Dr Abusalama’s family were killed in the current bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

The context for Hamas attacks and reactions

Up to one million people in London on 11th November. The world has seen a huge groundswell in support of Palestinians, who are being pulverised in Gaza, and this has caused great consternation amongst our political leaders and the Jewish establishment.

The French Interior Minister pushed several institutions to cancel events with exiled Palestinian lawyer Salah Hamouri. And in Germany, the Frankfurt Book Fair postponed a long planned ceremony honouring Palestinian author Adania Shibli, Germany’s 2023 LiBeraturpreis winner for her novel Minor Detail, telling the true story of an Israeli soldier’s rape and murder of a Palestinian girl in 1949. The reason: “due to the war started by Hamas, under which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering”.

The “reason” given for cancellation speaks volumes; as though there was no context for Hamas’s attack. It is obviously possible, as the UN General Secretary did, to oppose what Hamas did, to emphasise that killing and kidnapping civilians went beyond their internationally recognised rights to resist occupation, and still to acknowledge the background, and that the reaction from Israel is excessive.

The Establishment never asks why there is always a deplorable rise in antisemitic incidents when Israel attacks Gaza. They don’t recognise that encouraged by the Israeli State, they are the cause. It is they who conflate Jews with Israel. It is they who legislate to conflate criticism of Israel, and certainly of the ideology of Zionism, with antisemitism.

European guilt for the Holocaust, especially in Germany and Austria, is understandable. But total support for Israel, acquiescing to its narrative of permanent victimhood, is dangerous. It creates double standards. The Financial Times reported that many officials and diplomats worry that the West’s support for Israel’s assault on Gaza “has undone months of work (with the Global South) to paint Moscow as a global pariah for breaching international law, … exposing the US, EU and their allies to charges of hypocrisy…What we said about Ukraine has to apply to Gaza.”

Ongoing guilt for centuries of Jewish oppression, ghettoization, pogroms, expulsions and Holocaust cannot mean impunity for Israel. As a state, like all others, it does what it thinks best for its own interests. So it works with whoever supports it, including known antisemites like Hungary’s Victor Orban. This does not make Jewish people safe, and it brings terrible harm to Palestinians, as the world has known for decades.

There is a way to peace and coexistence. The first step is a ceasefire – now!

Leah Levane is Co-Chair, Jewish Voice for Labour (UK) 

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