UN religious freedom monitor working with Israel lobby

Man in suit from shoulders up

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN rapporteur on freedom of religion, is adopting biased definition of anti-Semitism promoted by Israel lobby. (UN Geneva)

The United Nations expert charged with monitoring religious freedom around the world is being accused of ignoring Israel’s systematic violations of the rights of Palestinians to observe their faith.

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, is also working closely with Israel lobby groups to produce a report that may stigmatize support for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitism.

Shaheed is an academic and the former foreign minister of the Maldives.

“Since his mandate, in November 2016, Mr. Shaheed has been very vocal, outspoken and active on important and crucial topics such as anti-Semitism,” the organization Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said Monday.

“He’s also been disproportionately vocal on freedom of religion in Iran, in comparison with his silence on issues of freedom of religion of Shia minorities in countries like Saudi Arabia, for instance.”

But Euro-Med Monitor observes that it has “failed to find a single statement by Mr. Shaheed pertaining to the continued Israeli violations of Palestinians’ rights to freedom of religion at the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif, even on occasions where Israeli authorities completely closed down the gates of the [al-Aqsa] mosque in the face of Muslim worshippers in July 2017, or more recently.”

Israeli occupation forces violently attacked Muslim worshippers and closed the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem to Muslims on Sunday, the first day of Eid al-Adha.

At the same time, it allowed some 1,700 Jewish worshippers, organized by groups whose aim is to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, to enter the site.

Israel also habitually imposes restrictions on the freedom of religion of Christians.

Moreover, the most recent visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories by the office of the special rapporteur on freedom of religion was more than a decade ago.

Working with Israel lobby

“We find this seriously alarming when one of the most relevant authorities on the issue of freedom of religion stands completely silent and turns a blind eye to grave and systematic Israeli violations against Muslim worshippers at al-Aqsa mosque,” Anas Jerjawi, director of Euro-Med Monitor’s Palestine office, said.

Jerjawi also charged that Shaheed “is close to pro-Israeli lobbying groups such as the European Jewish Congress, World Jewish Congress and others.”

“This raises more questions concerning the objectivity of his conduct when he simultaneously refuses to criticize or at least document Israel’s violations against Palestinians’ right to freedom of religion.”

In May, Shaheed teamed up with the World Jewish Congress and Jewish communal organizations in Europe to plan the “first ever” UN report on anti-Semitism.

The World Jewish Congress lobbies in support of Israel, including justifying its attacks on Palestinian civilians as “self-defense” and opposing BDS, the nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

The lobbying organization aims to “activate the prodigious wealth of Jewish talent in the field of public relations to counter adverse images of Israel and its people, in the media, on the internet and by articulate spokespersons who attack it.”

Shaheed aims to submit his report on anti-Semitism to the UN General Assembly in September.

In a call for evidence for his report, Shaheed explicitly asks for examples of anti-Semitism “as enumerated in the the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA’s) Working Definition of anti-Semitism.”

This is significant because the controversial IHRA definition, promoted by Israel and its lobby, conflates anti-Jewish prejudice, on the one hand, with criticism of Israel and its racist state ideology Zionism, on the other.

Zionism is racist because it holds that Palestinians expelled from their homeland before, during and after Israel’s creation, should not be allowed to return to their homes just because they are not Jewish.

In keeping with this Zionist ideology, Israel views Palestinians as a “demographic threat” which must be controlled by means ranging from racist and discriminatory laws to habitual massacres.

Last week it was revealed that the IHRA definition was used by a British local authority to ban a charity bike ride raising money for Palestinian children from using its public parks.

In internal emails, officials in the London borough of Tower Hamlets cited the organizers’ opposition to Israel’s well-documented crimes against Palestinians as anti-Semitism.

In response to this incident, Antony Lerman, former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, renewed his warnings that the IHRA definition is being used for blatant censorship.

Lerman writes that it is the “very vagueness of the IHRA that has licensed a free-for-all of interpretation, delighting opponents of Palestinian demands for equal rights, the right of return for refugees, an end to ethnic cleansing and acknowledgement of the Nakba.”

But now, the UN’s expert on freedom of religion is adopting this arbitrary, vague and sweeping definition as the basis for his report.

Anti-Palestinian tweets

Shaheed used his Twitter account before assuming his UN role to express bias in support of Israel.

He echoed an Israeli talking point that the UN singles Israel out, when in fact the world body has never once imposed sanctions on Israel for numerous egregious violations of international law:

He promoted opposition to Palestinian efforts to hold Israel accountable through nonviolent boycotts:

He even took aim at the government of the Maldives for helping rebuild the destroyed homes of Palestinians in Gaza:

Shaheed has also boasted about his “overtures towards Israel.”

Notably, Shaheed is a senior fellow with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, a think tank chaired by Irwin Cotler, one of the most prominent figures in Canada’s Israel lobby.

Euro-Med Monitor says it has “attempted on numerous occasions to get in touch with Mr. Shaheed, in the quest of motivating him to undertake necessary actions in accordance with his position and the responsibilities assigned to him.”

But the human rights group says all its letters “remain entirely unanswered and ignored.”

The group has also written to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urging the body to investigate Shaheed’s conduct and to replace him if necessary.

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Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.