Anti-Semitism definition behind secret ban on aid to Palestinian children

A photo of the sponsored bike ride from 2018. (The Big Ride for Palestine)

An East London council banned a charity bike ride raising money for Palestinian children from using its public parks, internal emails revealed last week.

The council also secretly sent a list of proposed speakers to the Metropolitan Police asking if they were “extremist,” The Electronic Intifada can reveal.

The emails indicate that Tower Hamlets secretly based their decision on the “furore within the Labour Party over anti-Semitism” and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s discredited definition of anti-Semitism.

Mayor John Biggs said in a statement sent after initial publication of this article that he had asked for a review of “how the decision was made.”

Council officers deemed organizers’ opposition to “the crimes of the Israeli state” as anti-Semitic under the IHRA working definition.

Yet neither anti-Semitism nor the controversial definition was mentioned in the council’s written refusal in April to organizers of The Big Ride for Palestine.

The ride went ahead last month using a church for its rally and speeches.

Council officers’ emails obtained thanks to a freedom of information request by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) reveal that the council denied the application because they privately claimed the group “could breach the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism.”

Like many other UK councils, Tower Hamlets has endorsed the bogus “working definition,” which has been pushed for years by Israel and its lobby.

You can read the emails in full below, with redactions applied by the council.

Duplicity

Senior council manager Oduwa Idehen claimed in one email that, “there is a real risk that the event could breach the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism which the council has adopted.”

As examples that could “fall foul” of IHRA, Idehen cited a page on The Big Ride for Palestine’s website, which expresses opposition to “the crimes of the Israeli state” and that spoke of “the parallels between apartheid South Africa and the state of Israel.”

Idehen also cited the website’s explanation of their goals as potentially anti-Semitic under the definition: “With every mile you ride, you are protesting against 67 years of Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”

Idehen ignored a sentence on the same page stating the group’s unequivocal opposition to anti-Semitism.

Oduwa Idehen’s name is redacted in most of the release, but in one copy of the various email chains, the council has failed to redact the name, revealing them as a senior manager with the “Corporate Strategy and Policy Team.”

Despite being determined to find a pretext to ban the group, the council was keen to avoid the truth about their decision being revealed.

On 11 April Stephen Murray, the council’s senior events manager, advised not telling the Big Ride the truth when notifying them: “I personally would avoid the anti-Semitism aspect ref their web site as this could open a can of worms and come back to bite us.”

Snitching to police

The next day, the council wrote to organizers declining their request to hold the rally in any of their parks.

But they gave spurious reasons that did not mention the IHRA definition or anti-Semitism. The email claimed instead that “rallies with political connotations” were too “problematic” for the council.

But local Labour mayor John Biggs in 2015 used the council’s Altab Ali Park for part of his election campaign in 2015, local media revealed last week. Organizers of the Big Ride had initially applied to use the same park but were refused.

It seems clear the council had simply been looking for a pretext to refuse use of any of its parks.

Four days before the formal refusal, one officer had written to the Metropolitan Police’s Kelly Barnes asking her to find such a pretext.

“At the moment, this event is sat with senior management as we may decline it,” wrote one council events officer, “particularly if it is deemed as inflammatory or at odds with the council’s No Place for Hate Campaign which aims to eliminate all forms of hate including anti-Semitism. Could you please advise if any of the speakers proposed may be deemed to hold extremist views.”

The list of those invited to speak included comedians Alexei Sayle and Mark Thomas, David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialist Group, “a representative of the London Muslim Centre,” Glyn Secker of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Shamiul Islam of Friends of al-Aqsa, and Kamel Hawwash, the PSC’s chairperson.

The police officer replied asking for “more details like dates of birth etc so checks can be conducted.”

These appear not to have been sent, as she later followed up asking for the details again, also advising the council to “speak with Simon Smith your Prevent Co-ordinator, he may be able to help.”

Prevent is part of the UK’s “anti-terrorism” strategy, widely criticized as Islamophobic. It has been used in the past to snoop on Palestine solidarity campaigners.

Local PSC activist Sybil Cock told The Electronic Intifada that the released emails were the first they’d heard of any police involvement.

“Appalling”

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “This appalling decision should be a wake up call to all of those who have claimed that the IHRA definition does not threaten the ability of Palestinians to bring the facts of their dispossession into public spaces.”

The PSC and The Big Ride for Palestine have together written to Mayor John Biggs demanding the decision be reversed for next year’s ride.

They wrote, “it’s clear that this decision confirms concerns expressed to you last November when the council voted to endorse the IHRA definition.”

Tony Lerman, the founder of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, wrote this weekend that “the Tower Hamlets fiasco” showed that the IHRA’s document was a “free speech-chilling, prolix and muddled definition, which does nothing to help fight real anti-Semitism” and that it should be set aside.

The council’s endorsement of the definition came after government pressure in 2017 to “formally adopt” the discredited definition, and the Labour Party’s endorsement of it last year – despite the objections of much of the party’s grassroots.

Tower Hamlets is dominated by Labour councillors.

As PSC explained in their letter to the council last week, at the time the council adopted the definition, Palestine campaigners “were reassured that the adoption of the IHRA would carry no such threats to these fundamental rights that should be protected” under free speech law.

The decision to ban the Big Ride for Palestine using public parks, secretly based on the IHRA definition, is probably the most clear cut example yet that the bogus definition’s purpose is to ban even the most uncontroversial charity event in solidarity with Palestinian children.

In a statement to The Electronic Intifada, Mayor John Biggs said, “We have a very clear policy to avoid our open spaces and venues being used as political footballs, by ruling out political events. Clearly anyone with a heart would want to support an event whose purpose is to raise funds for the aid of defenceless children.”

He did not respond to the issue of having used the park for his own election campaign, but continued: “The dilemma we face is separating the two but I would be concerned if our policy became a reason to stop otherwise legitimate events in one of our parks. I have asked for a review of how the decision was made.”

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council ignored the vast majority of a detailed request for comment, and would only repeat the original pretext that they “do not host rallies with political connotations.”

The local Labour Party did not reply to a request for comment.

Updated to add John Biggs statement.

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I've just sent an email to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs. Here it is- and I urge others to tell him just what they think of this rotten two-faced bigoted and mendacious business. His email address is-
Mayor@towerhamlets.gov.uk

Dear Mayor Biggs,

I write in connection with the Tower Hamlets Council's decision- and your role in the matter- to deny permission for the use of a public park during the 2019 Big Ride for Palestine charity event. Certain facts heretofore hidden have come to light, including the Council's deliberate attempt to conceal the real reasons behind the decision, to wit, fear of being accused of contravening the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism. How a charity event on behalf of children living under military occupation could plausibly be construed as antisemitic is baffling enough. And why it became necessary to dissemble in communications to the applicants as to the reasoning behind that lamentable decision prompts yet more wonderment. But that you yourself made use of Altab Ali Park in 2015 for a rally in support of your candidacy for the post of mayor, even as you now maintain that no "political" (ie. pro-Palestinian) events be allowed in public parks, leaves you personally exposed to serious charges of hypocrisy and misfeasance in carrying out your duties.

Frankly, I'm not interested in the outcome of an internally commissioned report on this scandal. What interests me and thousands of others who stand up for justice and human rights is that this travesty never be repeated again. If you can't guarantee that the 2020 Big Ride will have your support and that outright deceit and the imposition of double standards will play no further role in future applications for park usage, please consider resigning your position. You will have shown yourself unwilling or incapable of rendering honest service to the community.

Tom Hall

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Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist and associate editor with The Electronic Intifada. He lives in London. Biography here.