Smears by Israel envoy rejected in UK Parliament probe

Israeli ambassador Mark Regev made allegations of anti-Semitism that were rejected in an official investigation by the UK Parliament’s standards commissioner. (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

A formal investigation has rejected Israeli government claims that a British lawmaker hosted an anti-Semitic event in Parliament.

The complaint stems from an October 2016 meeting hosted in a parliamentary committee room by Jenny Tonge, a member of the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords.

It was organized by the Palestinian Return Centre, a UK-based advocacy organization, to launch the Balfour Apology Campaign. The campaign seeks an official apology from the UK government for Britain’s promise a century ago to help the Zionist movement establish a homeland in Palestine. It includes a petition at the Parliament website, which has already garnered almost 10,000 signatures.

Media painted the event as one rife with anti-Jewish bigotry and Holocaust denial. The Jewish Chronicle ran a story titled, “ ‘Shameful’ House of Lords event condemned after audience ‘blames Jews for Holocaust.’” The Times, a national newspaper, published an almost identical headline.

Both stories cited a blog post by pro-Israel activist David Collier alleging that one person made comments that amounted to declaring “the Holocaust is a hoax.”

Collier, who attended the event, wrote, “I witnessed a Jew-hating festival at the heart of the British estate.”

Ambassador’s “alarm”

There soon followed a flurry of complaints to the Commissioner for Standards, the UK Parliament’s official watchdog on members’ conduct.

According to the commissioner’s official report, this included a letter from Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador in London.

The report states that Regev “expressed ‘alarm’ about the event, suggesting that its content involved ‘disseminating anti-Semitism, promoting Holocaust revisionism and encouraging support for Hamas.’” Regev claimed there were remarks that “Jews themselves had caused the Holocaust” and that the Zionist movement “holds power over Parliament,” which were “clearly grounded in bigotry and hatred.”

Other complaints claimed that Tonge had failed to use her position as chair to stop the torrent of alleged anti-Semitism.

The investigation found three references to the Holocaust during the entire event. Two were in an opening speech by writer Karl Sabbagh.

Sabbagh’s comments included “nothing that could be interpreted as Holocaust denial or revisionism,” the report concludes.

The third reference was from a member of the anti-Zionist Orthodox Jewish group Neturei Karta. The report dismisses a claim that the audience member’s repetition of a remark by an American rabbi in 1905 amounted to Holocaust denial just because the same quotation is sometimes found on anti-Semitic websites.

The report calls the audience member’s remarks “problematic,” but finds that his intervention “appears to show that he accepted the reality of the Holocaust,” and quotes him acknowledging that Hitler wanted “to systematically kill Jews wherever he could find them.”

The report states that “complaints were made that the audience applauded the remarks of [the] audience member” and that “Tonge made no attempt to stop him speaking.”

But it accepts Tonge’s explanation – supported by video evidence – that she could not hear the audience member clearly and had been looking for an opportunity to interrupt him.

The audience applauded Tonge’s reference to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, and not the audience member’s remarks, which were often “inaudible as well as incoherent,” the report concludes.

“It is clear from the transcript that the event as billed – to launch the Palestinian Return Centre’s Balfour Apology Campaign – was what took place, and that the event was not intended to promote anti-Semitism,” the commissioner concludes. “I find that there was no takeover of the event by people promoting anti-Semitism, and that therefore Baroness Tonge was not obliged to deal with any such takeover.”

The report also rejects the inference that members of Parliament should be required to “monitor the content of everything said at meetings they host and/or to intervene where offense may have been caused.”

Such an obligation, it states, might have a “chilling effect” and hinder “the free exchange of ideas.”

Smear campaign

The Palestinian Return Centre welcomed the results of the investigation, stating that the report “sheds light on the truth regarding the launch of the Balfour Apology Campaign and the appalling targeted campaign to silence pro-Palestinian activists and smear them as anti-Semites.”

The Palestinian Return Centre has long been the target of smears by Israeli officials.

It is notable that the Commissioner for Standards used the British government’s recently adopted definition of anti-Semitism as a benchmark for evaluating the October event.

This is based on the same highly controversial definition adopted by the US State Department and promoted by Israel lobby groups that defines certain criticisms of Israel and its state ideology, Zionism, as examples of anti-Semitism.

While even by this standard, the commissioner threw out the complaints, activists remain concerned that efforts to institutionalize the definition will harm free speech.

Last week, Free Speech on Israel wrote to members of a European Parliament committee that is expected to consider formal adoption of the same definition.

“The definition deliberately elides the difference between criticizing Jews for imagined negative characteristics, and criticizing Israel for very real negative behaviors,” the Jewish-led activist group states. This is no accident: “the construction of a defensive shield against advocacy by and on behalf of Palestinians is the specific purpose that the definition was created for.”

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Israel frequently says that it wishes to be assessed according to the same terms as other nations. And Israel just as frequently demands that it be accorded a unique status, exempting it from the standards applied to the behaviour of those nations. This example of cognitive dissonance is only one of many summoned up by the Zionist project. In the case of the current British government's definition of antisemitism (and is it really the business of governments to devise and impose these definitions?) we see once again the contradictory character of such interventions. Criticism of a particular state ideology and the foundations of its social order, permissible in other cases, is held to be racist in this one instance only. At the same time, the proclaimed right to a Jewish state in Palestine- surely an example of a privileged ethnic and undemocratic mandate- is presented as the very qualification necessary for equal membership in the community of nations.

It's good to know that the smears emanating from the Zionist lobby are being opposed with some success in Britain. Great numbers of people see through the machinations of Ambassador Regev, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and organisations such as the BBC. Attempts to silence and even criminalise dissent will fail, as they inevitably must.

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“Anti-semite” has lost its sting, because every justified criticism of the Zionist Israeli government is declared to be anti-semitism. The word is so overused and misapplied as to be useless. Indeed, to be declared “anti-semite” by the Israel Lobby is to be declared a person of high moral conscience.

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I can recall from my childhood in the 60.s in Ireland that use of the f word was considered crass and almost criminal.Things have changed and the f word is now in common use and rarely elicits a batted eyelid.

The same outcome will result for the use of the term antisemitism.I guess a new term will have to be invented by those who have cried fox far too often.

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I posted this article to my FB page and commented that it was the perfect example of Israel's campaign to ignore all contexts and twist everything that is said to smear activists for Palestinian rights and accuse them of being anti-Semitic.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

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.