I spoke twice on Monday on the subject of Camden Council adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.
The Council was presented with a deputation by opponents of the adoption of the definition. I’ll admit that the thought earlier that day that some people might be so angrily opposed to it brought me close to tears. I asked the deputees this (umm, long-winded…) question about anti-Semitic judgment of Israel and comparison to Nazi Germany:
It’s not a matter of top trumps here, but I am also a free speech absolutist and I’ve looked at the motion. I do not believe there are any restrictions on free speech. It’s solely a definition that we can use on an advisory basis as an institution to look at when there is good practice and bad practice – and anti-Semitism is bad practice.
However, I do take considerable exception to the idea that some of the criticisms that have been outlined are not anti-Semitic. My mother’s family are Arab. There is no country in the Middle East where there is a free, independent judiciary except Israel. There is no country in the Middle East where she – who is of Egyptian/Lebanese origin – can be free and at home, except Israel.
And so as a consequence, singling out Israel as some sort of bogeyman in the Middle East, rather than criticizing the human rights abuses where Arabs are oppressed in other countries, I do think is anti-Semitic unless there is some other justification for that, so I do have that objection that I do have to put on the record on that front.
I do have a particular question I want to ask to probe where [the deputees] think the boundary of anti-Semitism is. Recently, there has been a public furore, of which you will all be aware of, of the comparison of the Holocaust – where six million Jews were murdered because of their faith or ethnic background and the actions of the Israeli government, which is democratically elected, including by Arabs, which a number of people found offensive.
I don’t want to refer any more to the incident, as I don’t want to make it party-political, but that I found offensive, as a number of people across parties did. So do you think that comparison, deliberately done to incite comparison between the murder of Jews and the actions of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic or not?
I gave a further (impromptu) speech on the motion specifically concerning anti-Semitism on university campuses:
I completely associate myself with the words of Cllr Hayward and her putative successor Cllr Gould in trying to stamp out anti-Semitism in our borough.
It’s important not just in a theoretical sense: in terms of the words that are used in debates. We have seen incidents in our borough of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate.
We saw a UCL Israel Society and Jewish Society joint event attacked only in the Autumn. And it was attacked by people from a “pro-Palestinian” organisation, but they saw their job of advocating for Palestine as being more advocating against Israel and Israelis.
And I find that to be wrong. If we want to work together to create a more peaceful world, then we have to advocate for peace for all sides and tolerance for all sides of all debates. And that ensures we can be that rebellious, free, and tolerant borough that makes us, I think, the best borough in London.
That’s why we as a borough also have to adopt a stronger stance against that when incidents do happen. I know there is support for investigating and preventing future attacks like that.
But there is this systemic, underlying threat that a lot of Jewish students – whether they’re Israeli or British or from anywhere else – feel on our campuses in the UK.
And as one of the torch-bearers in this country for higher education – as Camden is, with a huge number of the best universities attracting the best minds from around the world to our borough – we need to be sure that everybody feels safe.
Sadly, a lot of the pressure that comes from that foreign policy debate is expressed in ways that are anti-Semitic, and the consequence is that there is hate that is expressed and violence that’s expressed through anti-Semitism.
So I think we all, as a borough, have to address not just words, but also violence that is taking place in our borough. Because that is the first step towards a much, much darker future that I know that none of us wants to see.