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Israel’s conduct is of public interest

While addressing anti-Semitism as an issue is to be welcomed, the content of the resolution put to Camden Council this week is problematic, says Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC

05 May, 2017 — By Geoffrey Bindman

Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC

I VERY much agree with Councillor Phil Rosenberg that the reported resurgence of the scourge of anti-Semitism is deeply shocking (‘Jewish people are feeling victimised’, Forum, April 20).

It is heartening that government, opposition and several local authorities, including Camden, are addressing the issue.

Those Camden councillors who brought it to the council in the form of a resolution this week are to be congratulated.

However the content of the resolution is problematic.

Its main feature is the new definition of anti-Semitism advanced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Cllr Rosenberg gives the details. The essence of the definition is that “anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews.”

The IHRA described it as a “non legally binding working definition”.

Added to the definition, however, are several “contemporary examples”, some of which are highly controversial.

This is where the problem arises. They raise matters which need have little or nothing to do with anti-Semitism, such as the existence and policies of the independent sovereign state of Israel.

The definition itself is and should be limited to anti-Semitism. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its conduct in relation to Palestine are matters of public interest on which anyone may properly comment.

Freedom of expression on such matters is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act.

Public bodies, including Camden Council, are under a legal obligation to uphold it.

The IHRA definition only applies where the context demonstrates a motivation to manifest hatred of Jews.

Cllr Rosenberg himself undermines his case by ignoring this vital qualification when he says “the definition gives a small number of examples of things that are anti-Semitic”.

This is inaccurate.

Some of the examples are plainly anti-Semitic but those relating to the state of Israel are not.

Unfortunately, the loose language of the IHRA document has already led to it being used to suppress legitimate debate on Israeli conduct towards Palestinians. Foreseeing this possibility the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Anti-Semitism in 2016 proposed two additional qualifications.

The definition, it said, should include the following statements: “It is not anti-Semitic to criticise the government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent”, and

“It is not anti-Semitic to hold the Israeli government to the same standard as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent”.

Although Camden Council did not include these statements, I know that its members have them well in mind.

They will be alert to attempts to suppress legitimate debate about Israel and Palestine, of which, sadly, a number have already succeeded in Camden itself as well as other parts of the country.

Furthermore Camden Council has agreed to monitor the situation carefully to ensure that for the future freedom of expression is fully protected.

While one must regret that the IHRA definition has been widely adopted without sufficient attention to the risk of its misuse, there is still time and, in Camden at least, willingness, to limit further damaging consequences.

• Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, founder of Bindmans LLP, says his guiding interests in a legal career of more than half a century ‘… have been civil liberties, human rights and equality’.

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