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Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Why are the Officers and Employees of Civil Liberties Group Liberty Refusing to Implement its Policy of Opposition to the IHRA?


According to Liberty’s Olivia Percival, ‘Liberty is not actively campaigning against the IHRA definition’


Liberty, formerly known as the National Council for Civil Liberties, was founded in 1934. This was a time of heightened anti-fascist activity in which the Jews of the East End of London were under attack from Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists.  In 1989 the organisation changed its name to Liberty.

The organisation has provided a career path for budding Labour politicians such as Patricia Hewitt, who went on to become an MP and in charge of Neil Kinnock’s personal office before being brought down by the cash for influence scandal.  Harriet Harman was a former legal officer and her husband Jack Dromey was Chair of the Executive Committee. Shami Chakrabarti the previous Director is now Shadow Attorney General. What all the ex-employees of Liberty who find their way to the top of the Labour Party have in common is their abandoning and jettisoning of any pretence of support for civil liberties.  Harriet Harman for example went along with all Tony Blair’s anti-terrorism legislation without a squeak. Chakrabarti’s attack on Ken Livingstone suggests that she too considers civil liberties to be a drag on her career.
Martha Spurrier, another in a long line of hopeful Establishment Labour politicians
The current Director, Martha Spurrier is, like her predecessor, a barrister. Liberty/NCCL has never been a particular radical organisation, especially in recent times. In its earlier times it had no difficulty supporting for example the internment of Oswald Moseley in the war, something which led to mass resignations from the organisation.
During the period of Hewitt and Harman the organisation adopted a policy which was in effect pro-paedophile. The Paedophile Information Exchange became affiliated at one point and it was only in 1983 that the organisation rejected paedophilia as just another sexual life style. All that can be said about this period is that paedophile groups were able to take advantage of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s to propagate the idea that sexual freedom should include the right of adults to have sex with children and that this found favour amongst a section of the libertarian left and gay rights campaigners such as Peter Tatchell.
Liberty/NCCL has always seen itself as part of the British Establishment. It is therefore no surprise that when Professor Jonathan Rosenhead of the LSE moved a motion at the May 2018 AGM, seconded by Louise Christian, a well known solicitor, opposing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, its officers took fright. The motion itself was passed almost unanimously.
The IHRA is a consensus position of the British political establishment and Liberty is, if nothing else, an establishment group. When I heard that the motion had been passed I wrote to Liberty inquiring about their new policy.  I heard nothing for some months.
I had quite forgotten about my inquiry until an email arrived from Olivia Percival, a former government solicitor who is now Liberty’s Advice & Information Officer. As I read the email I became more and more disconcerted. Ms Percival did not have one good thing to say about Liberty’s policy. What she seemed to be doing was to explain why the organisation was doing nothing about the organisation. 
Percival first began by telling me that ‘I would emphasise that the motion reaffirmed Liberty’s opposition to anti-semitism in all its forms’. The implication being that opposition to the IHRA might be construed as support for anti-Semitism!
It was the next paragraph that left me open mouthed. It would appear that Percival, who is clearly not stupid, deliberately didn’t want to understand the reason for opposition to the IHRA: She wrote that:
‘As an organisation that both fervently supports free speech and fervently opposes anti-semitism, Liberty has an obligation to carefully consider the intersection of these two issues. Whenever we talk about hate speech, we immediately have to think about the boundaries of free speech. Drawing that boundary is not always easy. The position Liberty has taken on the IHRA definition comes from a good faith effort to think through this issue.
The clear implication being that opposition to the IHRA meant support for anti-Semitic hate speech. Why else would she talk about the ‘intersection’ of the two issues of free speech and anti-Semitism?
What Percival was doing was to revisit the policy of Liberty’s American equivalent, the American Civil Liberties Union which infamously supported a march through the Skokie in Chicago, where large numbers of Holocaust survivors lived, by the American Nazi Party. See the NYT, July 1978 THE A.C.L.U. AGAINST ITSELF.
Olivia Percival's email to Tony Greenstein
Thousands of Jews and others left the ACLU over their support for the right of neo-Nazis to propagate their filth and hatred. Indeed this controversy briefly surfaced in the NCCL  when its American Director, Andrew Puddephat I believe, argued for the freedom of speech of fascists in this country. It sparked a heated controversy within the NCCL which led to his departure.
Percival however has completely misunderstood the nature of the opposition to the IHRA, some would say deliberately so. Jonathan Rosenhead is himself Jewish. Neither he nor Jewish Voice for Labour of which he is a member support free speech for anti-Semites. Opposition to the IHRA has nothing to do with support for free speech for racists and fascists. There may indeed be an interesting discussion about ‘the boundaries of free speech’ when it comes to hate speech but it has nothing to do with the IHRA and it is dishonest for Percival to suggest otherwise.
Opposition to the IHRA is about opposition to the attack on the rights of supporters of the Palestinians and anti-Zionists to oppose Israeli Apartheid. It has nothing to do with supporting the rights of anti-Semites. It is disingenuous to suggest this.
The American ACLU defended the rights of Nazis in Skokie, Chicag- pictured is a Vietnam veteran
If Olivia Percival had bothered to read the resolution which was passed she would know that it begins by reiterating its ‘abhorrence of antisemitism as a repellent undercurrent..’ Even this well-heeled former government solicitor should be aware that some of the most vigorous supporters of Israel, Zionism and the IHRA are also some of the most notorious racist bigots in politics.  Donald Trump combines ardent support for Israel with anti-Semitism. His election campaign was widely condemned by American Jews for its use of anti-semitic stereotypes and subliminal messages. See Anti-Semitism is no longer an undertone of Trump’s campaign. It’s the melody.
The person who masterminded Trump’s campaign, Steve Bannon, is personally anti-Semitic and a supporter of the European far-Right and Tommy Robinson. The founder of the American alt-Right, the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer has even declared that he is a White Zionist
The policy passed by Liberty in opposition to the IHRA has nothing whatsoever to do with support for anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic hate speech. What it does do is support freedom of speech for opponents of Israeli apartheid. It is dishonest of Percival to suggest otherwise.
And to add insult to injury, this establishment lawyer that Liberty has taken under its wing goes on to state that ‘We have been very clear that Liberty is not actively campaigning against the IHRA definition, as it is not an institutional priority.’ That is obvious because there is not one single mention of the IHRA on Liberty’s website.
At a time when right-wing Labour Councils are adopting the IHRA, in consort with Tory councillors, with the specific intention of curtailing the rights of Palestine solidarity supporters, Liberty under its present leadership chooses to ignore its own policy and do nothing.
As if to emphasise her own disagreement with the policy Percival writes that
‘it’s often the case that members (and even sometimes our staff!) disagree with some of the organisation’s positions but remain engaged in an overall common purpose, and even work from within the organisation to change it.
Whilst no one expects staff to agree with every resolution, it is nonetheless their duty to give implement policy passed. The IHRA is being pushed hard by the present Conservative government, a government which is aligned in the European Parliament with far-Right anti-Semitic parties.  The IHRA is being used on campuses to prevent or seriously hinder Palestine solidarity campaigns.
Even the principal author of the IHRA or the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, the American Jewish Committee’s Kenneth Stern has acknowledged that the IHRA is being used in ways that were never intended, as a means of chilling free speech. In testimony to the House of Representatives in November 2017, he warned that:
The definition was not drafted, and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus. In fact, at a conference in 2010 about the impact of the definition, I highlighted this misuse, and the damage it could do.
Stern spoke about how the IHRA was ‘was being employed in an attempt to restrict academic freedom and punish political speech’. One could argue that Stern was being hypocritical since the IHRA’s whole purpose was to render anti-Zionist criticism as  antisemitic.
Stern described how Zionist pressure groups in the US ‘argued that even if  the [court] cases lost, they had what seemed to them a positive benefit – they  chilled pro -Palestinian  expression.’ Stern asked a question particularly relevant to the current debate. 
‘Imagine a definition designed for Palestinians. If  “Denying the Jewish people their right to self- determination, and denying Israel the right to exist” is antisemitism, then shouldn’t “Denying  the Palestinian people their right to self- determination,  and denying Palestine the right to exist”  be anti -Palestinianism?’
Stern described how the IHRA had been used to curtail free speech in Britain, listing the “Israel Apartheid Week” event which was cancelled by Central Lancashire University and the case of the Holocaust survivor who was required to change the title of  a campus talk by Manchester university after an Israeli diplomat complained that the title violated the definition.’  Stern described as ‘Perhaps most egregious’ of all the call on a university to conduct an inquiry of  a professor for ‘antisemitism’, based on an article she had written years before. Accurately describing what had happened as ‘chilling and McCarthy -like.’
As Jewish student Joanna Phillips wrote in Jewish News/Times of Israel Jewish students deserve a better definition of anti-Semitism’
Kenneth Stern … went as far as to write to the US House of Representatives urging them not to adopt this definition for American campuses. Jewish students need a tailored definition, written with the realities of modern universities in mind, not one designed for researchers.
Stern was prompted to write his letter after seeing the waves of censorship the definition unleashed within American campuses. The IHRA definition fails to properly distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and hatred of Jews disguised as anti-Zionism.
It would seem that Olivia Percival and Martha Spurrier, to whom I have written, also have difficulty distinguishing between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel and Zionism. If Percival and Spurrier refuse to implement Liberty policy on the IHRA then they have no alternative but to resign.  Freedom of speech on university campuses and on Palestine is not a peripheral issue.
Below is my letter to Ms Percival and the policy that Liberty has adopted.
Tony Greenstein
Letter of Reply to Olivia Percival
Dear Olivia,
Thank you for your email of 2nd October concerning the decision of the Liberty AGM to oppose the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. I am surprised that you sent this from a ‘noreply’ email address. That is what my broadband supplier does. It indicates that you don’t wish to enter into dialogue on this subject. I have therefore dug out an email address for your Director and may post this more widely given your reluctance to be more open.
I am extremely disappointed by your response, which is almost apologetic for the fact that the motion was passed. Why else would you emphasise that members ‘and even sometimes our staff! disagree with some of the organisation’s positions’.  This strongly suggests that you intend to do your best to ignore the motion and do nothing about it. It also suggests that you disagree with the policy.
What is the purpose of passing policy at Liberty’s AGM if you and the staff immediately disregard it? The IHRA has already been used in this country to prevent an Israeli Apartheid Week at the University of Central Lancashire, to prevent Professor Richard Falk speaking on campuses and to impose restrictions on other pro-Palestinian events. Even the person who drafted the IHRA, Kenneth Stern, in testimony to the House of Representatives last November warned that:
‘The definition was not drafted, and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus. In fact, at a conference in 2010 about the impact of the definition, I highlighted this misuse, and the damage it could do.’
I find particularly surprising your point that Liberty ‘both fervently supports free speech and fervently opposes anti-Semitism’ as if opposition to the IHRA means support for anti-Semitism. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s anti-Semitic Prime Minister certainly doesn’t share this position as his government fully supports the IHRA whilst lauding its war-time pro-Nazi ruler Admiral Horthy. You clearly do not understand why many people oppose both the IHRA and oppose racism and anti-Semitism.
Of the 8, yes 8, governments that have fully adopted the definition, (Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Austria) 5 possess far-Right governments and one, Austria has a neo-Nazi party Heinz Christian Strache’s Freedom Party as the junior coalition partner.
You speak about the ‘intersection’ of free speech and opposition to anti-Semitism with talk about the ‘boundaries of free speech.’ You seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that opposition to the IHRA has something to do with free speech for anti-Semites or racists.  Let me disabuse you of this fact.
The IHRA ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism has nothing to do with opposing anti-Semitism and everything to do with conflating opposition to Zionism and support for the Palestinians with anti-Semitism. The IHRA is about defining critics of Israeli Apartheid as anti-Semitic. The demolition of Arab villages to make way for Jewish settlements and towns is inherent in what a Jewish State means.  According to the IHRA to make this point is anti-Semitic and you appear to go along with this nonsense. 
I find it disappointing that you haven’t grasped this elementary fact. Clearly you haven’t acquainted yourself with recent debates around the IHRA. Perhaps I can apprise you of them?
Professor David Feldman, who was Vice-Chair of the Chakrabarti Inquiry and  is Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism described the IHRA definition as‘bewilderingly imprecise.’ with its talk of anti-Semitism being a ‘certain perception which might be expressed as anti-Semitism’. 
Sir Stephen Sedley, who was a Judge in the Court of Appeal, besides being Jewish, wrote, in Defining Anti-Semitism that the IHRA‘fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite.’ In what is the most concise critique of the IHRA yet, Sedley took it apart for its deliberate attempt to prevent any systematic critique of the Israeli state and Zionism.
Hugh Tomlinson QC in an Opinion declared, as did other lawyers, that the IHRA had a ‘potential chilling effect on public bodies which, in the absence of definitional clarity, may seek to sanction or prohibit any conduct which has been labelled by third parties as antisemitic without applying any clear criterion of assessment.’
Geoffrey Robertson QC, who is a renowned human rights lawyer likewise described the IHRA as likely to chill criticism of action by the Government of Israel and advocacy of sanctions as a means to deter human rights abuses in Gaza and elsewhere. Robertson described the IHRA as not fit for purpose’
Interestingly Robertson also finds, along with Sedley, that when it comes to genuine anti-Semitism, the IHRA actually raises the bar because ‘By pivoting upon racial hatred ... it fails to catch those who exhibit hostility and prejudice – or apply discrimination – against Jewish people for no reason other than that they are Jewish.’
There is a very simple definition of anti-Semitism the Oxford English Dictionary definition: ‘Hostility to or prejudice against Jews’ which catches attitudes that fall short of hatred. For example someone who says that he doesn’t hate Jews but he doesn’t want to live next to them or have his daughter marry a Jew is not, by the IHRA definition, anti-Semitic. 
I hope you and Liberty’s officials will revisit your obvious reluctance to embrace the decision of Liberty’s AGM. I realize that the IHRA is the consensus position of the British Establishment and that Liberty has traditionally seen itself as the liberal wing of that Establishment. However the IHRA is also a definition of anti-Semitism that anti-Semites such as the Polish and Hungarian governments feel comfortable with.  I should add that traditionally the British Establishment combined both pro-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
The IHRA is being used and has already been used in this country to close down debate on Palestine.  It has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. If free speech is not a concern of Liberty then what is the purpose of the organisation?
I look forward to your responding a tad quicker than the 6 months it took from my last post to you.
Yours sincerely,

Tony Greenstein 

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