The Big Ride rally. Photo: Shabbir Lakha The Big Ride rally. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

The IHRA definition is being used to stifle Palestine activism, exactly as activists had warned it would, report Chris Nineham and Sybil Cock

On Saturday it became clear that  Tower Hamlets council barred the Big Ride for Palestine from council property because they believed the event might contravene the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

Rightly fearing outrage, Tower Hamlets council failed to communicate the reason for its decision to the public or to organisers. It even assured activists that the rights to campaign in support of Palestine would not be affected. It was only Freedom of Information requests by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign that revealed the truth. But now it is out in the open, the case exposes the real dangers posed not just by the IHRA definition, but by so much of the furore around antisemitism.

All those who argued that the IHRA definition wouldn’t impinge on freedoms of expression and protest are here conclusively proved wrong. The internal emails revealed the council tried to assess the Big Ride as an organisation according to the rubric of the IHRA definition. Precisely as campaigners have been predicting from the start, the adoption of the IHRA definition led here directly to restrictions on campaigning for the Palestinian cause.

Panicked by the Big Ride’s request to use council property for the Big Ride’s welcome, council officials scoured the organisation’s website and found a reference to ‘67 years of Israeli ethnic cleansing’. For them, this phrase was potentially in breach of the IHRA’s contention that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” constitutes antisemitism.

No such thing is claimed by the phrase, but such is the level of anxiety that has been whipped up around antisemitism, the already unacceptable stipulations of the IHRA are being interpreted in absurdly wide terms. The result: a statement that is demonstrably true – the Israeli state has indeed been involved in ethnic cleansing for 67 years – becomes a reason for not allowing protest to take place.

Given that there is nothing associated with the Big Ride that actually constitutes antisemitism even in the IHRA terms, the council’s response shows that we are closing in on a situation in which authorities in Britain will be deterred from allowing pro-Palestine protest full stop.

This, as again many activists have long warned, has been the aim of some of the people promoting the IHRA definitions from the start. One of the problems with the response of some on the Labour left to the antisemitism claims has been that they have ignored this fact and acted as if the debate was taking place wholly in good faith.

Hopefully, events in Tower Hamlets will alert a wider public to the dangers involved. It should encourage campaigners in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere in their efforts to ensure that where the IHRA definition with all its examples have been adopted by councils or other public bodies, a safeguarding caveat is added which confirms that it is not antisemitic to criticise the government of Israel, to describe Israel as an apartheid state or to advocate boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Most importantly it should lead to a change of approach by the left as a whole to the antisemitism allegations. When Labour took the decision to adopt the IHRA definition, activists were told making the concessions would put the whole issue to bed. Of course, the opposite has been the case. Those who would instrumentalise the issue to attack the left were massively boosted. They had been handed a weapon with which to escalate their assault. This should never have happened. As we now see, it is not just the left in the Labour Party that is being affected, but the wider pro-Palestine movement. It’s time for a much more robust attitude to those who seek to bury the fight for the Palestinians.