Tower Hamlets Council refused to host Palestine charity event over antisemitism fears

Officials at the Labour-run Tower Hamlets Council in East London refused to host a charity event in aid of Palestinian children over fears that criticism of Israel could breach antisemitism guidelines.

However, the council did not tell the event organisers what the decision was based on, internal emails have revealed.

The council, which is responsible for an area with a large Muslim population, told The Big Ride for Palestine, which has raised nearly £150,000 for sports equipment for children in Gaza since 2015, that the event’s “political connotations” meant that the closing rally of this year’s bike ride could not go ahead in the borough “without problems.”

Officials told organisers there was a risk speakers might express views which contradicted the council’s policies on community cohesion and equality.

But behind the scenes, council staff raised fears of a “real risk” that the event and its organisers could be seen to have breached the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism because of references on their website to apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

When considering how to explain the decision, one council official said it would be wise to “avoid the anti Semitism aspect ref their website as this could open a can of worms and come back to bite us”. There was no reference to antisemitism in the email to the event’s organisers.

The internal emails, released after a freedom of information request by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, showed concern among council officials over quotes on the Big Ride website that described the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as ethnic cleansing and drew parallels between Israeli policies and apartheid-era South Africa.

The controversial IHRA definition warns “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” constitutes antisemitism. It grew in prominence after the Labour party adopted a version that excluded some examples included in the original text.

The party ultimately adopted the full definition, alongside a statement specifying that nothing in it should “undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians”.

Critics say the definition potentially conflates legitimate criticism of Israel with racism. Its supporters view it as a means of helping organisations assess subtler forms of antisemitic abuse.

A Tower Hamlets council spokesperson told The Guardian: “The council gave the application careful consideration and decided not to host the event, because we do not host rallies with political connotations, albeit without direct links to political parties.”

However, Mayor John Biggs said that he had asked for a review of “how the decision was made.”

In a statement to The Electronic Intifada, Biggs said: “We have a very clear policy to avoid our open spaces and venues being used as political footballs, by ruling out political events. Clearly anyone with a heart would want to support an event whose purpose is to raise funds for the aid of defenceless children.. The dilemma we face is separating the two but I would be concerned if our policy became a reason to stop otherwise legitimate events in one of our parks. I have asked for a review of how the decision was made.”

A spokesperson for the charity said its work was focused on helping the 300,000 children in Gaza showing signs of severe psychological distress. The spokesperson added: “It’s a dreadful thing when an over-scrupulous interpretation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is used behind closed doors to prevent awareness raising of the situation in Palestine and the need for humanitarian support.”

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “This appalling decision should be a wake up call to all of those who have claimed that the IHRA definition does not threaten the ability of Palestinians to bring the facts of their dispossession into public spaces.”

The ride went ahead last month using a church for its rally and speeches.

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