Palestinian solidarity groups staged a demonstration outside Tower Hamlets Town Hall, before disrupting a council meeting, after the Labour majority council refused to amend its definition of antisemitism.
The action marks the latest in the long-running row over antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Along with Labour’s ruling body, Tower Hamlets council voted to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in September this year. Under the controversial definition, a claim that Israel is a “racist endeavour” is considered antisemitic.
Pro-Palestine groups and their supporters gathered before the meeting on November 21 to voice their concerns over the decision; they believe it will restrict their free speech about Palestine within the borough.
The Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign (THPSC) presented a petition to the council which asked its members to adopt a caveat to the definition to safeguard the group’s rights to legitimately criticise the state of Israel.
Addressing the council on the petition, Sybil Cock, chair of THPSC, said that antisemitism was on the rise across the world but that “this definition does not help to combat it”.
She said: “Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem live under brutal military occupation…we want to carry on drawing these stories to the attention of our community.”
Cock also said her group now felt “vulnerable” and wanted to talk about Palestine without fear of being branded antisemitic.
Responding to the petition, Councillor Kevin Brady expressed sympathy for “the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people” but said that “minorities should be allowed to define the discrimination they suffer”.
He asked: “What message does it send to them [Jewish residents of the borough] to say we will not stand by the statement that this council made as a mark of solidarity with the Jewish community?”
Councillor Sirajul Islam also agreed with the sentiments of the petition, but could not see how the IHRA definition prevented residents from criticising the government of Israel.
John Biggs, Mayor of Tower hamlets, deemed the petition “offensive” and concluded the meeting by saying: “The petition asks us to amend a decision we took in September but in my view there can be no qualifications or caveats to a definition of racism.”
The meeting was briefly interrupted when a member of the public brandished a ‘FREE PALESTINE’ banner and announced: “Zionism is racism”.
Another man joined in and called on the council to “break with Labour” before the two men were escorted out of the room by security officers.
The THPSC has since disassociated itself from these actions. The group said in a statement afterwards: “We are disappointed that the Mayor chose to reject our petition at full council, and not make a clear commitment to protect freedom of speech. We are also concerned that the Mayor questioned our right to petition, despite his earlier supportive comments. And that the speaker allowed councillors to talk the petitioners out of time, in a further effort to silence us.
The adoption of the definition by Tower Hamlets Council, without caveat or due discussion, threatens division in Tower Hamlets between those who have a common interest in combating antisemitism, Islamophobia, and the rise of the far right.”
130 councils across the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary have adopted the full IHRA definition of anti-semitism, as well as the UK and Scottish governments.