Pro-Israeli groups in UK can’t bear to hear Palestinian case
The Electronic Intifada barred from reporting inside UK “delegitimization” conference
Asa Winstanley, electronic intifada
An anti-Palestinian conference due to take place in the UK tomorrow [Sunday] Big Tenthas barred Electronic Intifada from attending the event, despite admitting other journalists will be given free entry.
“The Big Tent For Israel” in Manchester will bring together an alliance of pro-Israel groups specifically to combat the increasingly successful Palestinian campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). New Israeli ambassador Daniel Tuab is due to address the conference as keynote speaker, according to its program.
The event is focused on a 2010 report by influential Israeli think tank the Reut Institute, which named London as the “hub of hubs of delegitimization”.
Palestinian media seemingly excluded
I emailed the organizers on Thursday, telling them I am journalist who writes for The Electronic Intifada, a Palestinian news website. I asked to register as press, and offered to openly wear my national press credentials while on conference floor.
I heard nothing back, so gave them a call on Friday. I was passed onto one Debbie Marks, who said she was an organizer. On most questions I put to her, she declined to comment. Ms. Marks said she worked for Qube Events, and thus did not make the final decision. The business was contracted to organize conference logistics. She said a decision on my application to attend would follow via email.
She promised to get back to me either way by the end of the day. When I pressed her on this point she said “at the moment it looks like we are fully booked for press”. I said that, were I to be declined permission to attend, I would like an explanation as to why. Ms. Marks replied that they would likely not give out that information.
Bruce Levy of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG) had previously registered for a related event in London (he has the story on the London BDS blog). The London event was said to include Michael Weiss of the Henry Jackson society and Douglas Murray of NGOMonitor (both of whom are also slated for the Manchester even). But the day before, Ms Marks wrote to Mr Levy canceling his ticket. When he wrote again asking why, she was not very helpful: “we are not obliged to give a reason.”
On the phone, I asked Ms. Marks which media outlet would be attending. She replied at first that they had a “big selection” of journalists coming, so she couldn’t go through the list on the phone. Pressed on this point, she said Qube “can’t give out that information”. I asked whether or not there any Palestinian media attending, but dodged the question, saying they “can’t go through” that.
She reiterated that I would receive a reply either way by the end of the day. She said if my application was successful, she would send me an email with a ticket.
I expressed concern that their website at that point stated applications would be closing by 2pm, and that the end of the day may be too late. I pointed out that I hadn’t paid for it yet. She replied it was free for press to attend anyway. Thus she confirmed other journalists will be given press passes.
Come six o’clock, the promised email had not materialized. So I called again. All I got was a voicemail message stating that applications had now closed. Today at 3.12pm I received the following email:
I regret that your application to attend has been unsuccessful.
The Big Tent for Israel”
I wrote back asking for the reason behind this decision, but have yet to receive a reply.
Since it’s technically a private event, organizers of “The Big Tent For Israel” are entitled to invite whoever they want. But the question must be asked: is the pro-Israel case so weak it cannot stand up to critics? Clearly, I come from a critical perspective, but would still have covered the event accurately and honestly.
In relation to this question, the conference’s website tells us quite a lot, especially the line-up for the day.
The opening plenary’s panel includes Ivan Lewis MP, Reut’s Eran Shayshon, Histadrutchief of staff Yakov Triptou and Israeli settler Itamar Marcus. It also includes a video message from mining tycoon Mick Davis, a trustee of the United Jewish Israel Appeal.
Lewis was foreign office minister for the Middle East under the previous Labour government. He is also a member and former vice-chair of lobby group, Labour Friends of Israel. According to The Independent, his appointment “raised eyebrows in the Foreign Office” as he had been one “one of the most outspoken political supporters of Israel’s military assault on Gaza.”
Judging from the 2010 report’s preamble, Shayson headed the team responsible for its authorship. According to a Reut website, his team “deals with the Palestinian challenge”.
South Africa-born executive Davis is connected to the recent Adam Werritty scandal, Werritty himself told the recent inquiry [PDF] by the head civil servant Gus O’Donnell. Davis was one of the donors to Pargav, the company controlled by Werritty. Former defence minister Liam Fox was forced to step down last month after it was revealed that Werritty (best man at his wedding) was posing as his advisor, although he had no approved formal role. Werritty used Pargav funds “to fund travels across the world” according to an article inthe Guardian Wednesday (the article was removed from the Guardian website Friday “pending investigation”, but is mirrored here and here).
Marcus is the founder and director of Palestinian Media Watch. He lives in the illegal West Bank settlement of Efrat, according to transparency lobby SpinWatch. He was one of the interviewees appearing in Islamophobic film “Obsession”. Marcus also spoke at the 2008 “Facing Jihad” conference in Jerusalem, on the same day as Islamophobic Dutch MPGeert Wilders.
Zionist anti-Semitism under “The Big Tent”
“The Big Tent” program itself is also concerning. One of the workshops is titled: “Every Jew is an Ambassador for Israel, why don’t we use them?” According to a definition on the website of the Community Security Trust, “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” is an example of anti-Semitism.
One of the speakers at this workshop is Lorna Fitzsimons, former Labour MP and chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). A company owned by BICOM’s chairman and main donor Poju Zabludowicz was another of the donors to Werritty’s Pargav.
On the phone, I put it to Ms Marks that this workshop’s title is anti-Semitic. She refused to comment on the contents of the program, which she said she was not involved in writing: Qube “don’t have any details on the actual program,” she claimed. I asked her if she personally thought the title was anti-Semitic but she declined to comment.
In common with most pro-Israel events in the UK these days, the venue of “The Big Tent” is not being publicly advertised. “The conference venue will be advised in due course” says the website. This seems to be an attempt to avoid BDS activists protesting against the event, or getting an view from the inside.
An activist source tells me the venue is probably Manchester Conference Centre, but I could not verify this. I put it to Ms. Marks this was the venue but, unsurprisingly, she had no comment.
The Reut Institute
The 2010 Reut report that “The Big Tent” is centered on is titled: “The Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy: London as a Case Study”. The report says London “has been referred to as the ‘Mecca of Delegitimization.’ Londoners have played a key role in all major recent delegitimization campaigns, including the Durban conferences, the Gaza Flotilla, and the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Movement.”
Reut is notorious for advocating in 2010 that Israel should “sabotage” the Palestinian solidarity movement.
Don’t mention the ‘A’ word: attack on freedom of speech turns into another own goal
Ben White, electronic intifada
Last Thursday, I participated in a debate on Palestine/Israel organised by the University of Birmingham Debating Society. The format of the event was similar to the BBC television show ‘Question Time’, with six panellists taking both prepared questions, and points from the audience. The debate was held in conjunction with both the Jewish Society and Friends of Palestine Society, a rare occasion when the two groups have shared a platform.
The whole debate can be watched on YouTube, but one of the talking points of the evening came when, barely half an hour in, an audience member asked the panel if Israel is an apartheid state. The chair’s unexpected reply was that this was not a subject that could be discussed: “I’ve been told I can’t have that as a question”, she stressed (watch here). Inevitably, all the panellists then proceeded to address the issue – Victor Kattan said he’d refer to “A”.
What the audience didn’t know is that in the run up to the event, members of the Jewish Society had pressured the Debating Society to prohibit my book ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’ from being available for purchase. Despite the fact that J-Soc was free to make available any of their own literature without restriction, J-Soc students threatened to withdraw their official association with the event, if I brought along copies of my book to sell. Eventually, they backed down when the Debating Society refused to concede the point.
But that’s not all. Further crucial context is the adoption by the Birmingham student union in 2010 of the notoriously politicised and discredited ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’. This 2005 document, left to gather dust by the EUMC’s successor body the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), has been ably critiqued by Richard Kuper here, here, and here, and also by Antony Lerman here.
In fact, earlier this year, the Universities and College Union (UCU) voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion that criticised the way in which the working definition “is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus”.
Thus after the J-Soc attempts to prevent the sale of my book, the debate organisers were understandably anxious about encouraging a question on apartheid that could see them accused of racism, according to an interpretation of the student union policy.
This was the first time that the Debating Society had held an Israel-Palestine debate since the EUMC motion passed; it was, in effect, a test case. What transpired on Thursday not only showed the extent to which groups will go to stifle discussion of Israel’s crimes, but also how such efforts can so often spectacularly backfire.