ReportsMike Cushman

Don't talk about Palestine in Bethnal Green

ReportsMike Cushman
Don't talk about Palestine in Bethnal Green

OFFICERS OF TOWER HAMLETS council banned the Big Ride for Palestine from using its parks at the end of its London event. The ride was to raise funds for sports equipment for Gazan girls and young women traumatised by constant Israeli offensives.

Tower Hamlets council has adopted the IHRA, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, (mis)definition of antisemitism. This has been criticised for its incoherence, ambiguity and focus on limiting criticism of Israel rather than confronting the threats to Jews.

It was widely predicted that adoption would lead to mission creep and that it would be used even more censoriously than was overtly claimed by its proponents. Tower Hamlets have demonstrated that these fears were totally justified.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the ride organisers obtained all the council documents related to the ban through pursuing a Freedom of Information demand. The documents showed that the council officers justified the ban to themselves by using the IHRA but were frightened to admit that to the ride organisers.

After agreeing among themselves that references to ethnic cleansing of Palestinians were antisemitic (rather than an accurate description of well chronicled events) a senior manager wrote, “I personally would avoid the antisemitism aspect ref their web site as this could open a can of worms and come back to bite us.”

The officers also tried to get the police to supply them with information about proposed speakers at the rally but the Met, to their credit, did not fall over themselves to co-operate.

John Biggs, the executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets, has tried to distance himself from the decision, saying he was not consulted and did not know about it. That may well be true but it does not exonerate him. This was an inevitable and predicted consequence of a supine adoption of the IHRA document with all its flaws. Biggs was asked to adopt a text committing Tower Hamlets to free debate on Palestine and Israel alongside the IHRA document. He refused and a what may well turn out to be illegal ban on free speech in the borough followed.

Biggs signalled that suppression of debate on Israel’s crimes was desired and his officers understood his unvoiced intention and obliged.

The ride itself was a great success. Over 100 riders were cheered by passers-by from Willesden to Walthamstow to Bethnal Green and the rally was held in St John’s Church hosted by the rector, Alan Green, who refused to be intimidated by Bigg’s thought police.

  • Mike Cushman is chair of Free Speech on Israel, cycled in the Big Ride and spoke at the rally.



Free Speech on Israel