Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s submission to the Prevent Duty Guidance: a consultation
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign is an explicitly anti-racist organisation, which opposes all forms of racism including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This submission focuses on our concerns over the implications of this guidance on the fundamental principles of respect for different faiths and beliefs, and on protecting the right to speak out against violations of human rights, equality, freedom, and international law.
Palestine Solidarity Campaign notes that the government has referenced fundamental principles, such as tolerance of different faiths and beliefs, in the guidance. It is deeply concerned that this principle will be seriously eroded via the proposals outlined.
During the passage of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, and during the consultation period on this document, it appears that the government has been lobbied to include action against ‘anti-Israel political discourse’ by groups such as the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA). The CAA reported that in a private meeting convened in the Home Office on 8 January, CAA Chairman, Gideon Falter, called for action to formally adopt ‘a definition of anti-Semitism which includes anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israel political discourse’.
PSC strongly opposes all forms of anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitic attacks. Going down the route advocated by the CAA would have disastrous consequences in challenging all forms of racism. Conflating criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism makes the task of identifying genuine anti-Semitism and fighting it harder, not easier.
As Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) pointed out in its submission to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism in November 2014: ‘criticism of Israel must be taken at face value and assessed on its merits, and not dismissed in advance as essentially antisemitic in its origins. There are a large number of legitimate reasons for questioning Israel’s actions, including its seemingly unending – and expanding – occupation of the West Bank, its violations of international law, the large-scale killing of civilians including children and the impunity of its armed forces and settlers.’ Jews for Justice for Palestinians believes it represents ‘just the tip of the iceberg of widespread Jewish discontent at the virtually uncritical support given by community leaders to Israel.’ http://jfjfp.com/?p=66611
Paragraph 5 of the government’s consultation on the Prevent Duty Guidance points out that ‘the government has defined extremism in the Prevent strategy as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces”.
However, governments such as the Israeli government consistently violate all these values. There is extreme concern that the guidance can be interpreted to prevent discussion on Palestine – which would therefore prevent discussion on engaging people in support of Palestinian democracy and individual liberty. It could prevent discussion on Israel’s violations of the rule of law, and its intolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. It could prevent discussion on the apartheid and racist nature of Israeli state policies and practices. And it could prevent discussion on how to effectively challenge Israeli extremism and terrorist actions.
In the Commons, Paul Blomfield MP raised the example of Christchurch University in Canterbury, which ‘found itself in conflict with the police over an unwillingness to provide information on its students in relation to a fracking debate. There is a concern within the university sector that the shifting balance of relationships that might be implicit in the Bill could add to the pressure on universities to co-operate or provide information on a much wider range of issues than is the Government’s intention.’ The JCHR warned that “Broad terms such as ‘extremist’ or ‘radical’ are not capable of being defined with sufficient precision to enable universities to know with sufficient certainty whether they risk being found to be in breach of the new duty and therefore subject to direction by the Secretary of State and, ultimately, a mandatory court order backed by criminal sanctions for contempt of court”, and that “This legal uncertainty will have a seriously inhibiting effect on bona fide academic debate in universities, and on freedom of association”. In the Lords, Baroness Lister of Burtersett highlighted the restrictive proposals on monitoring meetings, including that “Advance notice of the content of the event, including an outline of the topics to be discussed and sight of any presentations” would be required, and asked ‘As someone who is quite frequently asked to lecture at other universities, will I now be required to send my notes to be vetted in advance?’ Lord Roberts of Llandudno commented: ‘In a Written Question—the Minister might remember this—I have tried to get the Government to define what someone has to say to be considered an extremist under these provisions. I understand that they had a very helpful discussion on what an extremist is. The Minister knows that I have not received a satisfactory answer. The vagueness of what is termed extremism means that the powers that the Home Secretary is granting herself could be applied to rooting out any ideas she chooses. It need not be only those of Islam. It could perhaps apply to liberalism or socialism, if she so wished. The powers give her that right. Of course, the target here is radical Islam. However, there is nothing in principle to prevent the powers being used to purge other ideas that the Home Secretary might disagree with.’
Baroness Brinton pointed out ‘As a bursar, I would be horrified to have to sit and debate whether a student society—over which my college and the university would have no control because it was an autonomous body—was making the right decision to allow somebody there, let alone to demand in my role to see the presentation of a speaker and try to understand whether it just went over the boundaries of extremism. How do individuals in institutions decide what is or is not extremism? This is madness. It is the sort of thing that is done in haste.’
The consultation document, rather than addressing any of these concerns, simply exacerbates them.
Paragraph 8 of the document says: ‘Islamist extremists regard Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries as a ‘war with Islam’, creating a narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Their ideology includes the uncompromising belief that people cannot be both Muslim and British, and that Muslims living here should not participate in our democracy. Islamist extremists specifically attack the principles of civic participation and social cohesion. These extremists purport to identify grievances to which terrorist organisations then claim to have a solution.’
Last summer, we saw young people and students join a wide range of British society to express their opposition to Israel’s massacre in Gaza, including by taking place in demonstrations across the country and emailing their MP –examples of real civic participation. Those collective actions were socially cohesive, and provided hope to participants that their voices would be listened to, by participating democratically to achieve change.
However, by creating a climate which could prevent students from expressing their support for Palestinian human rights, the government’s proposals would disastrously fuel the narrative that it claims, in Paragraph 8, that it wants to challenge.
Furthermore, if the Prevent guidance is used to restrict discussion on issues such as Palestine, whether in educational institutions or public buildings, this will be seen as further evidence that the government only respects human rights, equality and freedom for some, but not others. Attempts to prevent discussion, and democratic participation, on issues such as Palestinian rights will also strengthen the argument of those in Britain who claim that there is no point in trying to achieve change through democratic means.
These fears of the use of the Prevent Duty Guidance to restrict free speech on issues such as Palestine are, unfortunately, not unfounded. In December 2014, the Guardian reported on how free speech is already being stifled on campus, and on the serious concerns at how this legislation could be used to prevent students from exercising their democratic rights. This article highlighted the case of a students’ union president, who said she received a warning that the police had claimed she was ‘potentially committing a public order offence’ by displaying two posters in her office window. One poster said ‘Not for Shale’, and the other: ‘End Israel’s attacks on Gaza’. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/dec/02/anti-terror-bill-making-radical-ideas-crime-campus
As the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) said in their briefing to Lords, it is ‘important that any new obligations do not undermine the academic freedom enjoyed by staff and students in UK universities, where controversial views can and should be heard and contested. These freedoms underpin not just our county’s global reputation but also our liberal and democratic values, and they must be maintained so that staff and students feel they can debate issues openly’. These values should be respected not just within universities, but apply to local authorities, and other educational institutions.
Finally, we fail to see how the draft guidance as published allows institutions to implement the duty in a way which will ‘complement the institution’s responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 and cover student welfare, including equality and diversity’, as outlined in Paragraph 83 of the government’s consultation.
In conclusion, this guidance, rather than effectively challenging those who oppose ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, will be used to undermine those basic principles.
Submitted by Sarah Colborne, Director, Palestine Solidarity Campaign. 30 January 2015