Reflections on the saga of Eastern Ghouta

 

At an International Communications Forum / Initiatives of Change meeting on Monday night one of the issues discussed was the credibility of Mid East media with a view (on the NCF’s Secretary General’s part) to reinstating the Media Credibility Index currently defunct other than an offshoot it spawned in Pakistan.  The NCF suggested that if we were to criticise Mid-East media we must take a mirror and look at the credibility of our own media and I cited the Eastern Ghouta issue as an example. Unwise perhaps. You will remember the West bombed Syria because of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian Government. I was hauled over the coals, quite rightly, by one young journalist for suggesting that because the officers of the Syrian Army denied the use of chemical weapons and because The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had failed to find any evidence of chemical weapons use in East Ghouta that might mean the story was false. After all the Russians kept everyone out of the place for a week. Or almost everyone. They allowed Robert Fisk of the Independent in but then they trust him because of his previous coverage and his acquaintance with first Hafiz and now Bashar al Assad.

I should not have made my assertion. But there were questions still to be answered and the case remained unproven. The NCF has been closely associated with East Ghouta in recent times and a little back story may help:

Prior to the last NCF delegation to Damascus back at the end of 2016 we were asked by the Kurdish community in London to raise the issue of a Kurdish Damascus University student arrested for putting up Facebook posts that were defamatory of the President. We raised the issue first with the office of the President’s wife (who were very helpful) and secondly directly with Ali Haider, the Minister for Reconciliation. The office of Asma al-Assad carried forward the issue diligently but regrettably could find no record of the boy’s name amongst the names of the inmates of Syria’s prisons. We informed the boy’s family that sadly they should come to terms with the fact that he was now dead. This story may not seem relevant but it will become so because of ramifications this case may have had as you will see if you read on.

Then the rebel held area of Aleppo fell in due course to President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Attention switched to East Ghouta. The siege tightened as the Syrian Army prepared to retake the area. We were concerned. We raised the East Ghouta issue at the United Nations in Geneva (with which the NCF is in consultative status). We promoted a deal whereby the fighters were allowed to evacuate as they had done in Aleppo. We urged that the 500 fighters from the former Gebat al Nusra group should be helped to leave the region and take refuge in the nations in the Arab World that had previously offered them support. This might be better than promoting a series of virtually useless ceasefires (which was what the UN had been doing). The full text of our statement to the UN can be found here. Our interns Jaskirat Mann, Be Sun Lee, and Memuna Hussain, personally lobbied the British, American and Syrian delegations and each and every Arab Ambassador present, one by one. We also conducted a side meeting in Geneva on 2nd March of this year in which we lobbied for the same outcome.

And in due course the policy switched and the evacuation was discussed, not because of our efforts but because there was nothing else left to do. But some of the fighters failed to cooperate. And then we had the alleged chemical weapons attack. Of course the ruthless and remorseless bombing of Eastern Ghouta combined with the collective punishment of the people there through Mediaeval style siege and consequent starvation was indefensible. But there were puzzling aspects to the chemical weapons attack. We set about investigating. We were particularly bothered by one claim that a chlorine gas canister had been dropped through a roof and fallen onto a bed (which was said to account for its remarkably undamaged state), the problem being that the bed did not align with the hole in the roof. The Bellingcat authenticated claim seemed such an obvious fraud that it troubled us. That said to be fair to Bellingcat, they just geolocated some of the open sourced videos from Ghouta and Douma, they did not verify the claims in other respects.

Still, on balance, even though some of the evidence could have been fabricated, some appeared damning and we felt that there had probably been a chemical weapons attack and concluded that if so there was a 75% probability that the Syrian Government were culpable (as opposed to this being a false flag incident).

Perhaps obviously, many friends from the opposition inside Syria were eager to see the Western bombing take place. In any event the West bombed, albeit very modestly. And the rebel fighters left Eastern Ghouta. And as the government advanced many of the male civilians of fighting age who had been unable to flee were carted off to internment camps.

We had been liaising with the civilians inside Eastern Ghouta throughout the fighting during previous months, trying to help if only by giving them another voice from outside to talk to so that they could know their appeals for help were being heard. One particular young man (name withheld) had been our key liaison. He now found himself interred with many others in a camp (name withheld) outside Damascus. It was a frightening situation. He tried to get released but could not but he still, remarkably, had his mobile phone and we could still liaise with him.

The real tragedy of Ghouta is not whether this was a genuine chemical attack but that many thousands have been needlessly traumatised and displaced from their homes.
We tried to get confirmation from friends in East Ghouta that chemical attacks had taken place. One responded, “If you are able bring me with my family to a safe country. I might be able to talk. Or provide statements. All mobile phone are monitored 24/7. Talking politics is prohibited.”

This time we intervened in a more circumspect manner, but intervene we did. And he was not only released from internment but he was allowed by the authorities to select 44 of his co-detainees for release with him. Which was remarkable. The authorities also found him a job. He was of course tremendously grateful and sent us a message to say “I sincerely want to express my gratefulness to you, the Russian officers, and (name withheld) and President Basher Al Assad for their efforts and I greatly appreciate their help to release me and 44 detainees and your help has ended my suffering and fear.”

We doubt whether it was our intervention that effected this release. It was probably the action of someone else. However, our chief interlocutor with the Syrian Military (name withheld) sent us a message at this point and said that he had been contacted directly by one of the commanders of the forces that took Ghouta and that the commander claimed in response to our enquiries that though they had indeed used chemical weapons in a prior instance they had not done so in Ghouta. Your observation might reasonably be “he would say that wouldn’t he”.

However, subsequently it became clear (as the Foreign Office and State Department will no doubt now be aware), that the video of children being doused with water much broadcast on the BBC at the time may have been falsified. There were questions with it from the beginning (the children’s eyes were not red until after they had been doused) but subsequently the little boy that featured prominently was forced to flee with his family and became a refugee and was then extensively interviewed and his story did not corroborate the video (he claimed he had been snatched off the street).

Does it matter any longer whether or not chemical weapons were used in Ghouta? The world has moved on. Possibly not. many of the people of Ghouta suffered death or displacement regardless. Were chemical weapons used? Maybe. But the perspective and judgement of our media may perhaps be clouded by their understandable sympathy for the poor miserable people of Ghouta and all they have endured. We must try hard to maintain our objectivity.

Patrick Cockburn wrote an interesting article in the Independent last week echoing a theme he has returned to again and again talking of the many lies that have changed history and stating that “fake news” has “heightened the perception that information, true or false, is always a weapon in somebody’s hands”.

We must at least be wary.

 

On the killing of Jamal Khashoggi

Writing the introduction to the Next Century Foundation’s Media Credibility Index shortly after the start of the Arab Spring, Jamal Khashoggi explained that he believed there were three clearly distinct eras in the growth of mass media in the Arab and Islamic Worlds. In the middle of the 20th century Cairo and Beirut were mass media and cultural hubs for the Arab and Islamic Worlds. Their dominance was brought to an end variously by factors such as the nationalization of Al Ahram and the Lebanese civil war. The era of the London based Saudi print media partially filled the vacuum that was thus created. But not until the launch of Aljazeera in Doha in 1996 did the Arab World’s mass media truly come of age.

“Wow” I thought. This man is on the button. Jamal was more of an acquaintance than a friend. Other members of my family knew him well, however, and he was close to us. Yes, I thought, the new Arab Media in all of its incarnations from bloggers to broadcasters has become a many headed hydra, almost uncontrollable because of its multi-faceted nature.

But there are those in the corridors of power in Cairo, Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Istanbul that want to restore the old order and re-establish control, those that dislike this new and subversive mass media. But there were also surprising gems of encouragement. For a brief moment in time Bahrain flirted with allowing an opposition newspaper. Kuwait post liberation from Saddam had an extraordinarily free press. And the mass media in Iraq was beyond belief, with more daily newspapers than there were days in the year.

Still the great powers, the giants of the Arab World, wanted to restore the status quo ante. And they set about doing this through creating a climate of fear. New repressive Media Laws were introduced in Cairo and Abu Dhabi that set a benchmark. Others followed these trend setters with enthusiasm. The incarceration of bloggers and tweeters became commonplace for the most minor of offences. And journalists most certainly had to watch their backs facing, at best, tremendous fines in the courts, and at worst, targeted assassination.

Jamal’s Response

Most of us grumbled about this. We did what we could at the NCF. My late father, Claud Morris, believed in the concept of “Peace Through Media” and in tribute to that we established The International Council for Press and Broadcasting (subsequently merged with the International Communications Forum associated with Initiatives of Change) and launched The International Media Awards. We even changed the ethos of the NCF to one of support for Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms in order to better justify our stand for Media Freedom.

Jamal wanted more. He felt the world should not just talk about it but should do something about it. He decided on a scheme whereby you could get round the new Western controls on alternative media. This needs a little explanation. The big media platforms in the Middle East are forums like Facebook and Twitter. We at the NCF launched an ideological Facebook page in Arabic called Al Khawatir (reflections) and found that with a budget of $20 a week and a few ideologically driven interns to write posts we could develop a following of a million a month in unhappy places in the Middle East like Algiers, Tripoli, Cairo, Riyadh, Sanaa or Baghdad.

Facebook was strong everywhere. Twitter was particularly strong in Saudi Arabia and is currently in the ascendancy everywhere, perhaps because it is a favoured method of imparting the thoughts of the great and the good. The under thirties may have started the trend. But Arab politicians like Sheikh Khalid, the current Foreign Minister of Bahrain and influential diplomats like the former Qatar Ambassador to London, Nasser al Khalifa, were quick to build huge twitter followings with their passionate tweets in both Arabic and English and their relationship with their fans.

The difficulty for would be opposition tweeters is the controls that Twitter currently has. They have become necessary of course, to prevent trolls and to stop forms of abuse like one person – or government – holding multiple accounts. So you may not open a twitter account without providing a phone number for verification. A huge problem if you want to say what you think in the Middle East because a phone number can be traced one way or another and you may be subject to arbitrary arrest if you are not a member of the establishment. Or at least you would be frightened of the possibility of arrest.

And along comes Jamal. He sets up a scheme whereby he and a friend in Canada would buy hundreds of sim cards. Then if you wanted to start a twitter account all you would need to do was to message Jamal or his friend by one of the more confidential platforms available, WhatsApp for example. And Jamal’s friend would set up a one-time simcard for you in Canada that you could use to enter for verification of the twitter account and he would send you back the verification code from Canada and the authorities in Saudi Arabia could never trace you.

The Consequence

Of course social media is powerful. Remember the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt was largely Facebook fanned and encouraged. The old adage, the pen is mightier than the sword might be rewritten, the pen encourages the sword of retribution. Or rather the finger on the smartphone in today’s world.

Had that been the all of it maybe it could have been overlooked. But that was not the half of it. Jamal was an activist with numerous projects. There was another project with the working title, “Democracy for the Arab World Now”. That too was dangerous.

However, most dangerous of all were his columns in the Post, the Washington Post. Had he been the usual ranting fanatic oppositionist he might just have been ignorable. But he was not. Jamal was considered and thoughtful. He was fair in his analysis and honest but modest in his criticism. He was the most dangerous kind of critic.

The rumour that Jamal had his fingers cut off before he was killed appears to have been apocryphal. But the fact that such a horrific story circulated underscores the savage symbolism surrounding this one man’s death. There were those in the corridors of power who believed Jamal had to be silenced. It had to be done. He was uniquely dangerous.

And it was done. Brutally, cruelly, with Mafia-like ruthlessness. The killing was effective and, arguably, has done what it was expected to do in regard to the repression of freedom of speech.

There has been a cost of course, a cost to the Saudi Arabian establishment, a storm indeed. But perhaps that remains a cost they can bear. The intention may certainly have been to send a more discreet and equivocal message. But the message is what has mattered. People will think twice in future before they kick against the establishment in such a dangerous way. Try to use matches and you may get burned.

Was this unique?

So, is Jamal’s killing worse than other politically motivated assassinations? We have seen it happen again and again. Sometimes the killings are not high profile. The NCF took a press delegation to visit Arafat days before his death and he was fit as flee demonstrating his push ups. I was always convinced he was assassinated and was always bothered by the refusal to allow an autopsy. So often the killings never make the headlines. The snatching of the NCF’s hostage negotiator, Abu Innas, off the sidewalk in Al Adhamiyah Baghdad by the police, never to be seen again. But assassinations are so commonplace are they not? Was Jamal’s killing worse than others. More brutal and brazen than most perhaps. But not of itself worse than others. All murder is evil. State sanctioned murder is worse than evil and those responsible and those complicit by their silence will no doubt face their God someday and have to give account for their behaviour.

But some would conclude that Jamal’s murder may be worse in its outcome because its ripples will mean that freedom of expression is set back. Will it not?

Well I don’t know. Possibly not. Possibly the calls for freedom of speech will be amplified by Jamal’s death. The killing of Jamal has done much to highlight the issue. Now it is up to us to do something to ensure that his death is neither forgotten nor in vain.

A prayer for America at the mid-terms

This came in tonight from Reverend Larry Wright, Convenor of the Religious Affairs Advisory Council:

God of justice, we pray for the people and nation of America at this crucial time.

May the land of the bold and the free give true expression to its highest historic ideals.

A nation divided is a nation brought low; so good Lord, may a state of unity prevail in America, may the prayers and aspirations of millions be answered with hope, and may all that is good and true and just be manifest in the destiny of America, under God; in who we trust.

Amen

Kurdistan elections – the final results

Weeks after the Kurdistan Region held parliamentary elections on September 30, the election commission has published official results:
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) achieved 688,070 votes, giving it a big lead over its rivals, securing 45 seats in the 111-seat parliament – leaving it 12 seats shy of an outright majority. The party will therefore need to enter a coalition agreement to form a government.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) came in second with 319,219 votes, securing 21 seats. This marks an improvement on its 2013 result of 18 seats.

The Change Movement (Gorran) was pushed into third place with 186,903 votes, securing just 12 seats – down from 24 in the last parliament.

New Generation got 127,115 votes, securing eight seats.

Komal seven seats.

The joint Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)-Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) Reform List won five seats. When the KIU ran alone in 2013, it secured 10.

The leftist Modern coalition one seat.

The Communist Party, as part of the Azadi List, secured one seat.

The Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), which officially boycotted the election, failed to secure a seat.

Of the 11 seats reserved for the Kurdistan Region’s minority groups, the Turkmen secured five, the Christians five, and the Armenians one. No seats are reserved for the Yezidis.

Among the Turkmen parties, the Turkmen Development Party secured two seats, the Nation List one, the Turkmen Reform party one, and the Turkmen Front one.

Among the Christian parties, the Rafidain List secured one seat, the Assyrian Syriac Chaldean Popular Council one, and the National Union Coalition three.

An Armenian independent secured one seat.

The election commission also published figures detailing which candidates secured the most votes for each list:

Qubad Talabani, head of the PUK list, won 182,000. Shaswar Abdulwahid, head of New Generation, won 106, 289. Ali Hama Salih, head of the Gorran list, won 81,934. Hemin Hawrami, head of the KDP list, won 47,000.

The election commission had delayed the announcement of official results while it investigated several allegations of fraud.

The commission decided to annul the results of 96 polling stations, voiding around 119,000 votes. The majority of annulled ballots were in Erbil province.
A number of opposition parties threatened to boycott the next parliament if the preliminary results were approved by the commission. There are no substantial differences between the preliminary results and official figures.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) issued a statement following the results urging people – in the interests of public safety –not to shoot firearms into the air in celebration.

Summarised Breakdown of seats by party:

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – 45 seats
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – 21 seats
Gorran – 12 seats
New Generation – 8 seats
Komal – 7 seats
Reform List – 5 seats
Modern Coalition – 1 seat
Azadi List – 1 seat

11 minority quota seats as follows:

Turkmen:

Turkmen Development Party – 2
Nation List – 1
Turkmen Reform party – 1
Turkmen Front – 1

Christian:

Rafidain List – 1
Assyrian Syriac Chaldean Popular Council – 1
National Union Coalition – 3

Armenian:

Independent – 1

Some thoughts on the tragic killing of Jamal Khashoggi

NCF Secretary General William Morris interviewed during a debate on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a longstanding family friend and a generous and public spirited journalist who lost his life because what he had to say was not tolerated by his government. Latterly Jamal had been writing for the Washington Post. This broadcast was made before today’s suggestion from the Turks that the killing of Jamal may in fact have been deliberate.

The Kurdish Regional Parliament – the unofficial results

Though the official results have yet to be announced, the NCF has the Unofficial results for the 111-member Kurdistan Parliament (11 reserved for minorities) and they are as listed below by party, number of votes, and number of seats:

  1. KDP 738,698 votes: 45 seats
  2. PUK 343,883 votes: 21 seats
  3. Gorran 195,553 votes: 12 seats
  4. New Generation 120,324 votes: 8 seats
  5. KIG (Komal) The Kurdistan Islamic Group: 113,928 votes: 7 seats
  6. KIU-KIM (Kurdistan Islamic Union-Kurdistan Islamic Movement) 83,562 votes: 5 seats
  7. CDJ (The Coalition for Democracy and Justice) (formerly Barham Salih’s party): 1 seat
  8. Communist: 1 seat
  9. Minorities: 11 seats

Once again, it’s not baseball or football with clear rules. Sometimes they play by the rules, and sometimes they make them up as they go along.

At the regional level, the KDP came out on top with 45 of 111 regional parliament seats. Eleven seats are for minorities – Christians, Armenians, Turkmens – most of whom would likely support the KDP. Along with these seats, plus Socialist and Communist seats, and possibly one or more Islamist seats, the KDP is in a good position to form a majority government without the PUK, Gorran, New Generation, and Islamist parties. But that’s unlikely to happen.

In Iraq, managing divisions is the essential game. Iraq is not a failed state. It’s not a state. It’s just a failure. Managing divisions in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, has been reasonably successful. Otherwise, the Region would have flown apart and disassembled in chaos years ago. At the end of the day, there are only two political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan – KDP and Anti-KDP, with the Anti-KDP divided into factions.

So, we are likely to see efforts toward a consensus coalition regional government, which will be difficult given the perceived “treachery” by each side of the other.

Turnout in the regional parliamentary election was relatively low for the Kurdistan region, only about 60%. There is a sense that if another independence referendum were to be held today, the turnout would increase by about 20 points.

An interesting bright spot is that a top vote-getter was a well-known and much-liked non-politician who drives a ramshackle car and did little if any campaigning. Unlike candidates who littered the roadways with posters, he had none. He is known for conversing with youth in the marketplace, a singer and sometime TV personality, humble and simple.

The ramshackle car driver is Jalal Parishan (parishan means ‘desperate’; in his case, something to do with a lost love). Though the final results have yet to be announced officially, he received the third highest number of votes among dozens of candidates.

Oil Price Excitement – because of Iran

There is excitement this morning at the four year high in oil price at $81 a barrel. They put it down to Iran reduction because of President Trump’s sanctions + Bakken Shale problems (shale sweet spots are running out triggering feverish competition over concessions in the US) + spare capacity fears (spare capacity of mid east countries is is only 2-4 million b/d meaning that unexpected supply interruptions are more difficult to cope with).

In Iraq this triggered renewed discussion this morning of the fact that Kirkuk’s oil is “stranded” meaning 270,00 to 300,000 barrels a day “wasted capacity due to unavailability of pipelines”.

The only prospect of a reduction in demand also, ironically, is a consequence of President Trump’s actions – as a consequence of the possibility of reduced Chinese demand in the aftermath of the Sino-American trade war. But all the indications are that the price will continue to rise, helped by the OPEC decision not to increase production at their meeting in Algeria yesterday.

Refugee Legal Support Needed

Ex NCF intern, Eva Doerr, is known to many of you. She needs your help. She is involved in a refugee project in Athens, Greece – Refugee Legal Support (https://www.refugeelegalsupport.org). Alongside approximately ten other UK asylum lawyers (almost all women), she was part of setting up a pro bono legal clinic in Athens. At the clinic, Iliana (a Greek lawyer), Efi (their coordinator), their three interpreters – Ali, Vafa and Lawrence (all refugees in Greece) – and UK lawyers who travel to Athens on a rota basis (Eva was there in June) provide free legal support to refugees. Eva writes:

Even though the media seems to have stopped reporting on it, thousands of people fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa continue to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean and arrive on the Greek islands eg Lesvos and Chios every month. The crippling infrastructure in Greece means that many of those are not recognised refugees yet – they do not have a ‘legal status’ in Greece. Many others remain separated from family members elsewhere in Europe without any hope of being reunited with them any time soon (family reunification is supposedly a human right…). Without a legal status a person is trapped in a limbo. You are unable to take part in public life and access services that we take for granted, like healthcare, the ability to rent a home or take up employment.
I could go on about this forever but I am sure you will be well aware of the situation. I feel very strongly that Western Europe needs to take more responsibility for this situation. I believe that the clinic is a small contribution to the solidarity that is needed to tackle what I believe is the ‘issue of our times’. Sadly, we are running out of money and we now need every donation and support we can get. We have launched a crowd justice campaign, a way to fundraise for legal campaigns.
If NCF friends could donate a bit of money and, more importantly, share the campaign amongst your friends and network via email or social media, Eva would be hugely grateful.
 

The Anti-Semitism Row

Tim Pendry responds to our intern’s blog on the Labour Anti-Semitism row, which he views as a little naive politically. He writes as an independent observer sympathetic to Corbyn’s position on this particular matter. We would view his perspective as being similar to that of a mainstream Labour activist, though not a viewpoint universally held:

We can start with two propositions which are uncomfortable for some activists.

The first is that free speech, as an Enlightenment Project, should be as close to absolute as possible in any political movement that purports to represent the Left and yet it is clear that there has been increasing pressure, mostly from authoritarian elements in society, to restrict that freedom so that defence of free speech has largely and unfortunately fallen into the hands of conservatives and then populists.

The second is that a British political party should be primarily concerned with the welfare of the British people (of all faiths) and should not become the plaything of struggles in foreign lands or allow itself to be directly or indirectly influenced by the interests of a foreign power. The Labour Party got itself into this mess originally by permitting far too much influence to activists more concerned with Middle Eastern politics than social change because it was greedy for votes from new immigrant communities.

This opened the door to Jewish activists whose primary interest (in this debate) was undoubtedly the protection of political support for the state of Israel which was pretty well taken for granted in the higher ranks of the Party until Corbyn was elected Leader. This is all a matter of indifference to most working people who are actually not in the least antisemitic but commit the crime of utter indifference to both sides in this tiresome and eternal squabble.

In this atmosphere of political warfare, it is naive to think that the IHRA guidelines came out of some objective analysis of antisemitism above and beyond these politics. They did not. They are the culmination of a process of linking the narrative of antisemitism and the holocaust to the existence of Israel and then making the definition of antisemitism implicitly include criticism of Israel. So let us take the four guidelines and give another interpretation (since the author’s interpretation is actually fair if one wishes to interpret them that way but there are other interpretations).

  1. “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” Unfortunately, this is actually a fair criticism from many Jewish activists who do place loyalty to Israel and to the Jewish community ahead of the interests of their own nation. The ‘soft’ version is an unspoken and unthinking assumption that the interests of the UK and Israel are identical. They are not necessarily so. We must be free to call out any community within the country, including Muslims of course, who place their original homeland or their community’s interests or even (in extremis) their faith ahead of the interests of the UK as a whole and certainly of the British working population.
  2. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” This is fair since it is clear that Judaism is not racist. However, Zionism is. by definition, ethnicist. There is a slippery slope here given the inability of many modern liberals not to be able to draw the distinction between ethnicity and racism. The existence of the State of Israel is very much an ethnicist endeavour and we must be free to say so.
  3. “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” This is a fair concern but, again, we have to consider context. Israel claims to be a Western democratic outpost and it is surrounded by non-democratic illiberal countries. There is no comparison. However, Israel’s conduct can and should be compared (even if there may be sound security reasons for the differences) with the way, say, Sweden or Ireland may conduct matters. The clause is clear – it is not ‘of any other nation’ but ‘of any other democratic nation’. While recognising that Israel is largely democratic (though only so because most Palestinians have left), we must be free to compare it if we so wish to the other democratic nations of which it claims kinship.
  4. “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This is a difficult one but free speech is not about sensitivity, it is about freedom. There is no fair way of claiming the State of Israel behaves like the Nazi State but this should be dealt with in terms of the facts and not sensitivity when, seventy years after the event and with more knowledge of the general scale of man’s inhumanity to man, under conditions where a nation owns the nuclear bomb and has a preparedness to use it, we all know in our hearts that the holocaust narrative has two aspects – as tragic history and as propaganda. What we must be free to say is that there are similarities perhaps between some aspects of national socialism and some aspects of all forms of ethnicist nationalism and perhaps, if evidence can be provided, even in military techniques against settlement or in ‘lebensraum’. An intelligent person would only make the lightest of historical comparisons if they believed them to be true because there is no evidence of the racial politics or chaotics of the German dictatorship but he or she must be allowed to make these comparisons in good faith as a matter of free speech.

The ‘Zionist’ or Jewish activist pressure on the Labour Leadership is purely political, a continuation by other means of a project to recover an influence over the British Left taken for granted over many decades. It is the wrong struggle. The right struggle would have been to ask why the worst sort of faith-based obscurantism has been imported into the Party’s inner city wards without sufficient challenge. Any antisemitism arising from poorly educated Islamists is a mere symptom of something infinitely more concerning – the steady unravelling of Enlightenment values for contingent political advantage across a wide front.

As to ‘feelings’ this represents the decadence of our politics. Politics should be about principle and not pandering to ‘feelings’. The crisis certainly cannot be averted by pandering to a demand that a few inappropriate clauses of the IHRA guidelines are accepted just to defuse the crisis – it simply creates a new crisis, one of the ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. The crisis can be averted by staying strong on the principle of free speech but taking a tough line on antisemitism (as opposed to criticism of Israel) where it appears alongside all other forms of racial or ethnicist politics including perhaps aspects of Corbyn’s treasured Irish republicanism and the clan politics of the migrant inner cities.

Of Boris and of Banning the Burkas

The following represents the personal view of the NCF Secretary General and does not necessarily represent an NCF position:

There are two issues here. One is that the full face covering is a Mediaeval practice and one that is abusive in so much as it enshrines the doctrine of male dominance over the female. In a sense it degrades women.

It may be right to speak out against this practice.

However, even the birds of the air have need of nests. And whatever the rights and wrongs of that great cultural leveler, migration, one thing is certain, we are responsible for welcoming the migrant that arrives at these shores in a way which does not foster prejudice and hatred. Britain’s former Foreign Secretary’s remarks were calculated. They were written by Boris Johnson in a newspaper editorial. They are abusive of women in themselves, comparing those who practice full face veiling to pillar boxes with slits. Furthermore his manner provokes those already inflamed with Islamophobia (often exacerbated by but not because of the recent terror attacks) into further hatred. The former Foreign Secretary behaved as a racist. The sentiment behind his words, a concern about what the full face veil represents, may echo genuine concern for those women who choose, sometimes of their own volition, to do this to themselves. But he had no right to say that in that way. Not a man who may become our next Prime Minister.

Two wrongs do not make a right. Boris Johnson was therefore quite wrong. He should apologise. And if it was not his intention to foster religious hatred, he should apologise at least for the unwitting effect his remarks had.

Christ told us not to judge “Lest we be judged”. But there is an expectation that politicians in a position of leadership make considered judgements on our behalf. Boris’ remarks were unwise. Boris’ remarks can hardly have helped in these difficult times.

We should do better. But should we ban the burka and the headscarf like they do in France and Finland? Well maybe there is an argument for banning the hoody in young men and the burka in women because they are socially divisive and threatening. But not the headscarf. The French have gone overboard there. Women in the West have worn headscarves for generations as a fashion statement. And old fashioned European Catholics have always worn headscarves. The Muslim headscarf may be more concealing but is still just a cultural extension of the same thing and we should all find it in our hearts to accept it.

Mrs June Jacobs CBE

Mrs June Jacobs CBE, Trustee of the Next Century Foundation and former President of the International Council of Jewish Women, has died suddenly following a stroke. She was much loved.

June was one of the founding members of the Next Century Foundation. Many core members of the Next Century Foundation, such as the late Duke of Devonshire, who hosted our first and at that time secret, international conference at his Chatsworth home, were on board because June brought them on board. She was trusted. In those early days it was illegal for Israel’s politicians to meet senior members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. One of the key functions of the NCF at that stage was to bring together senior PLO members like PLO fund boss the late Jaweed al Ghussein, with senior Israelis, men who even now must remain nameless. And June was often the unheralded facilitator of such meetings.

June had many talents. She was a superb chairwoman for one thing, merciless as the best chairs often are. With an iron fist in a velvet glove she would brook no misbehaviour, and treated king and commoner alike.

Perhaps more importantly June was  a great networker and a great campaigner for women’s rights. These two aspects to her character we place side by side because of her work at the United Nations, where she encountered and supported fellow activists. In which context the NCF is particularly grateful to June. She brought onboard human rights workers across the world, one of the greatest of whom, our anchorwoman in Kirkuk, the great Surood Kirkuky, who often risked her life to support NCF missions to that poor benighted city, only did so because she trusted us because she trusted her friend Mrs June Jacobs whom she loved and respected.

That was the best of June, her enviable capacity to make and keep countless friends across the world, and her great compassion. And June was the embodiment of that word: Compassion. Like the greatest of those with a Jewish heritage, she cared deeply for others. She cared most particularly for the Palestinians. This perhaps because she regarded them as particularly vulnerable and the Jewish people, having reclaimed their ancestral homeland, as having a particular responsibility for the wellbeing of their cousins. In which context her compassion was boundless. She had more close Palestinian friends than any Jewish woman since the beginning of time.

There are not words enough to write of June Jacobs. Her constant love and care was a phenomenon. She never came to a meeting empty-handed, sometimes bringing a bottle of wine but more often bringing her own home baked cheesecake – arguably amongst the best in the world. June was a great woman who embodied the best of what it is to be Jewish. The world is a better place because she lived. The Next century Foundation is, in large part, the organisation it is because of her. She will be sorely missed. May God grant her the place among the angels she so richly deserves.

William Morris, NCF Secretary General

Photo of June at the International Media Awards 2017 copyright Matthew Tomkinson 2017

In Memoriam

For Mrs June Jacobs CBE, 1930 to 2018:

Come Summer,
Wrap her up,
In goodness.
Soft balm’ed breeze,
Careen her home,
Whilst still alone,
She trails dependents,
Like a fisherman,
Trails a net,
Behind her.
Save these her fishes,
She protects,
As duty would decree,
Or destiny,
Or perhaps mere providence,
In evidence of which she holds,
Tomorrow in her hand.
And finding death she walks beyond the grave,
Still trailing those that need her care.
As others did in their time,
She does now,
And stands upon their shoulders in so doing.
So too for all of those who care,
And dare,
To stand defiant ‘gainst decree-ed fate,
And cut a path that’s theirs, however late,
A swathe scythed naked from the Summer grass,
For Autumn’s coming and comes in too fast.

photo: © Jackie Richards 2018