- Created: Friday, 07 September 2018 16:28
- Written by Newcastle Branch
On 4 September, the Labour Party NEC passed the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. A day later, Labour-led Newcastle Council did the same, unanimously, without debate. There is now a stampede among Labour councils to adopt this reactionary definition despite the fact that Palestinian representatives and organisations reject it as Zionist.
Supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! North East (FRFI) knew that the Council vote was coming up and started a campaign against it along with other pro-Palestine activists. As part of this, we held a public meeting on 22 August, and invited the left to participate. They refused to attend. The meeting however agreed a number of actions: organising a petition against the IHRA definition and organising a demonstration on the day of the council debate. The next day, a Counterfire meeting saw Alex Snowdon, chair of Newcastle Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), cravenly explain they were opposed to fighting the council, that they would not support a petition against the council motion, and nor would they attend a protest.
Suddenly, a week later, the sectarian leadership of the PSC changed its mind, and called a counter-mobilisation to our widely-publicised protest, starting half an hour earlier on 5 September. We decided this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage serious protest, and therefore attended a PSC meeting on 4 September to call out this unacceptable behaviour.
Supposedly pro-Palestine Labour councillor Ann Schofield attended this meeting. We asked what she would do to fight the motion and explained that the campaign wanted pro-Palestine councillors to vote against the motion and stand up during the council debate to make speeches against it. Schofield replied, ‘I realise it looks a bit weaselly, but I don’t feel weasely about it, I can’t stand up and make a speech, I will be whipped, I could be expelled.’
PSC members saw that FRFI supporters were taking notes of what participants were saying, and when Schofield said she was afraid her comments would be published, the PSC demanded we stop. When we refused, they expelled us from the meeting. Under challenge, the opportunist left has as much contempt for democracy as the right-wing they profess to oppose.
On the day of the council meeting, around 30 people joined us on a march from the Monument, outnumbering the PSC lobby when we arrived. Some principled rank and file members of the PSC joined our march and spoke on the open mic at our rally outside the council. The people that joined us wanted to do and say something of worth.
We entered the public gallery for the debate and vote, presented our petition with over 1,500 signatures and gave an address to the council, stating firmly that calling Israel a racist endeavour is not anti-Semitic, but a political statement of fact. The PSC leadership chose to pack up and go home: they did not want to associate themselves with any challenge to Labour.
It became very clear that the council would pass the motion. The self-styled pro-Palestine Labour councillor recreants fell into line. Dipu Ahad was conveniently absent for the vote, claiming he was attending a meeting in London to discuss what Labour adopting the IHRA definition ‘means for freedom of speech and the consequences of other towns and cities adopting it’(!). Ann Schofield was at the council meeting but scurried out of the door before the vote. Rebecca Shatwell also appears to have gone AWOL. Nigel Todd and Habib Rahman were present for the vote but made no commitment to fight the definition despite pressure from our campaign.
In light of this, we decided that the only option we had to stop the definition being adopted was to heckle so that the council ran out of time and needed to postpone it to the next month’s meeting. This would have given us more time to campaign against it. When the Lib Dem councillor finished proposing the motion, we began heckling and unveiling Palestine flags. Security rushed in to eject hecklers, pushing protesters around, assaulting and piling on top of them. However, we stood together so they were unable to stop our speeches and chants of ‘Free Palestine!’ from the public gallery. We forced the council to abandon the debate for a period: councillors had to leave the chamber under the volume of our opposition. One campaigner who got into the chamber was violently dragged down the stairs by his ankle past councillors who did nothing. By this time, police had arrived.
We believed at this point we had stopped the vote, so many of us went outside. However, after half an hour, councillors who were determined to finish their dirty business re-entered the chamber. One campaigner in her 70s began chanting and refused to leave the public gallery. The police arrested her for breach of the peace to the applause of the wretched councillors below. Campaigners went to the police station where she was being held: she was released at 11.30pm without charge.
The council waited until after 9pm when they unanimously passed the motion without debate. This means Todd and Rahman voted in favour of it and, along with Ahad, Schofield and Shatwell, have abandoned the Palestinian people. They must be exposed for the reactionaries they are, instead of being shielded and welcomed to Palestine events by PSC opportunists. They are not welcome.
Not content with passing the Zionist definition, Labour leader Nick Forbes fed lies to the press that we had assaulted security staff, ‘broken in’ to the council chamber and left councillors both afraid and in tears. These fabrications were accepted by Newcastle’s main paper The Chronicle. Forbes labels people who take a stand against assaults on basic rights as ‘the hard left’, ‘clowns’, ‘trouble-makers’, ‘anti-Semites’, and views them as criminals. Forbes and his cronies are the real criminals. We did not take a team of security thugs with us, it was the council who hired them.
If it was not for FRFI and individual principled Palestine activists, there would have been no fight against the Zionist IHRA definition in Newcastle. We will be outside Marks and Spencer on Northumberland Street this Saturday 8 September, 11am-2pm. M&S is the biggest British corporate supporter of Israel. We are also hosting a meeting on Wednesday 12 September to discuss where we go next in the fight against Labour Zionism and in defence of Palestine (7-9pm, The Good Space, Commercial Union House, Floor 2, Pilgrim Street, Newcastle NE1 6QW).
We will continue to say loud and clear, without fear: ‘Israel is a racist, apartheid state. Defend Palestine – smash Zionism!’ We ask you to join us.