Friday, 9 March 2018

When Israel Meets Opposition

From the left to the right: MEP Ana Gomes, MEPNeokilis Sylikiotis and Omar Barghouti, European Parliament, February 2018.

The Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes is at odds with Israeli organisations that accused her of being “anti-Semitic”, following an event at the European Parliament, in Brussels, on February 28.

The accusations sprung up in a conference co-hosted by the S&D Ana Gomes, with MEP Neokilis Sylikiotis, entitled “The Israeli Settlements in Palestine and the European Union”. During her speech, Gomes condemned the organisations as a "very perverse lobby that tries to intimidate people."

Gomes claimed the Israeli delegations in Brussels attempted to block her from hosting Palestinian human rights campaigner Omar Barghouti for a debate at the European Parliament.

The panel that caused jitters

Before the conference took place, the Jewish organisations opposed to Ana Gomes’ host Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (DBS), a movement working “to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law”.

On February 14, ahead of the conference, the Jewish communities of Lisbon and Belgium, the European Jewish Congress, ELNET, AJC Transatlantic Institute, the European Union of Jewish Students and the B’nai B’rith International penned a letter to the president of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani expressing “deep concern and opposition” over Barghouti’s invitation.

Barghouti is a fierce defender of the Palestinian state and his presence at the Parliament sparked waves. Often caractherised as an eloquent speaker, Barghouti has authored two books - Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights and The Case for Sanctions Against Israel - being the latter of evident disagreement with Israeli policy. 

Gomes denounces smear campaign

It seems there’s more to add to this political clash. On March 7, Ana Gomes presented a letter to the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, the High representative Federica Mogherini and to the EU watchdog Emily O’Reily demanding an investigation to the Commission’s officer Katharina Schnurbein and the EU delegation to Israel.

On her letter, Gomes declared being victim of a smear campaign: “I later learnt that this campaign had an instrumental promoter in Ms Katharina Schnurbein, appointed in December 2015 as the European Coordinator on combating anti-Semitism at the European Commission. Ms Schnurbein helped spread accusations misconstruing my legitimate denunciation of ‘a very perverse lobby that tells lies and uses intimidation tactics’ to prevent discussion on Israel illegal occupation and settlements in Palestine.”

Back in June 2016, the Electronic Intifada, an independent online news publication focusing on Palestine, accused Schnurbein of “smearing the Palestine solidarity movement”. At stake were, according to the author David Cronin, unfounded declarations stating: “Reports show that anti-Semitic incidents rise after BDS activities on campuses.” According to Cronin, such evidence was never found.  

Recently on April 25, the same publication denounced “B’nai B’rith expends much of its efforts attacking people who defend Palestinian rights against Israel’s abuses and war crimes, and promoting the Israeli government’s positions.”

Jewish organisations in uproar 

The Brussels-based EU office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) reacted in fury calling on the European Parliament to “discipline” Gomes. On March 19, the European Jewish Congress released a joint statement on behalf of Jewish organisations urging the European Commission to publicly condemn the S&D MEP. Nonetheless, the umbrella of Jewish organisations was not so prompt to reply to online criticism on the social media network Twitter.

How is Israel’s criticism defined?

The words proffered by MEP Ana Gomes have been subject to open criticism and countless interpretations, thereby bringing to light what exactly is considered criticism of Israel.

Firstly, it is of imperative importance that one does not confound the Israeli people with Israeli organisations or the Israeli state. This is a very dangerous generalisation that must be demystified. For that purpose, the British historian and author Alison Weir wrote a piece for Global Research, a Canadian-based independent research media organisation, where she debunks the semantics around the definition of anti-Semitism. On her 2017 May article entitled “International Campaign is Criminalising Criticism of Israel as  ‘Anti-Semitism’”, Weir claims that:

“Where most people would consider “anti-Semitism” to mean bigotry against Jewish people (and rightly consider it abhorrent), for two decades a campaign has been underway to replace that definition with an Israel-centric definition.” Weir argues that the definition acts as an instrument of censorship saying that it  “can then be used to block speech and activism in support of Palestinian human rights as ‘hate.’”

Originally, the definition of this new concept was associated to a man named Natan Sharansky, who was Israel’s Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Sharansky founded a Global Forum against Anti-Semitism in 2003, stating: “The State of Israel has decided to take the gloves off and implement a coordinated counteroffensive against anti-Semitism.”

On the fall of 2004, Sharansky wrote a position paper claiming, “Whereas classical anti-Semitism is aimed at the Jewish people or the Jewish religion, ‘new anti-Semitism’ is aimed at the Jewish state.”

Such claims establish a very narrow window to Israel’s criticism, almost suggesting that any sort of disapproval or denunciation of actions coming from Israel is a blasphemy.

Final remarks

The concept of free speech is hailed in the European Union as an elementary pillar of the block. Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union expresses: “1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers; 2. The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.”

Ana Gomes’ case and specific words - "a very perverse lobby that tries to intimidate people" – where nothing but her viewpoint and opinion. Anyone is allowed to agree or disagree, however, accusing the S&D MEP of anti-Semitism is a serious accusation that goes a step further.

If the Israeli organisations are to openly attack every individual who speaks up against the conduct of Israel, a fair discussion ought to be hailed where a full picture should be considered when accusing someone’s actions and behavior.

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