What was being widely tipped by council-watchers as a potentially acrimonious and divisive debate on where Hastings Borough Council stands on anti-semitism turned out to be something of a damp squib for those expecting fireworks!
With the exception of Councillor Leah Levane, who abstained, all other members present at last night’s ‘virtual’ council meeting agreed the authority should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definitions of anti-semitism.
It was independent councillor Dany Louise who put forward the motion. She resigned from the Labour Party in early 2019 and said at the time: “Sensible people have long ago abandoned the Hastings and Rye branch of the Labour Party,” saying she said had been ‘driven out’ because Labour had become a ‘welcoming environment for antisemities’.
In the hours before HBC councillors met yesterday they all received a personal letter from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council asking them to support the motion.
The letter said that HBC’s delay in voting to implement the IHRA definition had already sent a message to the Jewish community that Hastings was ‘relaxed’ about antisemitism. It warned that anything other than adoption of the IHRA definitions in full would suggest that HBC thought it understood antisemitism better than Jewish people themselves.
Hastings is a Community of Sanctuary and a town with increasingly diverse communities and residents. It is also a town troubled by antisemitic elements, which has resulted in distress and discomfort for some of those residents.
At last night’s meeting Ms Louise told councillors: “Figures show that antisemitic hate crimes, along with all religious hate crimes, have risen alarmingly in the last five years.
“In 2018 – 2019, antisemitism accounted for 18 per cent of all religious hate crime in the UK, despite the Jewish population being a tiny minority of only 260,000 people in the whole of Britain.
“In the last few years, antisemitism has entered the national public discourse in a truly frightening and morally repugnant way. Where once it was the preserve of the far right, it has now become commonplace on the left as well. Shockingly, there has been widespread denial of this fact, with far too many people somehow casting it as yet another Jewish conspiracy theory. The denial itself has become another form of antisemitism, enthusiastically entertained by many who would otherwise call themselves part of the Community of the Good.
“Antisemitism is of course racism, and racism is unacceptable in any civilised, educated and enlightened society. It shouldn’t need saying, but sadly it does: Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem, it is a societal problem, and it has to be tackled by civil, social and political institutions and organisations. It must yet again be banished to the crank margins and there must be no doubt that it is utterly unacceptable in mainstream society.
“Hastings is a Community of Sanctuary and a town with increasingly diverse communities and residents. It is also a town troubled by antisemitic elements, which has resulted in distress and discomfort for some of those residents.
“Examples have included shortlisting and interviewing a known antisemite as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate; several and repeated invitations to known antisemites to address public meetings; numerous problematic and misleading articles on local media and an unwelcome and regular PSC and JVL presence in the town.
“As a councillor I have emails from residents who are frightened they will be targeted for social media backlash if they speak out against this. Individuals tell me they will not speak out because they are not confident that the town’s institutions, including this council, will back them. I myself have experienced antisemitism that has included personalised written and verbal attacks for rightly calling antisemitism out, along with institutional bullying.
“As an enthusiastic fan of Hastings town, and as a councillor, I am appalled and deeply saddened that I find it necessary to stand in this council chamber and speak publicly about this.
“I beg this council to recognise that it needs to lead by example on anti-racist conduct and the growing tide of antisemitism we are seeing in this country, by adopting and implementing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, or IHRA for short. The IHRA definition is the most widely accepted and recognised definition of anti-Jewish racism, and the vast majority of the Jewish community welcomes it as providing the protection they need.
“The 11 examples provide the necessary context and detail by which it becomes possible to identify antisemitic conduct and therefore address it. This is very helpful for when antisemites pretend their antisemitism is legitimate comment and activity, as they very frequently do. I have detailed all 11 examples as part of this Motion.
“I also remind this Council that the 11 examples are indivisible from the definition. There is no half IHRA, and the IHRA organisation makes it very clear that no varying of the definition is possible by saying: ‘Any modified version of the IHRA definition that does not include all of its 11 examples is no longer the IHRA definition.’
“I also remind you that it (adoption of the IHRA definitions) is formal Labour and Conservative Party policy.
“Therefore I call on this Council to join with over 260 other local authorities, and 642 out of 643 MPs, to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, with all its working examples, to be included from this day forward in the council’s policy and working practices.”
Backed by the Labour group on the council Councillor Judy Rogers proposed an amendment and asked for an addition to the motion that said: “In agreeing this definition and these examples we also endorse the Home Affairs select committee recommendations to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine, without allowing antisemitism to permeate any debate. Namely: It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent. It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent. We will uphold the rights of the people of Hastings to criticise or challenge any government for their abuse of basic human and democratic rights.”
While expressing a view that the amendment was unnecessary because it did not fundamentally change her motion, Ms Louise accepted it’s inclusion.
Before the vote was taken a number of councillors spoke expressing, in a number of ways, the fundamental message that it was essential to stamp out antisemitism. When the roll call vote was taken 27 members voted in favour, none against with Ms Levane abstaining.
Ms Levane is co-chair of a group called Jewish Voice for Labour which has at its heart to: “…oppose attempts to widen the definition of antisemitism beyond its meaning of hostility towards, or discrimination against, Jews as Jews.”
On two occasions since last night’s meeting we have asked Ms Levane for a comment on why she felt the need to abstain but have not received a reply.