A march through Glasgow last weekend organised by Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) has caused some considerable debate among a number of campaign groups and individuals. At issue was the attempt by pro-Israel lobby group Confederation of Friends of Israel Scotland (CoFIS) to participate in the demonstration.
Understandably, and not uncommon to many left/progressive exchanges, this matter has generated no small amount of divisive feeling. However, that should not deter us from fair, critical comment and constructive reflection. In that spirit, I'd like to address three main aspects of this issue.
1. The problem with CoFIS's participation in this event.
2. The mistakes SUTR made in their response to this situation.
3. How it could have been better handled, and other lessons to be drawn.
1. The first things to note is that SUTR did not specifically 'invite' CoFIS to this demonstration. Many people within and supportive of SUTR also issued comments on CoFIS, ranging from dislike to outright rejection. Many expressed a wish for CoFIS not to be on the rally.
However, the key problem here lay not in such non-invitations or individual reservations, but in SUTR's refusal to issue a formal statement rejecting CoFIS as an organisation. In this sense, SUTR did 'provide' an implicit 'invitation' to CoFIS.
It was the specific absence of any clear statement from SUTR declaring CoFIS unwelcome that compelled all main Palestinian solidarity groups and other bodies to register their concerns and objections.
Another thing that should be clarified here is that no Palestinian solidarity group has ever called for Jews to be banned or removed from this or any other event. Any such call would be abhorrent. Even if such stewarding was logistically possible, it would be utterly wrong, and quite clearly anti-Semitic.
Again, the specific question here concerns the standing of a particular organisation, one which openly supports, approves and campaigns for a racist, apartheid state, the very forms of institutional discrimination which SUTR profess to be standing against.
CoFIS are not being opposed because of the religious affiliation of their members (many of whom are, in fact, Christians as well as Jews) but because of their support for Israel and its racist/apartheid oppression of Palestinians.
Beyond CoFIS's own well-peddled narrative, this is not an issue about Jews, it's an elementary issue about human rights: the right not to be a victim of racism/apartheid; and the right to resist any organisation which openly supports a state, military and civil apparatus dedicated to the perpetuation of that racist/apartheid treatment.
A cursory look at CoFIS's reactionary literature (much of it provided by right-wing bodies Stand With Us and Christians United for Israel), social media postings, campaigning postures and deceitful banners claiming to be 'pro-Palestinian' is enough to see what this organisation really represents.
Beyond any reasonable mitigation, it's very hard to understand how SUTR could have been unaware of CoFIS's zealous pro-Israel status, and how completely antithetical those positions should be to SUTR's own supposed aims and values.
A key claim aired by SUTR was that its movement encompasses people of many political positions, and that the theme of the march - resisting Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and standing up for refugees - could not include Palestine as a 'defining' point, or that it 'didn't fit the criteria'.
This is not only a straw man argument, with regard to the obvious diversity of political opinions, but a more troubling evasion of SUTR's supposed objectives.
Of course, even on a demonstration such as this, there will be many diverse views held by participating individuals. But, again, it's the presence of a particular racist-supporting organisation that matters here.
Groups like the Scottish Defence League insist they are not racist, that they are 'merely defending national interests'. Would SUTR defend the right of such an organisation to march with them? Of course not. They understand precisely what this organisation represents, and would shun them as hostile interlopers.
The same principle applies to CoFIS. Why didn't SUTR look at what this organisation really represents, and act accordingly?
If one accepts that Israel is an apartheid/racist state - as every major Palestinian solidarity group, and many civil and political others, do - then this is the criterion against which CoFIS participation in an SUTR event most certainly should be judged.
Some SUTR advocates also argue that these kind of marches, in continued opposition to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and purging of refugees, is the best way to support oppressed Palestinians.
This, again, is feeble mitigation. The idea that Palestinians will take any kind of comfort from such 'solidarity' is not only risible but deeply patronising. SUTR's failure to issue any formal disapproval of an organisation working consistently against Palestinian rights is the very last kind of 'support' Palestinians need.
One need only consider the group of Palestinian firefighters in Scotland last week, courtesy of the FBU, who felt unable to join a march that included a CoFIS organisation banner and Israeli flags, all visible and humiliating symbols of their oppression.
It should also be noted that to be seen standing alongside such images risks interpretation by other Palestinians as collaboration.
What's really at the heart of SUTR's positioning here is a fear of being labelled anti-Semitic. And this is why it's so important for bodies like SUTR not to fall for that mendacious narrative.
Progressive people and organisations should be under no illusions about the power and resources of Israel's lobby machine in its relentless determination to smear opponents and distort the issue. That's why they should be particularly alert to front groups like CoFIS trying to build respectable cover for their racist/apartheid supporting activities.
2. As the issues and implications over this march began to surface, a number of solidarity groups and others began making representations to SUTR. These included Scottish Friends of Palestine, Association of Palestinian Community - Scotland, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SAAC).
In addition, Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign (GPHRC) expressed their objections, pointing out that, as a street body, it has been raising public awareness (with leaflets and other information) about CoFIS, and its associate group Glasgow Friends of Israel (GFI), since their appearance over two years ago.
An SUTR steering meeting was convened the week before the march to discuss a motion calling for SUTR to oppose CoFIS's participation. That motion, presented by SUTR affiliate SAAC, was subsequently rejected.
A demonstration outside of this meeting was held by the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), which had raised early warnings of SUTR's refusal to issue a statement rejecting CoFIS.
Despite having a close interest in the issue, GPHRC, as a non-SUTR affiliate, was not allowed access to the meeting.
In recognition of all these growing concerns, the UK-wide Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) had also written to SUTR. Besides its conciliatory tone, it's important to note here the PSC's specific detailing of CoFIS as "the most offensive propagators of anti-Palestinian narratives", and calling this to the attention of SUTR.
Here's the exchange:
As can be seen, SUTR's response here amounts to no more than a reiteration of their rigid 'criteria', list of affiliates and call to join the march. It made no effort to engage the PSC's substantive points.
With no indication of SUTR addressing these concerns, or shifting its position, every major Palestine solidarity group withdrew their support for the march.
Besides the PSC's call, a boycott of the march was advocated by Scottish Friends of Palestine, Association of Palestinian Community - Scotland, Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Muslim Council of Scotland, an ad hoc group of Jewish anti-racists, and SAAC. The Communist Party (Scotland) also announced its non-participation in rejection of CoFIS and in support of Palestinians.
Consequently, SUTR's demonstration went ahead without the participation of an entire pro-Palestinian movement, Scotland's official Muslim organisation, and a number of other political/civil bodies. That, by any reasonable measure, is a significant loss to a body seeking to build a unified anti-racist movement.
CoFIS did attempt to participate in the march, but were successfully slowed down and held back from the rally's main body by a commendable pro-Palestine grouping from West Dunbartonshire, carrying an imaginative representation of Israel's apartheid wall. The RCG also took a leading role in stalling CoFIS from marching.
3. Many questions, thus, have to be asked about SUTR's failure to engage the wide concerns over CoFIS's presence, its fear of being falsely labelled/smeared as anti-Semitic, and its apparent inability to handle the issue in more principled and unifying ways.
So, what else might SUTR have done here?
Rather than the decision taken, SUTR could have followed the approach of Artists for Palestine UK (AFP).
In response to a 2017 Edinburgh 'Shalom' festival, organised by CoFIS and GFI, AFP issued a clear statement exposing CoFIS as a front organisation for the promotion of 'Brand Israel', and defender of Israel's apartheid/racist state.
Like AFP, SUTR were not obliged to approach CoFIS on the matter. AFP did not write directly to CoFIS. Rather, they made their position clear in an open letter signed by multiple figures, including Ken Loach and Paul Laverty, stating: "We call for a boycott of the misnamed "Shalom Festival", which promotes, not "peace", but the apartheid State of Israel and its occupation."
SUTR could have issued a similar-styled statement denouncing CoFIS and its attempted participation on their march.
People reading AFP's statement and article were helpfully informed about CoFIS's real agenda, and the case for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) as a public counter-measure.
SUTR could have adopted that same approach - even without approving BDS.
Specifically, SUTR could have made a clear public statement saying that it had:
Looked closely at CoFIS as an organisation.
Felt deeply concerned about its aggressive pro-Israel positions.
Realised that CoFIS was using the SUTR demonstration as a vehicle for its own agenda.
Feared that CoFIS was intent on dividing SUTR and Palestinian solidarity groups.
Concluded that CoFIS support for Israel's apartheid/racist state was incompatible with SUTR's own aims and values.
Stated that CoFIS, as an organisation, was not welcome at any SUTR event.
Having issued this open statement, CoFIS would, in turn, have had to consider whether it still wished to participate in such an event. If it decided not to, complaining that it had been excluded for anti-Semitic reasons, SUTR only had to repeat and defend their statement, rejecting this spurious claim. If CoFIS did appear at the march, SUTR would have been under no obligation to try and enforce their removal. Again, the statement deploring CoFIS as an organisation, and the reasons behind their attempted participation, would have been sufficient.
Others, within or beyond the march, would have been equally free to express their own peaceful opposition to such participation.
Any 'adverse' media fallout could, likewise, have been used to re-state SUTR's position, insisting that, as a hostile body and apartheid/racist-supporting organisation, CoFIS did not adhere to SUTR's own basic tenets. Rather than fear the publicity this might generate, SUTR and supporting organisations could have used the opportunity to reaffirm their common opposition to racism, and to bodies that openly, or as front groups, seek to defend Israel's racism/apartheid.
It's not intended here to castigate those SUTR associates with a long history of supporting Palestinian rights. It is, however, appropriate to ask that they now reflect carefully on SUTR's deeply misguided conduct, and its own damaged standing as an anti-racist organisation.
This issue, and SUTR's dismal mishandling of it, should serve as a wider lesson to those who think that the pro-Israel lobby can be ignored, placated or simply wished away.
You can't stand up to racism while turning your eyes from Israel's daily apartheid, and the organisations working to disguise it.
The evidence should be glaringly obvious to SUTR and any other body proclaiming serious anti-racist credentials.
While Palestinian child Ahed Tamimi's cruel incarceration and trial, over a minor slap, continues in a closed-door military court, an Israeli soldier has had his 18-month sentence for murdering a wounded Palestinian cut by a third.
An Arab family seeking to buy a piece of land in an Israeli town is refused permission by the mayor, fearing it would not be in keeping with its 'Jewish-Zionist nature'.
Palestinian workers are herded and crushed like caged animals on their way to menial work in Israel.
These are but small samples of Israel's routine racist crimes and apartheid practices, all of which CoFIS openly denies.
It's remarkable to think that, as Israel's inhuman treatment of occupied, bombed and imprisoned people intensifies, an anti-racist group here in Scotland could be so reticent and fearful in standing up to an organisation defending those very racist crimes.
As the building of real solidarity for Palestinians continues in Scotland, it's to be hoped that SUTR come to understand the need for true, decisive resistance to racist state apologists like CoFIS.