London’s Palestine Expo reveals weaknesses of the UK’s counter-extremism strategy

Last weekend (8-9 July), Palestine Expo 2017 took place at the QEII Centre, a government owned building in the heart of Westminster. Many thousands attended a series of events intended to celebrate Palestinian culture. In practice, the conference also served as a platform for controversial speakers with a history of extremism.

The Communities Minister Sajid Javid initially challenged the organisers – Friends of Al Aqsa (FOA) – for their alleged support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Friends of Al Aqsa has a record of publishing writers with a history of anti-Semitic views such as the Holocaust denier Paul Eisen, Gilad Atzmon, Israel Shamir and Khalid Amayreh. Friends of Al Aqsa also recently supported the 2017 Al Quds Day rally in which Hezbollah banners were openly displayed and anti-Semitic rhetoric was commonplace.

There was a specific focus on students at the events. The website advertised a ‘Student Hub’ which promised to host “lively panel discussions and workshops” giving students “the tools to be effective advocates” as well as demonstrate “how to use creativity and the arts as a form of campaigning”. The conference had been widely shared on student Facebook pages such as the UCL Friends of Palestine Society.

In addition to the student dimension, the website mentioned that ‘Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods’ and ‘Free Speech on Israel’ intended to host a workshop discussing “false allegations of anti-Semitism in the movement”. This is significant in light of recent anti-Semitism scandals at university where concerns about anti-Semitism were openly dismissed, as in the case of the Oxford University Labour Club.

One of the most troubling speakers was Sheikh Ebrahim Bham, a South African cleric who has actedas an interpreter to a senior official in the Taliban, rejected gender equality as “absurd”, called homosexuality “wrong” and “evil”, and cited a comparison of Jews to “fleas” by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Although he has distanced himself from Goebbels’ comments on Jews, Bham has defended his wider point which was that “given what the Jews had undergone… Israel should be more sensitive of the human rights of Palestinians and not regard them as sub human.” The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism – which has been formally adopted by the UK government – emphasizes that “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is a form of prejudice towards Jewish people. Ironically, Bham’s poor explanation of his past comments highlights the disturbing anti-Semitic views that he holds.

Sheikh Bham has also dismissed the security concerns of the South African Jewish community, singling out a rabbi for supposedly inciting “violence against members of the Muslim community” as well as accusing “clandestine Zionist-linked security agencies” of harassing “innocent civilians at public facilities”.

In spite of his past record, Bham was allowed to enter the country and attend the conference on Sunday, where he spoke about the centrality of Jerusalem in Islamic history.

Following these revelations, a number of MPs, ex-servicemen and campaigners against anti-Semitism signed an open letter in the Daily Telegraph that called upon the Prime Minister to stopgovernment buildings being exploited by “groups which oppose our values and ideals.” Despite all of these concerns, the latter announced that necessary background checks had taken place and concluded that the conference could go ahead “following careful consideration”.

We at Student Rights are especially alarmed by the outreach and focus on students and young people at Palestine Expo 2017. This conference – which was advertised as “a social, cultural and entertainment event” – provided a guise of legitimacy for extremist views at a prestigious venue in the heart of Central London. It is highly disturbing that many of the young attendees will have been drawn to events involving some of these speakers. We strongly urge the government to consider steps that would prevent public buildings from being used by these organisers in future.

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