U.K. Jewish Groups Enraged After Amnesty Cancels London Israel Event

Jewish organizations accuse Amnesty of stifling freedom of expression. Human rights group cites ‘significant concerns’ over participation of Hillel Neuer of UN Watch

Members of Amnesty International stage a silent protest against Israel's attacks on Gaza, near the main Taksim Square in central Istanbul January 17, 2009.
REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Jewish organizations in Britain have been angered by Amnesty International U.K.'s decision to cancel a joint event on Israel at its London headquarters, and are accusing the human rights group of being motivated by anti-Zionist bias.

Amnesty U.K. has denied barring Jewish groups from its premises, saying that the decision to cancel the event was the result of “significant concerns” over the speakers scheduled to participate.

A panel organized by the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) was due to have been held this week at the NGO’s London headquarters.

The event discussing the U.N. Human Rights Council and Israel was to feature prominent activist Hillel Neuer of UN Watch, a Geneva-based group that monitors U.N. activities.

However, on Friday, the JLC received an email telling them that the panel could no-longer take place at Amnesty’s headquarters.

Kerry Moscogiuri, Amnesty International UK’s director of supporter campaigning and communications, said in the email that a wide range of organizations hold events at their offices “but we reserve the right to withhold permission for our building to be used by organizations whose work runs directly counter to our own.

“We are currently campaigning for all governments around the world to ban the import of goods produced in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories. We do not think it’s appropriate for Amnesty to host an event by an organization that actively supports Israel’s settlements.

“We apologise for any inconvenience that this cancellation may have caused.”

JLC CEO Simon Johnson said that the decision was “outrageous,” adding that “the idea of freedom of speech applies to everyone but Jewish groups.”

He explained that in August 2017 his organization had asked Amnesty if they would be willing to host a panel at their London offices. The suggestion had come as part of extensive talks to try and build bridges between the two organizations. Jewish leaders have in the past fiercely criticized Amnesty for what they described as an ongoing obsession with criticizing Israel. 

Amnesty initially agreed to host and participate in the event, although in October the human rights body said it could no longer send a representative to take part in the panel but still offered to hold it at its offices.

The JLC had faced criticism for even agreeing to participate in an event hosted at Amnesty’s London premises. Johnson said that he had engaged directly with a number of people who objected.

“I argued that we had to do something to get the debate with Amnesty normalized, to try a different approach,” he said. Now, however, he continued, “we are at our wits’ end with them.”

Johnson also said he was appalled by the manner of the cancellation, via email on a Friday evening after the start of Shabbat.

“Where’s the understanding of our culture? They’re not stupid, they know exactly what they’re doing,” he said.

The JLC said that the panel, to be chaired by human rights barrister Danny Friedman and featuring speakers including Fred Carver of the UN Association, a grassroots advocacy movement, would now be held when alternative premises were found.

In an unusually harshly-worded press release, titled “Amnesty International UK slams the door in the face of British Jews,” JLC chairman Jonathan Goldstein said, “It is disgraceful that a Jewish charity is barred from the offices of Amnesty International UK.”

“We have long argued that the aggressive criticism of Israeli government policy creates an environment where anti-Semitism thrives and it is highly regrettable that on this occasion Amnesty International UK’s decision has targeted the Jewish community,” he added.

The decision has outraged other community leaders too. Jonathan Arkush, the head of Anglo-Jewry’s main representative body, the Board of Deputies, tweeted that at Amnesty “’the fight for human rights never sleeps’, except of course when it’s about Jews and @AmnestyUK disagrees with their views, so it shuts down debate. An unbelievably ill-advised display of bigotry and intolerance.”

An Amnesty spokesman said that the decision to host the event had been made “without our normal internal review procedures being followed. This was a human error and should not have happened in the first place.”

However, the spokesman made clear that they also had issues with speakers booked for the event.

“The presence of UN Watch raised significant concerns with partner organizations. Partners and colleagues – both Israeli and Palestinian – working on the ground felt this connection with Amnesty could put their vital human rights work at risk,” he said. UN Watch “actively campaign against Amnesty’s policy on both the settlements and settlement goods. The pro-settlement and anti-accountability positions of UN Watch and Hillel Neuer are fundamentally opposed to the stance AIUK has taken on the issue of settlements.” 

Amnesty highlighted a December 2017 article in which they said that UN Watch made clear that it was “patently pro-settlement,” which conflicts with AIUK’s stance that the settlements “are illegal and serve as the epicentre of severe and systematic human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians.”

The JLC and two of its partner organizations – the Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies – also did not escape criticism.

Amnesty noted that all three “were leaders in a rally in January 2017 against U.N. Resolution 2334, condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. JLC CEO Simon Johnson told the crowd ‘The United Nations has once again shown its obsession with Israel at a time when there has been slaughter in Syria and Iraq.’”

The JLC represents 34 communal organizations, including social care bodies and synagogues. Johnson said that their public and institutional position was one of support for a two-state solution.

“They [Amnesty] are telling us that we support settlements, with no evidence,” he said.

“I think they are holding us to different standards than any other community. They want to host very anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian groups, they see no bar to that. Everyone can form their own views as to whether that counts as anti-Semitism.”