Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and fellow Labour MP Zarah Sultana have been urged to explain their participation at a rally held by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Stop the War Coalition, where the crowd called for Hamas to “blow up” an Israeli city.
Both politicians addressed the anti-Israel event held in Whitehall on Saturday 14 May, at which hundreds gathered to hear speeches condemning Israel, accusing it of apartheid and urging the international community to launch sanctions similar to those in place against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
During the event a large group of participants was heard chanting in Arabic: “Abu Ubaida…blow up (the Israeli city) Kiryat Shmona.”
Abu Ubaida is spokesman of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, better known as Hamas’s military arm. A native Arabic speaker identified the chanting for the Board of Deputies.
Board president Marie van der Zyl has written to both politicians urging them to condemn the violence being called for at the event.
The letter to McDonnell states: “In your rally speech, you said you would fight any attempt to ban the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) in this country. The founders of the BDS campaign have made it clear that they do not seek Israel to change its policies, but rather desire the destruction of Israel as a whole. Still, BDS claims to be a form of non-violent protest. So we assume that, as a Member of Parliament, you will have no problem making it completely clear that you condemn the violence being supported at the event you chose to participate in.”
It continues: “Given your appearance at this rally and the all-but-inevitable behaviour of some of those present, we would ask you to publicly disassociate yourself from the actions of those at the rally.”
McDonnell responded on Sunday morning, writing: “I was not aware of the speeches or chants you have cited in your letter but let me make it absolutely clear that of course I disassociate myself from and condemn any antisemitic statements, speeches or chants or calls for violence if they took place here or on any other occasion. I always have and will always do so.
“One can never control what others say or do at any public gathering but if actions take place that I disagree with, once this has been pointed out, it is right and important to explain one’s own position.
“With regard to your comments on BDS, again let me make it absolutely clear that I support the policy of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions, actually like many Israeli and Jewish colleagues, as a means of exerting pressure on the Israeli government to secure a just and fair treatment of the Palestinian people, nothing more.”
Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, has long used her platform to publicly accuse Israel of “war crimes”. In 2015 she tweeted that she would “celebrate” the death of then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In response to Van Der Zyl’s letter, Sultana, who left the demo after speaking said on Monday morning: “I did not hear the chant you reference, and I was not at the demonstration at the time you flag in the recording.
“I have no hesitation in disassociating myself from such chants, or in condemning any instance of antisemitism.
“As I am sure you will appreciate, it is impossible for speakers from the main stage of public gatherings like this, which was attended by an estimated 15,000 people, to be aware of the behaviour of every member of the crowd.
“Last May, after a horrifying and widely-reported incident of antisemitic abuse on Finchley Road, I publicly condemned it and expressed my solidarity with the Jewish community in London.
“As I stated then: the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom is anti-racist at its heart, driven by a conviction that all peoples should live in equality and with dignity.
“Antisemitism can therefore have no place in the Palestine solidarity movement. I will continue to insist on this, as it is incredibly important to me that my anti-racism is universal, and that – especially as minority communities in Britain – we work to build safety through solidarity.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer recently made clear he will not tolerate his MPs associating with the Stop The War Coalition after 11, including both McDonnell and Sultana, signed a letter from the group condemning NATO and accusing Britain of “sabre rattling” over President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. All 11 later withdrew their names under threat of having the Labour whip withdrawn.
Starmer told Jewish News: “I don’t think anybody can be under any doubt that under my leadership we won’t tolerate antisemitism in the Labour party, nor will we tolerate this false equivalence between Russian aggression and NATO. The MPs have both put out statements to condemn the chants at that particular demonstration, but there’s no doubt as to what I stand for.”
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