March 26, 2010

Gagging Palestine protests

Here's Mike Marqusee on the charges facing the Edinburgh 5 over their protesting the visit of "ambassadors for Israel", the Jerusalem Quartet, about 18 months ago:
March 29th will see the resumption in an Edinburgh court of an extraordinary trial with disturbing implications for freedom of expression and campaigners for Palestinian rights.

Back in August 2008, five members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign disrupted an Edinburgh performance of the Jerusalem Quartet, who are promoted and indeed contracted to act as official ambassadors of the Israeli state and specifically the Israel Defence Forces. The protesters shouted “End the siege of Gaza”, “Boycott Israel”, “Israel is an apartheid state”, “Stand up for human rights” and similar slogans, were detained by security guards, handed over to the police and charged with a breach of the peace.

So far, so familiar, at least to political campaigners. But astonishingly, seven months later, the Procurator Fiscal, the prosecuting agency in Scotland, decided to replace the breach of the peace charge with the much more serious charge of “racially aggravated conduct.” The PF now claimed that the SPSC protesters had “made comments about Jews, Israelis, and the State of Israel… evincing malice and ill will” towards the musicians because of “their membership or presumed membership of an ethnic group”.

At the first stage of the trial In January, it was revealed that although the police had interviewed the performers and many of the 1000 strong audience, not one had reported or complained of any anti-semitic comments. What’s more, a high quality audio recording of the entire event made by the BBC confirmed that no comments of any kind had been made about Jews. As a result the PF agreed to to strike the word “Jews” from the charge. Defence counsel requested that the term “Israelis” also be removed since the only reference to “Israelis” was when one of the protesters stated: “Daniel Barenboim is an Israeli of conscience; we support all Israelis of conscience.” In this case the PF declined to amend the charge, possibly because it would then accuse the defendants of nothing more than making “comments about the State of Israel”.

Dropping the word “Jews” from the charge made the PF’s claim that the protesters evinced hostility to the Quartet because of “their membership or presumed membership of an ethnic group” problematic. When defence counsel made the point that “Israelis” are not an “ethnic group”, the PF proposed that the words “or nationality” be added to the charge.

Ironically, in Israel itself there is no such thing as “Israeli nationality”. Israeli citizens are classified into one of some 126 ‘nationalities’, including Jewish, Tatar, Samaritan, Russian, etc. Israeli citizens who have sought to change their official nationality from “Jewish” to “Israeli” have been persistently rebuffed by the Israeli courts.

So the PF is now in the position of charging the SPSC protesters with offending a “nationality” whose existence is denied by its official representatives. That, of course, is only one of the many unintentional ironies embedded in the prosecution’s muddled logic. The implication of the amended charge is that to protest against the representatives of a state is to offend or harass them because of their “membership of a nationality”. The PF’s charge could apply with equal justice, or lack thereof, to those who demonstrated against the visit of the Chinese president. The danger here is obvious: that the state is enabled to proscribe protest against the representatives of foreign countries.

I suppose we can expect more of this sort of thing the more the more people realise that there is simply no case for Israel.


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