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UK government conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in Salah trial

Asa Winstanley

30-raed-salah.jpg

Sheikh Raed Salah was arrested in the UK on 28 June and has been since been subject to deportation proceedings.(Asa Winstanley/The Electronic Intifada)


September 30, 2011

Renowned Palestinian activist and religious leader Sheikh Raed Salah was at the UK’s Sheldon immigration court in Birmingham this week. His appeal against the government’s decision in June to ban him from the country is now being heard in earnest, with testimonies from Salah and several expert witnesses on Monday and Tuesday. In a related development, the High Court in London today ruled that part of Salah’s dention in June was unlawful.

For the first time, the government named as a "principle source" in its case against Salah the Community Security Trust (CST), a registered British charity with a record of smearing critics of Israel as anti-Semitic, and the only non-government source named in court. A day-one promise to check on further sources was not fulfilled on the second day.

Leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Salah entered the UK legally on 25 June for a speaking tour that included the Houses of Parliament. While Home Secretary Theresa May later said she banned him on 23 June, the Home Office now admits it had not told anyone about the exclusion order — least of all Salah or his tour organizers.

Salah was arrested on 28 June and detained for almost three weeks until released by a High Court judge on restrictive bail conditions. The Home Office is seeking to deport him, but were initially blocked from doing so when Salah launched an appeal.

The Electronic Intifada was in Birmingham, closely following the two-day proceedings. A panel consisting of Senior Immigration Judge N.W. Renton and Immigration Judge C.J. Lloyd listened quietly as witnesses were called by the legal teams of Salah and the Home Office.

Day one: Government witness cross-examined at length

Acting for the government, barrister Neil Sheldon called a single witness: Jonathan Rosenorn-Lanng, a senior case worker with the UK Border Agency (or UKBA, a part of the Home Office). Acting for Salah, Raza Husain then spent almost the entire day Monday cross-examining Rosenorn-Lanng.

Rosenorn-Lanng was the case worker from the UKBA’s Special Cases Directorate who prepared the secret document presented to the Home Secretary used as the basis for the exclusion order against Salah. Although he repeatedly emphasized under cross-examination that he was just a case worker and "would not pretend to be an expert at all" on Israel and the Palestinians, he said evidence he presents to the Home Secretary in such cases is always checked by experts in the relevant country or by "community experts."

Husain pressed him to reveal precisely who had first asked for Salah to be banned from the UK, and who were the sources. Rosenorn-Lanng said he didn’t know how the case first came to the attention of the Home Secretary, but he claimed "the Jewish community" had felt threatened by Salah’s presence. Husain asked who exactly he meant by "the Jewish community," pointing to several passages from the document. Rosenorn-Lanng confirmed four specific portions were obtained either directly from the CST, or from the CST via the government’s Department for Communities and Local Government.

Husain then questioned the credibility of the CST, citing the testimony of their witness Dr. Robert Lambert, retired head of the Metropolitan Police’s Muslim Contact Unit. Dr. Lambert testified that the CST "often tends to be biased" when it comes to Muslim criticisms of Israel, regularly conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Rosenorn-Lanng said the UK government considers the group to be "fair and balanced." At one point he commented that "we haven’t used every single thing the CST sent to us" and also pointed to a "small [UKBA] research team that has access to a number of websites."

Salah’s attorney pressed Rosenorn-Lanng on places the CST (and hence also the UKBA) had misquoted, misrepresented and taken out of context Salah’s words to make it appear as if he was an anti-Semite. The UKBA document even has quotes from Salah in which the word "Jews" is inserted, it was said in court. Husain asked if the witnesses considered it misleading that in one version of a quote he had rendered the words "you Jews" outside of quote marks whereas in another version it was inside quote marks. Rosenorn-Lanng said it wasn’t misleading, characterizing it as a different presentation based on updated evidence.

Husain said the actual target of Salah’s condemnation was not Jews in general but the Israeli state, saying he was clearly not referring to notable Jewish critics of Israel such as Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe or Geoffrey Bindman (a British lawyer who put up some bail money for Salah).

Rosenorn-Lanng attempted to defend the credibility of the CST, at one point making the Freudian slip of describing it as a "eminent Israeli organization" before correcting himself that he meant to say "eminent Jewish organization."

Salah accuses his critics of deliberately misquoting him

On Tuesday, proceedings accelerated as Salah’s team squeezed three DVDs of video evidence and all four of its witnesses in before the end of the two-day slot allocated by the court system. Dr. Stefan Sperl, an expert in Arabic poetry from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, gave an analysis of the original text of a poem by Salah called "A Message to the Oppressors" saying it was addressed to all "perpetrators of injustice," whether Jews or not. He said a Jerusalem Post article characterizing it as anti-Semitic was deliberately misleading. A version with the words "you Jews" inserted into the poem seems to have been used in the UKBA document.

Dr. Lambert, the retired head of the Metropolitan Police’s Muslim Contact Unit, testified in person that while the CST had a good record in the realm of public safety in terms of its role in providing security for Jewish communities, it was difficult for it to understand that legitimate political grievances with Israel and anti-Zionism were quite distinct from anti-Semitism.

David Miller, a sociology professor from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, submitted his report on the CST as part of the evidence, and provided a copy of that report to The Electronic Intifada. It gives a short history of the CST and its "controversial monitoring of pro-Palestinian activists," summarizing that it has a "tendency to treat denunciation of Israel or Zionism as evidence of anti-Semitism."

Although perhaps most famous for its role in recording anti-Semitic incidents, and providing security for the UK Jewish community, the CST has been accused by some in that community of having a deeply pro-Israel agenda. Tony Greenstein, an anti-Zionist activist and blogger with a strong record of criticizing anti-Semites, has written about occasions when CST security have removed or barred Jewish anti-Zionists from public meetings. Greenstein also says the CST refused to record an anti-Semitic attack left on his blog because the commenter was a Zionist (see "CST Thugs Violently Eject 2 Jewish People from Zionist 'Environmental’ Meeting", "Community Security Thugs Bar Jewish Opponents of Gaza War from Liberal Judaism Meeting" and "When is an anti-semitic attack not anti-semitic? When it’s a Zionist who is being anti-Jewish," Tony Greenstein’s blog).

But the centerpiece of the second day was the testimony of Raed Salah himself. Confidently speaking through a court translator, Salah assertively challenged Sheldon’s cross-examination and the government evidence for misrepresenting his words. On several occasions, he challenged Sheldon to quote him more fully and in context, questioning why he stopped some quotationss short.

For example, the words "you Jews" had been inserted into the original text of Salah’s poem (without even square brackets), seemingly by the Israeli press ("Civil liberties, The Jerusalem Post," 20 June 2009).

That Jerusalem Post article was cited by UK bloggers who campaigned against Salah, such as Michael Weiss, to misleadingly portray him as an anti-Semite. Rosenorn-Lanng had earlier admitted that the UKBA had not sought the original text of the poem, relying instead on Internet sources ("PSC comes to Parliament …," The Telegraph politics blog, 29 June 2011).

But Salah was clear that the poem was addressed to all perpetrators of injustice, regardless of religion, race or group. He pointed out that his poem also addressed Arab oppressors with certain references to the Quran, and also addresses Pharaoh as an oppressor. Salah said according to a certain historical interpretation of the Biblical and Quranic stories, Pharaoh was an Arab. And that he had oppressed the followers of Moses. "God is not a racist," Salah said.

Aside from the mangled version of his poem, the other main citation the government gave was a speech Salah gave in Jerusalem in 2007, in which he had talked about Israeli soldiers shedding the blood of Palestinians. The citation had reportedly included the line: "Whoever wants a more thorough explanation, let him ask what used to happen to some children in Europe, whose blood was mixed in with the dough of the holy bread."

Hostile press coverage in Israel inserted the word "Jewish" in square brackets before the words "holy bread" ("Islamic Movement head charged with incitement to racism, violence," Haaretz, 29 January 2008).

But Salah’s legal team argued that he was actually referring to the Spanish Inquisition.

When Sheldon accused Salah of invoking the classically anti-Semitic blood libel, Salah countered: "this interpretation is out of bounds, and has no origin in fact." He then went into some detail, saying that his purpose had been to liken the Israeli occupation forces to the inquisitions in Europe that used to shed the blood of children, and which used religion to perpetuate injustice.

Another government accusation against Salah was that he had encouraged Palestinians to become "shahids" (martyrs) in defense of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Rosenorn-Lanng had repeatedly used the Arabic word instead of the obvious translation. Salah again patiently went into some detail to explain the meaning of the word martyr. He clearly stated that, should the Israelis ever demolish al-Aqsa Mosque, he and other Muslims would refuse to leave the mosque, even it it meant their martyrdom at the hands of the Israelis.

There was a similar government attempt to misrepresent the word "intifada," which Sheldon classified as dangerous language. Salah explained he was referring to a civic uprising against injustice, and as proof of this pointed to his call in the relevant speech to lawyers, heads of state, scholars and political parties to join the intifada.

At the end of the second day, the hearing was adjourned until Monday, 3 October, when the two attorneys will sum up their cases. After that, a judgment is expected within ten days.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Raed Salah is still living in London on bail, and must regularly report to the authorities, wear an electronic tag, refrain from addressing the public and observe a night-time curfew. Salah could return to Palestine if he chooses, but is staying in order to clear his name, and challenge the government ban.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He edited the book "Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation", out in October. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

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