On July 14th the Times of Israel published an article by Brent Council leader Muhammed Butt headed ‘I’m sorry for sharing Israel slur – boycotts are wrong.’ LINK
The article came a considerable time after the minor storm that blew up over Butt’s sharing of a Facebook post of a video that showed an Israeli soldier mistreating a young Palestinian girl. It was not so much the video that led to Butt being accused of anti-Semitism but a comment beneath the video that likened Israel to Isis.
Sharing the video was taken as Butt’s approval of that sentiment. Anyone who engages in social media will know that in sharing a Facebook post decisions made in seconds and few would check all the comments that are made beneath the post.
At the time, when it appeared that the allegation may have been used against Butt ahead of the Brent Labour leadership election contest, I tweeted that there were many better reasons to oppose him. It was at a time when the mass media were in active pursuit of Jeremy Corbyn accusing him of anti-Semitism through his support for justice for the Palestinian people and Butt appeared to have been caught in the backwash.
At the time other Labour figures, including councillors, had been suspended while accusation of anti-Semitism were investigated and the Chakrabarti inquiry was set up. In the light of the publicity some were surprised that Butt had not been suspended.
There are several reasons why Butt’s article is curious.
- It is written in a style utterly difference from any of Butt’s previous utterances and articles – almost as if it had been written by someone else entirely.
- It comes long after the initial controversy, at a time when the Chakrabarti report appears to have calmed things down regarding anti-Semitism and the media have found new grounds for discrediting Corbyn. Was the article aimed at rehabilitating Butt after he resigned from London Councils as it lead on Equalities following the Facebook controversy?
- Butt’s linking of his apology to opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, a non-violent campaign aimed at changing Israeli government policy towards the Palestinians, including the Gaza blockade and the building of illegal settlements.
In his article Butt states:
As far as I can see, it [BDS] does nothing for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It only provides more ammunition to those who wish to divide and polarise. What it does do is make our own Jewish community feel isolated and disturbed as to why the world’s only Jewish state appears to be the focus of the most vociferous boycott movement. So when boycotters wanted Brent to cancel its contracts with vendors who do business in Israel, the decision to say no was one of the quickest and easiest I have had to make.
The rather vague reference to ‘vendors who do business in Israel’ can only be a reference to the Bin Veolia campaign, of which I was a part. The campaign was supported by many groups in Brent including Jews for Justice for Palestinians and was backed by Brent Central Labour Party GC, Butt’s local party. LINK
Our case was that Brent Council should not be handing over cash from Brent’s residents to a company that at the time (it has since withdrawn from these activities, arguably because of the national and international campaign against its involvement) provided infrastructural support to Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
Although ambivalent about boycotts of all Israeli goods, Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, is clear that the settlements are a ‘gross injustice’. LINK
Grahame Morris MP, Chair of LFPME said:
We should not have to boycott settlement goods; we should not be allowed to buy them in the first place. I am appalled that the government are more focused on preventing boycotts and disinvestment from the illegal settlements rather than attempting to end settlement trade.
This undermines their commitment to international law, human rights and resolving the conflict.
Cllr Butt’s statement claims that it was his decision to say no to a Council boycott. At the time he said that the decision on whether to boycott Veolia did not rest with him but with officers, particularly Fiona Ledden, head of Brent legal and prcorement at the time. He was concerned that Veolia, a large French-owned multi-national would take legal action against the Council.
The decision was to be based on external legal advice (source never revealed despite requests) and although campaigners were denounced as having a political agenda the Council decision would not be made on political grounds.
Now, retrospectively, Butt is claiming in an effort to bolster his credentials, that it was a political decision not to boycott Veolia, and one made by him personally.
The Liberal Democrat opposition at the time was refused permission to put a motion on the issue on the advice of Brent Council officer. LINK
The Brent Bin Veolia campaign had a two-pronged approach, mobilizing popular support for the cause and taking on the Council’s legal arguments via legal advice of our own.
The position regarding local councils is summed up by a recent update from the BDS Movement LINK
In a typically straightforward statement Archbishop Tutu made the case for BDS back in 2014 having visited Israel and Palestine to see things for himself:
We could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through... non-violent means, such as boycotts and disinvestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.
In his article Butt refers to the importance of Israel in the life of Brent’s Jewish residents ignoring the fact that many of those supporting the Veolia campaign were themselves Jewish people who support the Palestinan cause.
He does not mention his responsibility towards Brent residents of Palestinian origin.
Follow this link for the Free Speech on Israel submission to the Chakrabarti Inquiry LINK
This is the full text of Muhammed Butt's article:
I’m sorry for sharing Israel slur – boycotts are wrong MUHAMMED BUTTJULY 14, 2016, 11:42 AMThe Labour Party – my party – is currently going through challenging times. Frankly, the behaviour of some of my fellow members has not been good enough, particularly towards the Jewish community.I too fell short of what standards should be expected in a thoughtless act. Earlier this year, I shared a post on Facebook without properly checking the comments below it.The post contained a video of a violent incident between an Israeli soldier and young Palestinian girl. As a father of a daughter, I felt an instinctive empathy for the young girl and shared the video.This was a mistake, not least because I had not read the comments below the video. One made a claim that was both wrong and offensive: that Israel was in some way comparable to the so called Islamic State. I don’t believe this and have never believed it. You can sincerely believe that Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people is a tragedy for both parties, while refusing to indulge in that malicious and lazy smear.As a local authority leader, I work hard to stop young people and children being groomed into the kind of extremism that ISIS represents. I do not need to be told how evil they are: They have deliberately killed thousands of civilians, used rape as a weapon of war and deployed mass executions as propaganda tools.ISIS represents nothing but fear. Israel, however, always offers hope. Right from its Declaration of Independence, it pledged itself to democracy, the rule of law and the equal treatment of minorities – an inspirational determination that was born at a time when much of the world lived under dictatorship.However, whether on purpose or by accident, I shared the comment that made a wholly inappropriate and offensive comparison. I have to accept responsibility for that and say again how sorry I am.I am the proud leader of Brent, the most diverse borough in the UK. I take my commitment to all our communities very seriously. We must all stand together and that means respect, understanding the realities of each other’s lives.I understand how critical Israel is to Jewish life in the UK: It could only be, when a plurality of the world Jewish community – more than 40 percent – live in Israel.My Jewish residents will have parents, siblings and children in Israel.That’s why I have no time for boycotts. As far as I can see, it does nothing for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It only provides more ammunition to those who wish to divide and polarise.What it does do is make our own Jewish community feel isolated and disturbed as to why the world’s only Jewish state appears to be the focus of the most vociferous boycott movement.So when boycotters wanted Brent to cancel its contracts with vendors who do business in Israel, the decision to say no was one of the quickest and easiest I have had to make.I have always felt a huge amount of solidarity with the Jewish community. My family was forced out of Kashmir. I know what it is to be from a victimised community, looking to find a safe place and a welcoming community in which to live. When they came to Wembley, Jewish neighbours were among the most welcoming – not to be taken lightly during the often difficult 1970s and 1980s.I share the frustration of the Jewish community at how long it is taking Labour to grapple with the problem of antiSemitism in our ranks. It makes me very sad to think that I could have been a part of making matters worse. You can be sure that I will be much more careful about what I share in future.For me the Chakrabarti report has not gone far enough. I would have liked it spelled out that not only should Zionist not be used as a term of abuse, but that Zionism is an entirely legitimate belief. As it happens, British Zionist groups such as Yachad are doing far more for peace than the official boycott movement ever has.I can pledge that, for Brent Labour, it will only be the start of our thinking on the issue of antiSemitism, not the end. We can, we must and we will go further to make sure that Jews feel valued and safe in our party and in our borough, working with our local synagogues, the Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust, and the local police.I personally look forward to travelling to Israel in the near future to see the facts for myself. Whatever our disagreements about the Middle East, making outlandish claims such as Israel being in any way comparable to ISIS do not help the cause of peace. They only cause hurt and unhelpful divisions. We can, we must, do better.