Blood libel not bad enough for UK court

The JC Essay


A libel barrister once gave me some very good advice. I was producing a TV documentary about a senior member of the IRA who'd sanctioned a series of bombings and shootings. He was also an elected politician and I wanted to call him all the names under the sun. The barrister wisely counselled caution. Peering over his rimless spectacles, and drawing heavily on a Turkish cigarette, he mused: "Look. Why don't you just report the facts?"

So, what are the facts in the imbroglio over Raed Salah, the most prominent Arab leader living in Israel today? The most significant one is that the Home Secretary lost on all counts in her attempt to persuade the Upper Immigration Tribunal that Sheikh Salah's presence in the UK was not conducive to the public good. Her case that he's a rabble rousing antisemitic preacher was "not a fair portrayal" of his views or words as a whole" and that there was no evidence that his presence had caused "any difficulty of any sort".

Salah's presence, maybe. But the attempt to remove him did create a very nasty situation in north London. Extremists stormed into a mosque visited by MP for Finchley and Golders Green, Mike Freer and called him a "Jewish homosexual pig" because he supported the ban on Salah. He had to retreat to a locked room for his safety.

As if anticipating such events, the previous day, the lower immigration tribunal had found Salah's "words and actions" did indeed have a tendency to be "inflammatory, divisive, insulting, and likely to foment tension and radicalism". Their colleagues in the Upper Tribunal have now completely overturned this.

One might have expected the Guardian, so often in the vanguard of exposing racism, to have remarked upon Salah’s wild Jewish conspiracy theories

Hailed by his supporters as the "Ghandi of Palestine", Raed Salah's main purpose in visiting Britain was to promote the view that Israeli governments have been stealthily conspiring to destroy Islam's third most holy site, the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and replace it with a third Jewish Temple. The slogan 'Al-Aqsa is in danger' was made up by Hitler's wartime ally Hajj Amin al-Husseini,to instigate anti-Jewish riots and to raise funds. Nonetheless, if Salah's allegation is true today, or even contains a wisp of truth, the right to freely express it would quite properly trump any concerns about how angry it might make British Muslims.

So I want to pose a simple question: does it seem even remotely likely that an Israeli government would plot such a sacrilegious act knowing it would inflame not only its 1.7million Arab citizens, the 2billion Muslims beyond its borders, and alienate almost the entire globe? However far-fetched Salah's imagination might seem, several MPs and members of the Lords were keen to give him and his supporters a platform in Parliament.

Ismail Patel, who heads the Leicester-based Friends of Al Aqsa, said the Home Secretary's decision to try to deport Salah because he was an inflammatory antisemite was based on "nothing more than hearsay". Other Islamist organisations, several MPs and Baroness Tonge suggested likewise.

For the Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, Salah was a potential "partner for peace"; for a former associate foreign editor of the Guardian, the Home Secretary was being "absurd" in banning a "much respected" leader; the Guardian itself brushed aside the allegations against him of antisemitism and incitement, publishing instead several apologias; the New Statesman said he had been "the target of a vicious and concerted smear campaign by the pro-Israel lobby in the UK."

So who is the real, so-called "Ghandi of Palestine"? The Israeli Police say that, in a sermon in 2007 outside the Al Aqsa mosque, Salah invoked the infamous "blood libel" that Jews used the blood from the ritualised murder of gentile children to bake bread at Passover. Salah's hosts - the Middle East Monitoring Organisation (MEMO) - initially quoted Salah as having denied making these comments or that he had been charged with racism and incitement. When it was pointed out to MEMO that Salah had in fact been charged, MEMO said he was never convicted "due to lack of evidence." Also untrue: the evidence has yet to be tested in an Israeli court.

In court in the UK, Salah denied that his reference to "blood" being used in "holy bread" was a reference to the blood libel against Jews. "I have never invoked the blood libel" he protested and "would not do so." The judges in the Upper Tribunal found that he had and that his 10-paragraph explanation as to what he actually meant, with his obscure references to the Spanish Inquisition and the conflict in Bosnia, was "all wholly unpersuasive."

And yet, to these judges, this mattered not too much. They concluded that, with the exception of the blood libel, overall, Salah's language - albeit "intemperate" - was in fact directed at the Israeli state "rather than Jews as such." They based this on the fact that, in his sermon, Salah had offered Jewish synagogues protection when, as he evidently believes, Israel succumbs to a Caliphate.

The judges came to a similar view over a poem that he had written in 2002 in which he spoke of "oppressors" who "decayed our land" and were "germs and monkeys".Salah's behaviour could not be defined as unacceptable, the judges concluded. Really?

I don't know how much the judges know about the Middle East but even the dogs in the street know that it is not uncommon for Muslim hate preachers to refer to Jews as a kind of bacillus and to regurgitate Qu'uranic references to Jews as monkeys.

The judges did find Salah's speech had promoted the idea of "violent protest" because he had called for an "intifada" and referred to the virtue of "bloodshed" and martyrdom as "the most beautiful moments of our destiny."

But because Salah had yet to come to trial in Israel, even though he had been charged, the judges held that the Home Secretary should not have taken the Israeli indictments into account. Again, I pose a simple question: if, as the judges accept, Salah said these truly dreadful things, can it be right that the safety of British Jews and the state of communal tension generally should be contingent upon the tardiness of an overseas judiciary?

Reading the judgment, one gets the impression that the judges consider that Jews are just a bit too touchy about criticism. Otherwise, why dignify the suggestion from Salah's side that the CST (which provided accurate material to government lawyers) "may be oversensitive in its detection of antisemitism (in the sense of anti-Jewish rather than generally antisemitic attitudes)." I struggle to see the distinction, just as I imagine a Palestinian might struggle to see a distinction between Islamophobia and "anti Muslim attitudes." But references to Jews as child killers, blood baking monsters, germs and monkeys - whether or not "germs" and "monkeys" relates to the Israel state or its citizens? This comes across as the language of deep, visceral, racist, loathing.

So for me, this cases raises not only some awkward questions about the insouciance of the Tribunal but also about the way the Government's legal team prepared and presented the evidence. The judges asserted that the evidence was "not a fair portrayal" of Salah. The blood libel, and invocation to martyrdom was "not a sample (of the evidence before them), or 'the tip of the iceberg': it is simply all the evidence that there is."

In fact, the evidence before them was only the evidence that was tested in court. I understand the Treasury Solicitors had several examples of other alleged Jewish libels by Salah but, for whatever reason, chose not to put them before the court.For example, in October 2001, an article published in Salah's name by the journal of his Islamic Movement, promotes another grotesque antisemitic libel, with its clear implication of Jews being behind 9/11: that "4,000 Jews… 4,000 Jewish clerks" were warned to avoid the Twin Towers that day. "On the other hand", Salah is reported to have said, "this warning did not reach the 2,000 Muslims who worked in the World Trade Centre…"

And then, just last year, after the death of Osama bin Laden, Salah's Islamic Movement described the Al Qaeda leader as "the sheikh, the martyr, bin Laden" and said the US special forces that killed him were "mercenaries who have sold their consciences to cursed Satan."

The Treasury Solicitors also chose not to use evidence from the Israeli Commission of Inquiry into the Arab riots of October 2000, which found that Salah was "responsible… for the transmission of repeated messages encouraging the use of violence and the threat of violence as a means to achieve the goals of Israel's Arab sector."

In those riots, 12 Arab Israelis were killed, and one elderly Jewish man was stoned to death after an Israeli Arab mob went on the rampage using firebombs, gunfire, rocks, and slingshots against both Israeli citizens and police. At a "Peace" rally two weeks earlier organised by Salah's Islamic Movement on his forever theme "Al Aqsa is in Danger", Salah is reported to have told the crowd: "the Islamic world has exclusive rights to all the holy sites in Jerusalem and Israel has none." The crowd is said to have responded: "In spirit and blood, we shall redeem Al Aqsa."

None of this was put before the judges even though the Home Secretary was advised that the evidence against Salah was "very finely balanced." Whether that applied to all of the evidence available to the lawyers, or just the few pieces they chose to test, I cannot say.

Legal issues aside, one might reasonably have expected the Guardian - of all newspapers - so often in the vanguard of exposing racism, at least to have remarked upon Salah's wild Jewish conspiracy theories and his movement's praise for bin Laden. But it did not. Neither did the Independent, nor the New Statesman. Indeed, the latter expressed jubilation. The Independent is now a marginal newspaper, the once great New Statesman even more so. But the Guardian? It could not even bring itself to report the first immigration tribunal's verdict that Salah had a tendency to be an "inflammatory, divisive" and "insulting" preacher "likely to foment tension and radicalism".

The "Ghandi of Palestine" is now back in his home town of Umm al-Fahm Uhmm, just inside Israel where he has been the thrice elected Mayor. He spent 10 months here fighting to clear his name and, when victory came, it was followed by an explosion of righteous fury by his supporters.

Before departing from London Salah was the guest of honour at a party for 350 at a West London location. According to his hosts, the "most poignant words" came, not from any of the many speakers queuing up to pay their respects, but when the Supreme Guide to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood telephoned to congratulate him personally. As most JC readers will know, the Brotherhood is the parent organisation of Hamas, to which the government lawyers said Salah's Islamic movement in Israel is linked.

Mohammed Sawalha of the British Muslim Initiative, said the Home Secretary should resign "or be sacked by the Prime Minister." Several others referred to what they clearly regard as the malign and disproportionate power of what they call the "Israel lobby. Jeremy Corbyn, supported by Salah's lawyer, Tayyab Ali, has demanded an inquiry under the Public Inquires Act of 2005. With the greatest respect to Messrs Corbyn and Ali, this 2005 Act is intended for disasters of considerably greater significance than the banning of a single preacher whose views have yet to capture the imagination of the wider British public. To put it mildly.

Still, it is a fact that many of those supporting the Home Secretary were indeed "Pro-Israel" to the extent that they would like to see a national homeland for one of the world's smallest populations whose people have been persecuted throughout much of their history. It's also a fact that those who habitually assign the "Pro-Israel" prefix to others, do so from what they consider to be a superior moral position.

But whether one is "Pro-Israel" or "Pro-Palestinian", why any British citizen, let alone MPs or liberal national newspapers, should have objected so passionately, and with such primeval fury to the Home Secretary putting the evidence against Salah to the test, is beyond my understanding. And that's a "Pro British" view, by the way.

John Ware is a broadcaster

Last updated: 11:54am, April 19 2012