Walk-outs over ‘Islamophobia’ at antisemitism symposium

A seminar meant to highlight problems in dealing with antisemitism ran into trouble when audience members walked out — alleging Islamophobia on the part of some speakers.

At the forefront were leaders of the Community Security Trust, who challenged remarks made by the Egyptian writer Bat Ye’or, and Dr Manfred Gerstenfeld, a founding member of the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, which sponsored the seminar, held at London’s Wiener Library.

Bat Ye’or told the audience: “The source of antisemitism is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.”

But when Dave Rich, the CST’s deputy communications director, expressed concern that such a comment could be construed as Islamophobic, she responded: “Islam is denying the root of Judaism and Christianity with a profound belief in Jihad.”

David Hirsh, editor of anti-racist website Engage, left the room during Dr Gerstenfeld’s lecture.

He explained: “I was appalled by Gerstenfeld’s characterisation of Muslim culture as inferior. Nearly all the speakers on the day, including me, stressed that antisemitism must be understood and opposed within an anti-racist framework.

“I am as appalled by the Islamophobia which creeps into some opposition to antisemitism as I am by the way antisemitism also creeps into ostensibly anti-racist spaces.”

But Dr Gerstenfeld said later: “I am touching upon the taboos that have to be broken, because a totally false narrative has been created in Europe.”

“The idea that all cultures are the same is absurd. If there is no hierarchy in culture, then Nazi culture is equivalent to democratic Western culture. There are Islamic groups which are equivalent in their language and ideology to Nazis. And I have no problem in saying that, because it is true.”

Mark Gardner, director of communications for CST, said after the seminar: “A minority of speakers said things about Britain, Europe and Muslims that we found to be incorrect, unacceptable and self-defeating. We made our concerns clear with a number of interventions and were correct to do so.”

David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute, and Philip Spencer, director of research in politics at Kingston University, also walked out in protest.

Mr Feldman said: “Unfortunately, the unfounded arguments of some speakers and expressions of religious prejudice from others did a disservice to Jews and others seeking to combat antisemitism.”

At the end of the event, the former Labour MP, Denis MacShane, was given an award for his work in fighting antisemitism.

Last updated: 9:58am, December 10 2012