antisemitism,  Religion

“We never use the word antisemitism”

This is a guest post by amie

Exactly a year ago I had a meeting with “P”, the head of lettings at Friends House, Euston Road. This came about after I was appalled at the revelations on Harry’s Place about a series of events at Friends House, stretching back years, where extremists preaching hatred and even violence had been given a platform. I was dismayed that it was during the same period I had arranged several events there for my Jewish women’s organisation.

I wanted a member of the Community Security Trust (CST) to accompany me to the meeting, as I felt they had the information and expertise to convey the effect these speeches were having on the Jewish community in particular. This was not acceptable to P, who wanted me to come alone. I was allowed to bring another member of my organisation only after I insisted that we always worked in pairs, women supporting women.

Although the meeting left me flummoxed and depressed, it was decided I would not publicise it beyond those immediately affected, in the faint hope of keeping channels of communication with Friends open. Also I had established a warm connection with a small number of Members (Quakers) who were distressed after hearing my perspective and felt the lettings policy did not accurately reflect Quaker beliefs. Aside from one Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) event in December, which was transferred elsewhere at the last minute by the PRC for logistic reasons, there appeared to be a lull until recently of such hostile events at Friends, so I felt it best to leave the Members to sort out their issues among themselves.

Now that Friends appears to be sticking up two fingers to us all – see – I think that the deleterious mindset informing Friends’ lettings practice should be out in the open. I intend to bring it to the attention of the network of Jewish women’s organisations whose member groups use the premises, as they ought to have access to this information, including but not limited to Friends’ lofty indifference to Jewish fears and concerns, in deciding if they feel comfortable with their continued patronage.

I emailed my notes of the meeting to P, inviting him to offer comments or corrections. After a reminder two months later, he replied eventually that he had felt no need to respond.

Here then are edited extracts from my notes of that meeting:

P emphasised that although he is not a Quaker, he had learned and internalised Quaker values very thoroughly in the 18 months he had worked at Friends.

He understood the purpose of the meeting to be to address our concerns about our safety at Friends’ House. I assured him this was not the issue and our feelings of being unsafe were not referable to being under their roof.

P described the process of vetting new prospective room hirers – asking to see their manifestos, lists of speakers etc. This had tightened up considerably in the past 8 months.

They check the name of the organisations in whose name the letting is being made by searching online; they read websites and blogs. It is quite a job to keep abreast of the name changes and adopted names and they sometimes slipped up.

I mentioned the background of what raised my concerns and brought me to come here today, referring to the reports of the Stop the War Coalition meeting at Friends on 30th March, including Abou Jahjah, and that I was horrified to learn this was not a one off but Abu Hamza and Bakri were at Friends in 1999 and Bakri again in 2002. He and E hastily said that these two instances in fact were the only occasions when they had slipped up, and this was less likely to happen with their new regime of vetting.

For example they were on the ball and had spotted the problems very quickly with Islam4Uk and Islam Unite.

I described what it was like for me and many Jews during the January Gaza demos. How when speakers harangued the crowd at Stop the War rallies, referencing Starbucks, and then hours later Starbucks were trashed, there was a resonance of Kristallnacht for people like me whose grandparents had been killed in the Holocaust. (The Starbucks trashing seemed news to them and they seemed shocked- P interjected “I didn’t even know Starbucks was Jewish!”) I pointed out that this experience of the rallies would probably have been below the radar of those not subjectively affected.

Then there was the experience of Mizrachi Jews of the demos in Canada and the USA which would even be below my radar as an Ashkenazi Jew. The accounts of the cries of Khaibar Khaibar ya yahud and Al Yahud Kelabna, (The Jews are our dogs), which brought back terrible memories of the pogroms in Egypt, but the meaning of which the crowds at large would be oblivious.

It would only be by our communicating this kind of experience that Friends would be aware of some of the content and significance of some meetings.

As P himself had admitted, they had their work cut out to keep track of the mutations of the different groups, and as he admitted sometimes they slipped up, I pointed out that in such cases there were sources who could be of assistance as they had spent time researching and monitoring the speeches and utterances of individuals and organisations.

I said in no way would this be a witch hunt, but simply some of us individually or as organisations expressing our concern with advertised organisations and speakers at Friends.

P was emphatic that it went completely against Quaker policy and values to involve external sources in checking and vetting.

Besides, he said there were enough actual Quakers giving them very vigorous input. I said the impression I got was that sometimes these Quakers felt they were not being heeded.

I said this would not constitute vetting by outside people. It would be providing information by people who had built up data which P and Co could then take into account as they wished or not when making their decisions. He said they didn’t want people contacting them about people who might never hire rooms from Friends.

I said it would not be an exercise in creating a blacklist, it would be specifically regarding orgs and people already advertised as due to appear at Friends, which despite your careful vetting had fallen through the net. “Oh, but that would be pre- empting my thought process!” he exclaimed. “I wouldn’t want this input to influence me.” I didn’t know what to make of this, but he seemed to be saying he will make up his own mind and won’t allow anything else to influence it.

He then said I could give him contact details of certain organisations and then he would decide in a particular case whether to contact them. He stressed that if he did contact them, it would be only as a “third or fourth source.” He did not want any organisations to contact him.

He said decisions were based on the Quaker values of Peace, Simplicity, Equality and Reconciliation. I asked where antisemitism fitted in with the criteria for accepting a room hire request. He said “We never use the word antisemitism. This would be in conflict with our Equality value. We would mention inciting racial or religious hatred against anyone. We would not spell it out in any more detail. We might now spell it out in more detail in a face to face discussion with prospective hirers, but would not mention the word antisemitism.” I was flummoxed by this.

“If you have no word in your vocabulary for the colour blue, how would you recognise when you see something blue?” I asked. He smiled beatifically. “I would say, all colours are equal”.

I struggled to get any clearer meaning out of how this policy was applied, but failed to reach any greater understanding.

I asked what if an organisation’s manifesto passed the test, and if they gave undertakings not to say anything in a meeting at Friends which contravened Friends’ values and lettings policy, but if a less mechanistic and more holistic approach were taken, it was clear that hate speech etc. had taken place at rallies held elsewhere under the organisation’s auspices, how would they regard this? I gave this example, reading out loud this extract from my contribution to the Friends forum:

“John Rees, the speaker at the 30th March pro Hizbollah event gives a special thanks to Friends’ House for hosting them. He hails the friendship between the Stop the War Coalition and Friends’ House for allowing the meeting to take place. Read again the words of the Hizbollah men he sponsors. With his words, he links you to their words, and drags all of you, willy nilly, into this sordid, bloody arena. If you chose not to stand up and be counted, be assured you are already being gleefully counted, by them, in their number.”

I said I understood the Quaker philosophy of engaging with people in the hope that they would see the light, but that merely hiring the rooms to leave them to vent their hate unchallenged was not engaging, and was giving them a sheen of respectability and helping in mainstreaming their views.

P responded that to avoid this, Youtube broadcasts of any events at Friends were no longer allowed, so they couldn’t associate Friends with any particular views. If someone filmed on a mobile phone, however, it was difficult to stop. I said this was a double edged sword, as now we would no longer be aware of the extent of any hate speech going on under their roof. He acknowledged this.

We then handed to him a printout of the Playing the Nazi race card report, the CST blog cover story of 24th July for the latest CST incidents report, the Incidents report itself, and also the Executive summary and Introduction of the Antisemitic Discourse Report. I said even though you don’t acknowledge antisemitism as a separate issue, I hoped he would read it. P said he would read it for his own interest.

Before handing it over, I finished by reading a quote from the Executive Summary in support of my contention that it was vital they be receptive to outside input:

“Antisemitism in discourse is, by its nature, harder to identify and define than a physical attack on a person or place. It is more easily recognised by those who experience it than by those who engage in it.”

P hoped I would be able to give a favourable report back to the umbrella Jewish Women’s body we are affiliated to, many of whose affiliates use Friends House. Although the meeting ended amicably, I could not give him a clear affirmative on this.

When I contacted P again in November 2009 regarding the forthcoming PRC meeting advertised as featuring Krisztina Morvai, the prominent Hungarian fascist from the neo Nazi Jobbik party, this was his response:

Friends House lets its facilities to a wide range of organisations and the freedom to gather is an important principle for Quakers. We have a clearly defined policy setting out our values which we expect our lettings customers to adhere to. If we feel that these have been compromised we will act, but until then we will work to ensure the principles of inclusiveness, tolerance and balance are upheld.