UN ‘expert’ can’t defend his attacks on Palestine solidarity

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on religious freedom, helps Israel and its lobby smear supporters of Palestinian rights (P. Böll - Deutsche Welle)

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  October 7, 2021

Better late than never. Or is it?

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on religious freedom, has finally responded to my criticisms of his September 2019 report on anti-Semitism.

Soon after the report was released, I wrote that it gives Israel and its lobby carte blanche to smear the movement for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic.

The report endorsed the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

This definition, promoted by Israel and its lobby groups, conflates criticism of Israel and its state ideology Zionism, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish bigotry, on the other. (Don’t miss The Electronic Intifada’s new mini-documentary on how the IHRA definition is used to attack supporters of Palestinian rights!)

Shaheed, a former Maldives foreign minister who now directs the Essex Human Rights Centre, is a supposedly independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.

Human rights defenders have however faulted him for ignoring Israel’s systematic violations of the religious freedoms of Palestinians, while being highly critical of Iran – a country disfavored by Western governments.

Nonethless I gave Shaheed credit for acknowledging that critics of the IHRA definition are concerned that “it can be applied in ways that could effectively restrict legitimate political expression,” including criticism of Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

But I went on to explain how Shaheed’s report does precisely that. It gives broad credence to Israel’s efforts to redefine advocacy for Palestinian equality as anti-Jewish bigotry.

Although I tweeted my article at Shaheed as soon as I published it, he only responded to my tweet this week – two years later!

“There is not a single paragraph in the report that you can point out as being inaccurate or biased,” Shaheed asserted.

He also claimed that the conclusions in the report’s section dealing with questions related to Palestine solidarity “are factual statements.”

Again, I can give Shaheed credit for his albeit belated willingness to engage with me, but for not much else.

responded that those conclusions “are based on an extremely biased viewpoint that takes Israel’s political decisions and claims as a given.”

I offered specific examples from the report to back up my criticisms.

Shaheed’s 2019 report asserts that there have been “numerous reports of an increase in many countries of what is sometimes called ‘left-wing’ anti-Semitism” among those criticizing Israeli policies.

Examples he cites include that people “have conflated Zionism, the self-determination movement of the Jewish people, with racism” and “claimed Israel does not have a right to exist.”

I put several questions to Shaheed:

What are the sources of data backing up the claim of an increase in “left-wing anti-Semitism” and how precisely is this defined?

And how can he claim that saying Zionism is racism is an example of anti-Jewish bigotry unless he indeed conflates being Jewish with being a Zionist?

“Do you consider the statement ‘Zionism is racism’ to be a criticism of a state’s political ideology and policies or an example of anti-Jewish bigotry?” I asked directly.

Despite putting the questions to Shaheed more than once, none of his tweets responding to me made any attempt to address their substance.

Finally, I told Shaheed that he seemed to go silent when challenged to give precise answers.

“I believe your question was where is the evidence of left-wing anti-Semitism?” he responded. “I think that is a good exit point for me.”

Shaheed’s bravado was apparently an attempt to convey that the answer to my question is so self-evident that it is beneath him to respond.

But if he had data showing an increase in so-called left-wing anti-Semitism why wouldn’t he just say what the source is?

In my view, the reason is very simple. These inflammatory and unsubtantiated claims typically come from Israel lobby groups whose goal is to smear and silence supporters of Palestinian rights.

These are the same sorts of distortions and lies that Israel and its lobby have used for years, for instance against former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s obvious that Shaheed – who is used to receiving pats on the back from Israel lobby groups – simply cannot defend his claims.

He probably would have done himself a favor by maintaining his silence.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)