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Letters / A hard place to stand up and be counted

Shetland should regard some aspects of last week’s council debate on a ceasefire in Gaza with profound concern.

Not only did senior figures try to silence the debate, which they lost six to 11, but also their number included a Liberal Democrat and a Labour councillor who both voted against the positions of their own parties.

What can be learned?

Council passes Gaza motion calling for immediate ceasefire

Ignoring a hastily collected petition asking for the debate, signed by over 300 islanders, was more than questionable. It is only through discussion and debate that we can understand how others have formed their views, which information they are using and what knowledge is missing.

Shetland Labour councillor Tom Morton may have been the silencing group’s intellectual heavyweight. Speaking in the chamber, he referenced a recent book, Israelophobia, which he appears to have read uncritically.

The author believes antizionism to be antisemitic: so therefore does councillor Morton. Tom would have done well to have read the review of it in this month’s New Humanist magazine.

Similarly, had he had a chance to watch Israelism, a film made by anti-Zionist Jews, he may not have swallowed the propaganda so easily. Had he ever read Edward Said’s Orientalism, as I strongly urge him to do, he would have saved himself, and others, a lot of bother. It would have helped him to recognise and question the self-referential certainties of the colonist’s mindset.

Forget the violence in the occupied territories and the settler terrorism – as even the American government terms it.

Forget too the US and UK governments stop short of acknowledging these are part of an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing dating back 76 years and more to when it was the violent Zionists colonists who were then called terrorists by Britain, but only because they were murdering our soldiers and civilians then too.

Such is the revulsion at the scale of Israel’s collective punishment that former colonial powers like Spain and the Netherlands are banning arms sales.

Not so Britain, which is therefore complicit in the ongoing slaughter. The intermediate ICJ rulings establishes that. The straw man argument that it is wrong to single out just this one conflict for protest simply does not stand.

But to debate the need to end the cycle of violence is divisive, we are told.

Divisive?

Whose interests does that too often used attempt to silence discussion serve?

A previous Shetland Labour councillor, Bill Smith, who resigned his party membership because the support for the Palestinian cause was inadequate, had a maxim. Our job is to look out for those who can’t look out for themselves. How times have changed.

Thirty years ago I was the local delegate to the national conference where I heard Labour leader John Smith, congratulate the Norwegian Labour mediators who had brought Israel Labour Party’s Yitzhak Rabin together with the PLO’s Yasser Arafat.

There was the historic handshake, and within months the PLO had recognised Israel’s right to exist. They are now the Palestinian authority who have limited authority in the West Bank, and we are still waiting for the other side of the deal, recognition of a Free Palestine.

Extremists on both sides prevented this by using murder to silence the peacemakers. But real liberals and true democrats alike should oppose efforts to silence in all their forms.

Having long argued for the need for political councillors I was greatly pleased when Tom took his seat. Working properly, accountable to representative branch officers, they can invigorate local democracy, allowing more perspectives to be considered and fairer priorities to emerge.

However, local branches can stagnate, or be captured by vested interests, as we saw with Viking Energy and the Lib Dems.

Working properly, the convenor and political leader of the SIC would have cheerfully promoted a debate, even one they suspected their own side might lose. But that is not what we saw last week. Their reputations and their reach will have suffered accordingly, and rightly so.

On a personal level I am concerned for the effective of all this on my old comrade, who I know to be a kind, generous and sociable man.

But he smeared those who attended the weekly vigil outside Lerwick Town Hall, by calling us antisemites because of the presence of a placard reading Free Palestine.

On other Saturdays of late I have stood alongside Scottish Jews in Edinburgh and Glasgow protesting alongside hundreds upon hundreds of others carrying placards with those same words. Tom has badly overplayed his hand. The disappointment is considerable and, I suspect, widely shared.

I understand Tom’s motivation to have been informed by having family friends personally affected by the atrocities on 7 October.

And he is of course right to be concerned by the rise in antisemitism, as I am sure he is also concerned with the rise in islamophobia, which we know has resulted in criminal charges in Shetland. But if Tom thinks he heard hate speech in the council chamber, or feels emails have been threatening, I trust he will have taken the matter to the police.

To understand is to forgive, as they say, but there needs to be some contrition too. The peace campaigners at the vigil Tom implied were Jew haters include people of faith, pacifists, and folk who stood against racism in South Africa and saw the Iraq war for what it was before it started.

Tom has the option to read more widely, reflect on how balanced his information sources have been, and refer himself to the party nationally for investigation.

Local branch committee members and individual party members also have that right. Another path is that taken by Leonard Groat who, when he disagreed with the local party over the closure of Montfield Hospital, became an Independent Labour candidate instead.

I would prefer Tom learn from this incident, make amends and focus on where he can do most good. I spoke briefly when I attended the Lerwick vigil in November, and ending by commenting on how hard a place Shetland can be to stand up and be counted.

It is hard in many ways, some of which may be unique to Shetland, and which are worthy of future consideration. But where folk speak up to protect others from harm they should be able to look to community leaders for solidarity and support.

Peter Hamilton
Edinburgh

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