Sheffield Palestine campaigners protest at council in support of city twinning bid following anti-semitism debate

Supporters of a bid for Sheffield to twin with the Palestinian city of Nablus protested outside a city council meeting yesterday (September 6) following what campaigners called “an embarassing climbdown” by the council over anti-semitism.
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Following the protest on the steps of Sheffield Town Hall, Dr Julie Pearn, chair of Sheffield Labour Friends of Palestine, attended the full council meeting to ask a question on the issue.

She asked: “Now that the council has admitted that it wrongly characterised my remarks about twinning with Nablus on February 20 as anti-semitic; and did not mean to falsely imply that I was anti-semitic: will the council now move forward with twinning arrangements with Nablus without any further unnecessary delay?”

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Leader of the council Coun Tom Hunt responded that the council has many requests for twinning arrangements and a new framework is being put in place to deal with them. He said that the Nablus request would be dealt with under that procedure.

A protest in support of Palestinian rights outside Sheffield Town Hall (September 6). Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRSA protest in support of Palestinian rights outside Sheffield Town Hall (September 6). Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS
A protest in support of Palestinian rights outside Sheffield Town Hall (September 6). Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS

When Dr Pearn pointed out that the Nablus request had already been made, meeting chair, Lord Mayor Coun Colin Ross, said that it wasn’t a debate and he would not allow any further discussion.

In February, Dr Pearn was interrupted by then Lord Mayor Coun Sioned-Mair Richards when she put forward a question to a full council meeting as to why no response had been made to an invitation from the Mayor of Palestinian city Nablus four years ago for the two cities to have a twinning arrangement.

She compared that with a speedy response to twin with a Ukrainian city, when the deputy mayor of Khmelnytskyi, Mykola Vavryshchuk, was invited to speak at a council meeting in December 2022 and a memorandum of understanding was signed by him and Coun Richards.

‘Note of caution’

Dr Julie Pearn , chair of Sheffield Labour Friends of Palestine, asking her question about twinning Sheffield with the city of Nablus at a meeting of Sheffield City Council on September 6. Her placard says "the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is a documented fact". Picture: Shaffaq MohammedDr Julie Pearn , chair of Sheffield Labour Friends of Palestine, asking her question about twinning Sheffield with the city of Nablus at a meeting of Sheffield City Council on September 6. Her placard says "the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is a documented fact". Picture: Shaffaq Mohammed
Dr Julie Pearn , chair of Sheffield Labour Friends of Palestine, asking her question about twinning Sheffield with the city of Nablus at a meeting of Sheffield City Council on September 6. Her placard says "the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is a documented fact". Picture: Shaffaq Mohammed
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At the February meeting, the Lord Mayor called on David Hollis, who was the council’s interim director of legal and governance and is now its general counsel, to “just to give us a note of caution here, Julie”.

Mr Hollis said: “The preamble to the question is probably contrary to the council’s adopted definition of anti-semitism, therefore the presenter is requested to just ask the question without preamble.”

A press statement by the Sheffield Labour Friends of Palestine and supporters said: “In an embarrassing climbdown, Sheffield City Council has distanced itself from arguments put forward by officials in February to justify their decision to cut short a statement by Palestine solidarity activist Dr Julie Pearn.

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“Her original statement – which the council has indicated it will now publish in full on its website – sought to highlight Israel’s documented violations of Palestinian human rights including ethnic cleansing and occupation.

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“At the time of the incident, the council’s interim director of legal and governance publicly stated that ‘The preamble to the question is probably contrary to the council’s adopted definition of anti-semitism, therefore the presenter is requested to just ask the question without preamble.’

“This position was supported in the full council meeting by Lord Mayor, Councillor Sioned-Mair Richards from the chair. These claims have now been jettisoned.

Military occupation

“In a recent letter, the council now states that the decision to curtail Dr Pearn was taken ‘mainly in the interest of time management’, adding that this was ‘not intended to imply that Dr Pearn was anti-semitic’ and that it does not view her intended remarks as anti-semitic.”

The letter also confirmed that the council has not formally adopted the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-semitism, that has been at the centre of controversy about whether criticism of the state of Israel should be regarded as anti-semitic.

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Dr Pearn said: “I am pleased that the council has backed away from its previous suggestion that my intended remarks were in any way anti-semitic. I came to the council to ask about an invitation to twin made by the Mayor of the Palestinian city Nablus, whose city is under Israel’s illegal military occupation.

“The Palestinian people are suffering from horrible violence and abuse in the context of Israel’s occupation and regime of ethnic cleansing, which is well-documented and recorded by UN human rights experts, internationalorganisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

“My presentation to council on the proposed twinning agreement referred to these realities as necessary introduction to the topic. The council compounded its snub to Nablus (four years’ delay in responding to theirinvitation) by encouraging the suggestion that seeking empathy for its people’s long years of suffering is tarnished and suspect.

“A swift and positive response to Nablus’ invitation is the best way for the council to redress its mistake. I trust that the twinning between Sheffieldand Nablus will now proceed without delay.”

‘Profoundly discriminatory’

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Martin Mayer of Sheffield TUC commented: “Sheffield has a proud history of standing up for rights and democracy both here and around the world. It was a centre of Chartist radicalism during the 19th century and the birthplace of the very first campaign for women’s suffrage.

“In 1981, we became the first city in Britain to formally cut all ties with apartheid South Africa. The city council should be standing up for Palestinian human rights, not clamping down on freedom of expression.”

Musheir El Farra, chair of Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “Time and again, we have seen how the controversial ‘IHRA definition’ contributes nothing to the fight against racism and instead, serves to suppress lawful speech in support of Palestinian rights.

“No other section of the community would accept a set of rules designed to limit their ability to tell the truth about their collective history and experience of dispossession. It is profoundly discriminatory against Palestinians, and I am very glad to hear that Sheffield City Council does not recognise it as official policy.

“We now need to hear assurances from the council as to exactly what steps it will be taking to ensure that there can be no further incidents of this kind.”