LONDON (Dec. 16)
British Jews are welcoming the government’s withdrawal of plans to make religious incitement a crime as part of new anti-terrorism legislation.
Several key Jewish groups had expressed only lukewarm support for the measure, while some Jewish leaders had actively fought the proposal.
Removal of the religious incitement clause last Friday enabled the government to pass the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, which gives the police broader powers to fight terrorism, including the ability to detain foreign terror suspects without trial.
The deputy chairman of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research argued against the religious incitement clause in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British parliament.
Lord Haskel — who came to Britain as a refugee fleeing anti-Jewish laws in Lithuania during the Nazi era — called laws on religious matters “a very dangerous and slippery path which malevolent people will exploit.”
He said current laws against incitement, which do not mention religion specifically, are sufficient.
“Incitement to break the law through hatred is already a crime,” Haskel said. “And religion can be no excuse for crime,” he told the House of Lords.
The Lords defeated the bill, forcing the government to remove the religious incitement clause so that the remainder of the bill could be passed.
It was a humiliation for the Labor government, which has a huge majority in Parliament.
Both other main parties in Parliament, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, opposed the religious incitement clause, and more than 20 Labor legislators voted against it in November.
The policy institute had argued strenuously against making incitement to religious hatred a crime.
“If we are prepared to defend our liberal values, it is essential that we realize that freedom of speech entails costs,” said Barry Kosmin, the think tank’s executive director. “It is precisely the freedom to say offensive things that must be protected.”
Kosmin says actions, not speech, are the real danger.
“It is acts and deeds threatening life and liberty that belong in a terrorism bill. Words and opinions about religion do not constitute a clear and present danger to public safety,” he said.
British Jewry’s main security organization, the Community Security Trust, said passage or defeat of the incitement clause would make little difference to Jews.
“We weren’t asking for it,” said a Trust spokesman who asked not to be named.
“While it might have provided extra protection, we’d rather have the political will to use existing legislation,” he added.
The Trust has criticized government prosecutors for failing to go after people — especially Muslims — who Jews say have encouraged anti-Jewish feeling.
The Crown Prosecution Service, which decides which cases the state will prosecute, infuriated Jews earlier this year by refusing to proceed with a case against five Muslim men accused of distributing leaflets saying “The final hour will not come until the Muslims kill the Jews.”
The Board of Deputies, the umbrella group representing most British Jews, filed an official complaint with the attorney general over that case and has scheduled a meeting with him for early next year.
The Board had been skeptical about the planned new religious incitement law, welcoming it “in principle,” but saying it would prefer to see current legislation enforced.
“The existing powers to prevent incitement to racial hatred have clearly proved ineffective. There has been a lack of will to initiate prosecutions,” said the board’s director general, Neville Nagler.
“If they are to have any value, new powers to deal with religious incitement will have to overcome the clear deficiencies of the existing laws against racial incitement,” he said.
Jews are protected under existing hate crimes laws because British law considers them a visibly identifiable “race.”
Sikhs, easy targets because of their turbans and beards, are the only other religious group covered by current legislation.
Muslims had originally supported the clause against religious incitement, but the Trust spokesman said they had changed their minds when they realized it could be used against them as well as protect them.
Jewish legislators took different positions on the bill.
Labor’s Gerald Kaufman said that as an observant Jew he had experienced anti-Semitism, and that a law against religious hatred was overdue.
Oliver Letwin led Conservative opposition to the plan, calling it an “ill-conceived” proposal that could stifle honest debate about religion.