GMB Shop Steward faces expulsion over comments about Israel

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Peter Gregson at the STUC anti-racism march, 24 Nov 218
Peter Gregson at the STUC anti-racism march, 24 Nov 2018

GMB Scotland have disciplined a shop steward as a result of his authorship of a petition that criticised Israel as racist and challenged the Labour Party's use of the controversial definition of anti-semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

Pete Gregson is the GMB's shop steward for NHS Lothian. He is also a Labour Party member, having left the party over the Iraq war and subsequently re-joined. He has campaigned on a wide range of issues, including a campaign to save Castlebrae High School in Edinburgh, a campaign calling for Scottish councils to set up whistleblower hotlines and a more recent campaign to set up a whistleblower hotline for Scottish NHS staff.

Following a hearing on 19 December, Gregson was informed by GMB Scotland President Jim Lennox that he is suspended from any benefit derived from GMB membership, from participating in the affairs of the union, or from holding office. The letter also stated that the GMB Scotland Committee will recommend to the Central Executive Council that Gregson be permanently excluded from the union.

The complaints that led to the disciplinary hearing were triggered when Gregson set up an online petition that challenged the Labour Party's use of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism. The petition was published shortly after the Labour Party's National Executive Committee decided, on 4 September 2018, to adopt the definition. The petition states:

"We Labour Party members declare Israel to be a racist endeavour. We are not anti-Jewish.

We challenge our National Executive Committee to expel us from the Party, if you believe that, according to the IHRA definition you adopted on the 4th Sept, we are anti-Semitic. If you will not, we expect you to return Labour to its previous position, which allowed freedom of speech on Israel."

Read the full text of the petition here.

The IHRA definition has been widely criticised because it can easily be exploited to stigmatise and suppress criticism of Israel as supposedly "anti-semitic". Concerns focus on the examples published by the IHRA, beneath the core text of the definition, to "guide the IHRA in its work". A resolution passed at the 2018 AGM of the human rights organisation Liberty states "the guidance that is attached to the definition conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism" and calls on public bodies not to adopt the definition. Jewish organisations around the world expressed similar concerns in a statement published on 17 July 2018.

One of the examples of anti-semitism given by the IHRA is "Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor." There has been widespread concern that this will have the effect of inhibiting people from describing Israel as an apartheid or settler-colonial state, or from calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Jeremy Corbyn attempted, unsuccessfully, to get Labour's NEC to add a clarifying statement that would have alleviated this concern. SACC has highlighted the same issue as part of its ongoing campaign against the Scottish Government's adoption of the IHRA definition. 

Many people have protested against this element of the IHRA definition by proclaiming "Israel is racist endeavor", for example in social media posts, or in posters such as those that appeared in public places in London following Labour's decision to adopt the definition. Gregson's petition was part of this protest movement.

Labour Against the Witchhunt (LAW ) said on 13 November 2018:

"Labour Against the Witchhunt calls on Labour’s NEC to reject the allegations of anti-Semitism against Peter Gregson, condemns his suspension by the GMB trade union and calls for the immediate restoration of his full membership rights."

LAW adds:

"Although Peter’s petition is a good idea, challenging Labour’s NEC to revoke its adoption of the IHRA definition, we cannot support it. Firstly, we disagree with some of its wording – eg, before it adopted the full IHRA definition on September 4, Labour did not allow “full freedom of speech on Israel”. On the contrary, the witch-hunt was in full flow long before that. Secondly, some of the formulations in Peter’s supporting documents internalise the racism of Zionist ideology, failing to distinguish clearly between the Zionist movement and the Jewish population, and attributing a non-existent collective political identity to “the Jews”, eg, “the Jews have so much leverage here [in the UK]”.

Hugh Tomlinson QC, in a legal opinion commissioned by organisations concerned about the IHRA definition, concluded:

"Properly understood in its own terms the IHRA Definition does not mean that activities such as describing Israel as a state enacting policies of apartheid, as practicing settler colonialism or calling for policies of boycott divestment or sanctions against Israel can properly be characterized as antisemitic. A public authority which sought to apply the IHRA Definition to prohibit or sanction such activities would be acting unlawfully."

This does not mean that Tomlinson believed concerns over the definition to be misplaced. On the contrary, he criticised the definition as "unclear and confusing" and warned:

"It means that there is likely to be lack of consistency in its application and a potential chilling effect on public bodies which, in the absence of definitional clarity, may seek to sanction or prohibit any conduct which has been labelled by third parties as antisemitic without applying any clear criterion of assessment."

According to GMB Scotland Secretary Gary Smith,1, the GMB has "a clear policy of support for the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism." Gregson disputes this. He says2 that he was told the definition had been adopted not by the union as a whole but only by its Central Executive Committee. He says that the definition does not appear to have been put before the GMB's annual congress or incorporated into its rulebook, and that he has found no reference to it on the GMB website. He asks: "how can it [GMB] discipline folk on a rule they know nothing about?" At his disciplinary hearing Gregson added that he had been unaware of any GMB policy on the definition at the time he authored his petition.

Whatever status the definition has within the GMB, by initiating action against Gregson on the basis of his petition the union risked straying into the area that Hugh Tomlinson QC considered would be unlawful. It is very doubtful that the union would be entitled to prevent Gregson, in his capacity as a Labour Party member, campaigning against a policy adopted by the union or its Central Executive Committee. But the matter has subsequently become more complicated.

Gregson says he was told at the disclipinary hearing that the proceedings were in response to a complaint from a member about his petition against the IHRA definition. The complaint was also said to have outlined Gregson's "activities on 28th Sept" - apparently a reference to a letter to Labour Party General Secretary Jenny Formby (dated 28 September 2017) that Gregson, as a member of the Labour Party, circulated to members of Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) on 28 September 2018. The letter complained about the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel. Labour's Complaints Administrator had told Gregson that the complaint would not be taken forward as the matters complained of did not amount to a breach of Labour Party rules. Gregson responded by circulating the letter to NEC members.

As a result of the complaint by a GMB member against Gregson, Gary Smith wrote to Gregson on 6 November, saying:

"As per my previous correspondence we are in receipt of serious allegations against yourself and I now am charged with investigating these allegations."

The allegations set out in Smith's letter concern a paragraph in Gregson's letter to Jenny Formby (circulated on 28 September), the statement in Gregson's petition that "Israel is a racist endeavor", Gregson's opposition to the IHRA definition, and an excerpt from an email from Gregson to GMB Scotland. Smith's letter states that support for the IHRA definition is GMB policy and quotes two of the examples associated with the definition.

But GMB Scotland, in its letter informing Gregson of his suspension, avoids any mention of the IHRA definition, Gregson's petition, or the matters covered in Gregson's letter to Jenny Formby. Instead, it says:

"You should be advised that the Committee does find the materials you have written and promoted as being anti-Semitic in nature, not least accusing Israel of inventing or exaggerating the holocaust. For our Union holocaust denial or claiming the holocaust was exaggerated is simply unacceptable."

In response, Gregson said that he has "said that Israel tends to exaggerate the importance of the Holocaust for its own political ends." (his full statement appears at the end of this report). In his response to the GMB he contextualises this by quoting from Israeli former minister of Education, Shulamit Aloni, who was asked in an interview: "Often, when there is dissent expressed in the United States against policies of the Israeli government, people here are called anti-Semitic. What is your response to that  as an Israeli Jew?" She replied: "Well, it’s a trick, we always use it. When from Europe somebody is criticizing Israel, then we bring up the Holocaust...."

Gregson's comments about the Holocaust appear to have arisen as a response to loosely-worded allegations against him.

Update: Subsequent to the publication of this article, Peter Gregson has told SACC: "In my enthusiasm to pick holes in the IHRA, I chose the wrong words when I said 'Israel exaggerates the Holocaust'". He says he wants to return to his original purpose, which was to highlight how the IHRA definition is an attack on our freedom of speech.

GMB Scotland Secretary Gary Smith also alleges3 that comments Gregson made about GMB organiser Rhea Wolfson over the same time period amount to anti-semitism and misogyny. In what appears to be a reference to these comments, the letter from President Jim Lennox notifying him of his suspension complains of  "the targeted attacks you have made on a young female employee of the union" and describes Gregson's behaviour as "frankly sinister."

Wolfson was a member of Labour's NEC at the time Gregson created his petition and circulated his letter to NEC members. Gregson says that at that time he did not know that Wolfson was involved in the GMB. He was subsequently told by a GMB member that she was responsible for the complaint against him. His comments about her were made after that. He denies that his comments were anti-semitic or misogynistic or that they can be characterised as "attacks" on Wolfson. President Jim Lennox, in informing Gregson of his suspension, wrote:

"If those individuals and Organisations who have given supportive statements on your behalf were fully aware of the case against you, including about your targeted attack on a young woman, they may not have been so forthcoming in support for yourself."

But the case against Gregson was in the first place about his petition against the IHRA definition of anti-semitism. This is an internationally important issue. Individuals and organisations gave supportive statements because they broadly shared Gregson's concerns over the definition and were troubled by the GMB's attempt to suppress discussion of it.

GMB Scotland does not appear to have said whether or not it has upheld the original complaint about Gregson's petition. Instead it has highlighted other issues that arose out of the handling of the complaint by its officers and Gregson.  

Prior to the disciplinary hearing, Gregson and his lawyers had already raised serious concerns over the GMB's disciplinary procedure.

GMB Scotland claimed on 13 December to have advised Gregson on 2 November of its "investigation". Gregson says: "There was no investigation. There was simply the invitation to respond to allegations that were expounded in accusatory fashion." On 10th December, after receiving a letter from Gregson's lawyer, Daniel Donaldson, GMB Scotland finally sent him a document that it said related to the procedure to be followed. Donaldson responded: "I cannot see from either the GMB rules or the papers authored by you what procedure is being followed here."

Other concerns included attempts by GMB Scotland to prevent Gregson or his witnesses discussing "policy matters including IHRA", the role of Gary Smith as accuser, investigator and arbiter, and the effect of a last minute change of venue for the disciplinary hearing.

Gregson's lawyer Daniel Donaldson told GMB Scotland that all this "serves no other purpose than to facilitate for you a 'kangaroo court'".

In the end, Gary Smith was not present at Gregson's disciplinary hearing. But Gregson's witness, Rabbi Ahron Cohen, who had travelled to Glasgow from Manchester for the hearing, was unable to give evidence because the GMB Scotland Committee refused to delay proceedings for the half hour necessary for him to do so.

Pete Gregson says he will appeal to the GMB Central Executive Council in London for the decision to be overturned. He says he values the union and wants to remain a shop steward within it. He has instructed Glasgow solicitors Legal Spark on this matter and is taking their legal advice. He is also considering applying for a judicial review of his case. He says:

"We aim to prevent Labour or any trade union using the IHRA as a basis to discipline members. In its wholesale application to Labour's 550,000 strong membership, many would go so far as to say the IHRA is leading the Labour Party to assist Binyamin Netanyahu in his mission to destroy Jeremy Corbyn. It has also led to the silencing of free speech for many of the UK's 6.5 million trade unionists.

In a political party founded on equality and social justice, it is not just myself and the hundreds of others who've signed the petition that stand to benefit if we win the right to stay in Labour and in our trade unions. It will become apparent that the IHRA is an unworkable policy in barring statements pointing out that to be an Arab in Israel is - and always has been - to be a second-class citizen.

Winning this battle will help benefit all in the Middle East, caught up in conflict."

 

Statement by Pete Gregson

Statement by Peter Gregson, 28 December 2018, following GMB Scotland's decision to suspend him and recommend his expulsion. Gregson has subsequently told SACC: "I chose the wrong words when I said 'Israel exaggerates the Holocaust'".

"The GMB are expelling me for anti-Semitism. According to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism at tinyurl.com/ihradef I am a Jew-hater. What I actually said was that Israel was a racist endeavour. I also said that Israel tends to exaggerate the importance of the Holocaust for its own political ends. For the record, I am a Holocaust educator; I have studied it at length; I want everyone to know about it; I studied it in Berlin just last summer. However, Israel has a tendency as a nation state to ignore the other factors involved in the persecution of Jews. And the irony is that Israel now persecutes the minorities, especially the Arabs, living within its borders. Most especially in Gaza. And so the racism that Jews suffered during the war is now practised by many Israeli Jews themselves. The Israeli State backs this – there are 60 laws saying Jews have greater rights and in July that approach was incorporated into Israel’s basic law with the “Nation State” law. But it’s wrong to transplant one Holocaust for another.

The Israelis have been working since 2004 to redefine anti-Semitism so that they can stop the BDS movement; they know their apartheid system is at risk. So now anyone who calls it out as such in the UK is an anti-Semite and will be expelled from whatever body they are in or are employed by for telling the truth about Israel. Because most bodies in the UK have adopted the IHRA.

Netanyahu appears to have re-written the GMB rule book, along with everyone else’s."

More Information

  1. Pete Gregson's petition to Labour's NEC declaring" Israel is a racist endeavor. Gregson provides further background in the updates he has posted on the petition website.
  2. Pete Gregson's letter (28 September 2017) to Jenny Formby, General Secretary of the Labour Party, complaining about the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel. The letter is dated 28 September 2017. Gregson emailed a copy of this letter to members of Labour's NEC on 28 September 2018.
  3. Letter from Gary Smith (6 November 2018) to Gregson giving notice of disciplinary investigation.
  4. Letter from Gary Smith (13 December 2018) to Gregson "to set out the main statements of the case of that will be presented the disciplinary next week". Smith says: "This letter is not exhaustive or a definitive position."
  5. Response by Pete Gregson (13 December 2018) to the allegations made by Gary Smith.
  6. Letter from solicitor Daniel Donaldson (17 December 2018) to GMB Scotland raising concerns about GMB Scotland procedure.
  7. Notes taken by Pete Gregson on the disciplinary meeting held in Glasgow on 19 December 2018
  8. Youtube video of the speech given by Rabbi Cohen on 19 December 2018. The GMB Scotland Committee did not give Rabbi Cohen an opportunity to give evidence at Gregson's disciplinary hearing. Instead, he gave a speech outside the hotel where the hearing was held.
  9. Kids Not Suits - Pete Gregson's campaigning website
  10. Fundraiser: Support Pete Gregson's fighting fund to prevent the Labour Party and trade unions from using the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism as an excuse to expel or suspend members who decry Israel as a racist endeavour.
  11. Statement from Free Speech on Israel (27 November 2018): "we must press for the proceedings against Peter Gregson to be discontinued forthwith and he be reinstated and given a full apology for the damaging and unwarranted accusations of antisemitism."
  12. Statement from Sarah Glynn, Scottish Jews Against Zionism (18 December 2018)
  13. Statement from Scottish Friends of Palestine (18 December 2018)

Article History

  1. Amended on 6 January 2018 to include the statement: "Labour Against the Witchhunt calls on Labour’s NEC to reject the allegations of anti-Semitism against Peter Gregson, condemns his suspension by the GMB trade union and calls for the immediate restoration of his full membership rights."
  2. Updated on 9 January 2018 to include the statement: "Subsequent to the publication of this article, Peter Gregson has told SACC: 'In my enthusiasm to pick holes in the IHRA, I chose the wrong words when I said 'Israel exaggerates the Holocaust'". He says he wants to return to his original purpose, which was to highlight how the IHRA definition is an attack on our freedom of speech.