Oliver Dowden called on Facebook and other tech giants to adopt the IHRA definition
The Culture Secretary told the JC that he is a supporter of Zionism, as he called on Facebook and other tech giants to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism for the first time.
Condemning the use of the word “Zionist” as an antisemitic slur, Oliver Dowden said: “I believe in a two-state solution and I believe that Jewish people have the right to a homeland in Israel and that is the essence of Zionism so, yes, I support it in that sense and I support the right of the State of Israel to defend itself.”
Raising concerns about the onslaught of anti-Jewish abuse across social media in recent weeks, he said: “There may be some practicalities about exactly how [social media giants] incorporate it, but the essence of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition I want them to adopt, just as the government has committed to that.”
It came as he hosted a meeting with Jewish organisations on Monday to seek their views on the recently published Online Safety Bill. The proposals include compelling technology firms to crack down on racist content online.
In an interview at Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in the UK, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “If companies fail to comply with the legislation, they will face fines of up to 10 per cent of their global revenue. But I’ve set out the overall direction I want them to go in and I don’t see why they can’t get on with it now.
“Ultimately, as the fallback, we will have it [in law] and we’ll look at how we incorporate the IHRA definition into the online harms legislation.”
On the sharp rise in antisemitic incidents since hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians earlier this month, Mr Dowden – who represents Hertsmere, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in Britain – said: “I have lots of shuls in my constituency, not least in Bushey, Borehamwood and Radlett, and I think the community is feeling vulnerable and deeply worried. I have had people contacting me saying they didn’t expect to see these scenes on the streets of London.
“I want to send an absolutely unambiguous message to the Jewish community: that this government is on their side and we will stand absolutely steadfast and resolute in showing zero tolerance for antisemitic abuse, whether it’s in the street or online.
“A Jewish pensioner in Golders Green is a Jewish pensioner and any attacks are antisemitism, pure and simple. It does worry me that there is this kind of conflation with events in Israel. There is no culpability of Jewish people in this country, regardless of one’s views on what is happening in Israel, and it’s really important that we address this.”
He added: “I also think we need to look at wider issues. That’s why we’re bringing tougher legislation in relation to BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] because I think – and that’s something I’ve consistently argued for as a minister – we need to break this vile linkage between what happens in Israel and Jewish people in Britain.”
On whether the government will proscribe Hamas in its entirety – only membership of its military wing is criminalised – the minister said it was a matter for the Home Office, but added: “When I was a backbencher, I certainly made the case in relation to Hezbollah and making sure the political wing as well as the military wing was proscribed.”
Mr Dowden condemned the use of Zionist as a “term of abuse with an antisemitic implication when people feel they can’t use other words”.
Bevis Marks, which was opened in 1701, has received £500,000 from a government fund to help cultural sites hit by the pandemic.
Mr Dowden, who observed that its design was “remarkably similar to a Wren church”, was given a tour by Rabbi Shalom Morris and handled an early 18th century jug used for priestly blessings.
He said anyone who has been sharing antisemitic content online would benefit from visiting the Grade I-listed building, which will reopen, post-restoration, in September.
“We’re protecting and enhancing our Jewish heritage in this country,” he said, “and I think it’s really important that people gain a greater understanding of the Jewish faith.
“One of the wonderful things for me as a constituency MP representing one of the largest, if not the largest, Jewish communities, is the deep personal friends I’ve made through the shuls, through visiting Israel. I think if everyone could develop those kinds of relationships, we’d have much better intercommunity understanding.”
Other Jewish beneficiaries of the Culture Recovery Fund include Jewish Museum London, which has received £299,000; Exeter Hebrew Congregation (£24,500), Sandys Row Synagogue (£25,000) and Manchester Jewish Museum (£44,000).