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Preston Labour councillor under investigation over retweet

Posted on - 21st March, 2023 - 8:00am | Author - | Posted in - Deepdale, Politics, Preston Council, Preston News
Councillor Ismail Bax has been suspended while an investigation takes place Pic: Preston City Council

A Preston city councillor has been suspended from the Labour Party for sharing a tweet which a member of the local Jewish community claims sought to justify the murder of worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem.

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Cllr Ismail Bax, who represents the Deepdale ward on the authority, is currently the subject of an investigation by the party at a national level, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands.

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The probe was launched last month after the long-serving member retweeted a post penned by a religious advisor to a mosque in Blackburn in the wake of an attack which saw seven Jews shot dead by a Palestinian gunman as they left their place of worship on 27th January.

Read more: Preston City Council considering buying eight homes for Ukrainian and Afghan refugees

Dr. Yusuf Shabbir wrote: “You terrorise a people. You strangle them. You destroy their homes. You occupy their lands. You murder their children. You bomb their hospitals. You restrict their movements. You blockade them. How will they react?”

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Cllr Bax’s retweet of that message prompted a complaint from a Jewish resident of Preston who said that it “doesn’t feel right” for an elected representative in the city to be circulating such a sentiment.

The woman – whom the LDRS is calling Rachel after she asked not to be named for fear of reprisals – said: “When a councillor retweets something justifying the murder of these Jews…it’s not just offensive, it’s downright scary for us.

“There are many churches, temples and mosques in Preston – I don’t think any of them have security, but the synagogue I attend in South Manchester does. That’s how life is.”

Cllr Bax – who was first elected to Preston City Council back in 2011 and is no longer sitting with the ruling Labour group following his suspension – told the LDRS that he was unable to comment during the ongoing investigation. He has also been removed from his previous position as chair of the authority’s planning committee.

Council leader Matthew Brown said at a meeting of the full council last month – at which Cllr Bax was not named – that “swift action” was taken against the “individual concerned” when the issue was raised. But he added that he, too, was unable to speak further on the specifics prior to the outcome of the party inquiry.

Rachel says that she and the around 50 other members of Preston’s small Jewish community are too fearful to do anything that would “openly” identify their religion.

“We have a rabbi and we get together, but we [would never] go to the Flag Market and celebrate, say, [the festival of] hanukkah.

“Our people don’t want to be seen as Jewish. This is 2023 and we’re in Preston – so why not?” asked Rachel, who is part of the Jewish Representative Council.

She stressed the role of language in stoking that fear and urged those in positions of authority to watch their words – and broaden their horizons. While she says she cannot know Cllr Bax’s motivation for the retweet – which has since been deleted – she expects that it probably “feels normal” for him to share something of that nature on social media.

“I’m not out here to cause any harm to anyone – I’m not somebody who cancels people. I just felt that retweeting that [post] was justification [of the attack].

“All I want is all councillors, whatever colour they choose, to understand that we cannot use words and language that is hurtful to other communities. And maybe this councillor and others just don’t know what they can or can’t say.

“There are debates around many topics – there are lots of arguments and we can disagree in civilised ways. In Preston, there is a big pro-Palestinan movement and you have to really find a balance between being pro-Palestinan and not being antisemitic – and there is a way of doing it,” Rachel added.

Councillor Matthew Brown
Councillor Matthew Brown

At last month’s council meeting, she asked Cllr Brown whether a delay to councillors receiving training from the Solutions Not Sides organisation – which says that it aims “to tackle antisemitism, Islamophobia and polarisation around the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the UK” – had contributed to the climate in which Cllr Bax had decided to retweet Dr. Shabbir’s post.

The Labour leader apologised for the hold-up, which he blamed on an “administrative issue”. The LDRS understands that a Solutions Not Sides training session for all councillors took place last week.

Cllr Brown said that his Labour group had also undertaken wide-ranging equality training, facilitated by the national party, which included “raising awareness of antisemitism and antisemitic behaviour”, and that the council had held “quite extensive dialogue with the Jewish community”.

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Having heard Rachel’s fears about life as Jew in Preston, which she outlined in the council chamber, Cllr Brown said that the authority did not “want any section of society to feel like that in Preston”.

He added: “I do understand that, nationally, there have been increases in antisemitism, [so] obviously we do need to deepen the dialogue further and I’m sorry that you’re feeling that [way]. We’ll work even harder, listening to views about those fears and anxieties even more, and do what we can to build on the…work that we have done already.”

Read more: Legal wrangle over Preston Guild Hall is resolved

Cabinet member for communities and social justice, Nweeda Khan, told the meeting that the council prioritised the issue of “community cohesion” in Preston and worked with other organisations to ensure that it was aware of – and so able to respond to – “any up and coming tensions”.

“We also obtain data on a regular basis around incidents of hate crime right across [all] the equality characteristics so we get to know where the hotspots are and what work we need to be doing,” Cllr Khan said.

She added that the city authority engaged in the annual Holocaust Memorial Day and took advice from the Jewish Council about how best to do so, while also seeking to bring different communities together to talk about “the impact of the Holocaust…and hate crime”.

The meeting heard that the council had backed delivery of the Heartstone Project in the city’s schools – an initiative designed to combat prejudice and hate – which Cllr Khan said she hoped would culminate in the development of a “Preston pledge” on the issue later this year.

In 2019, Cllr Brown and Cllr Bax were amongst a group of councillors nationwide to sign a letter supporting Mr. Corbyn after he was “personally subjected to accusations of racism and antisemitism”.

While describing antisemitism as “a scourge” and acknowledging the need to reform what they described as an “inadequate disciplinary process” within the party, the signatories backed the veteran left wing MP’s leadership, hailing him as “a decent man who has fought hate and fascism throughout his life”.

When approached by the LDRS over Cllr Bax’s suspension, a spokesperson for the Labour Party in the North West said: “The party does not comment on internal party matters and any complaints are investigated in line with our rules and procedures.”

The LDRS also attempted to contact Dr. Shabbir to offer him the opportunity to comment on his original tweet.

Read more: Preston signs up to a faith covenant – and here’s what that means

‘Council wants a Jewish voice on city faith agreement’

Rachel also told councillors that the few dozen Jews living in the city are forced out of public life by being “bullied and shouted down”.

She said at the latest full council meeting that that was why there was no longer a Jewish representative on the Preston Faith Covenant.

The covenant was signed by leaders from across the spectrum of faiths in the city back in 2018. It committed Preston City Council to welcoming and encouraging “the involvement of faith groups in shaping and delivering services and social action on an equal basis with other groups”, while also “building relationships and trust with faith groups on common agendas”.

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For their part, the faith signatories agreed to seek “opportunities to bring people together to serve and empower the community, particularly its poorest and most isolated members”.

In his response to Rachel’s comments, city council leader Matthew Brown said that while the covenant was not controlled by the town hall – and that some other faith groups were also not currently part of it – the authority wanted to see a Jewish representative returned “as soon as possible”.

Commenting on the issues raised following Cllr Bax’s suspension, a spokesperson for the local authority told the LDRS: “Preston City Council has an inclusive approach to community cohesion – which is something it takes very seriously – and maintains an open dialogue with all its diverse communities and faith groups.

“The council is committed to supporting Holocaust Memorial Day every year and are working hard to tackle antisemitism and discrimination in Preston. The council has a long-standing anti-racism commitment and backs campaigns such as Standing Together Against Racism, Heartstone Odyssey and Show Racism the Red Card, all of which address antisemitism.

“We also support all major faith festivities that are celebrated in our communities and acknowledge wider social awareness campaigns such as International Day of Peace.

“Preston City Council was amongst the first to establish a Faith Covenant in 2018 and we welcome all organised faith communities to sign the Faith Covenant and to have a representative at meetings with the council. We look forward to the Jewish community in Preston nominating a new representative to the Faith Covenant.

“Members of Preston Labour Group have also participated in detailed equalities training, which includes antisemitism.”

Read more: Preston City Council confirms £150k loan to save The Ferret

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