Hackney Council sparks backlash from pro-Palestinian campaigners after removing ‘antisemitic’ graffiti

The repainted bridge close to Broadway Market where graffiti was found. Photograph: Martin Sugarman

Hackney Council is facing a backlash from pro-Palestinian campaigners after describing the words ‘Free Palestine’ as “antisemitic”.

The Town Hall last week removed three pieces of graffiti containing the slogan from a bridge and a wall close to Broadway Market.

The words appeared just days after Hamas launched an attack in which more than 1,400 Israelis have died and a further 199 taken hostage.

At least 2,700 Palestinians have been killed in response.

Hackney’s interim chief executive, Dawn Carter-McDonald, said last week: “We received reports of antisemitic graffiti, which we removed immediately.”

Hackney Council did not respond when asked to explain why it considers the words ‘Free Palestine’ to be antisemitic.

Sussan Rassoulie, secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s (PSC) local branch, condemned the violence in the Middle East and questioned the Town Hall’s response to the graffiti.

She said: “The rights and wrongs of graffitiing our beautiful streets aside, the statement ‘Free Palestine’ expresses the desire for an end to Israel’s apartheid regime and for Palestinians who live between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea to have equal rights as Jewish Israelis living there.”

Rassoulie added: “As humanitarians, we are all appalled and horrified at the scenes we are witnessing after the severe escalation of violence since 7 October.

“International law makes it clear that the deliberate killing of civilians, hostage-taking and collective punishment are war crimes.

“International law also enshrines the right of a people to resist oppression and military occupation.”

She continued: “Beyond this immediate context, Gaza, with a population of over two million – of whom 50 per cent are children – has been subjected to an Israeli-imposed blockade for the last 16 years.

“This collective punishment of an entire population is in absolute defiance of international law.”

She said the PSC has “a sincere wish to see an end to all violence, especially violence against civilians, but we recognise that this will never be achieved unless the root causes of that violence are addressed”.

The graffiti around Broadway Market was reported to the Town Hall by local resident Martin Sugarman, an archivist for the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women and chair of Hackney-Haifa Twinning.

In an email on 10 October to councillors including deputy mayor Anntoinette Bramble and cabinet member Chris Kennedy, Sugarman complained about seeing “three distressing antisemitic/anti-Israel daubings”.

He wrote: “On the same day that 100 more Israeli Jewish bodies have been found at two kibbutzim villages near Gaza, including many babies shot dead at point blank range and also their faces shot away to make identification difficult, this insulting act supporting Hamas – which all parties have condemned consistently since Saturday – is truly barbaric and mocks the death of now 1,000-plus unarmed, innocent people in their homes in south Israel.”

He urged the Town Hall to quickly paint over the “disgraceful” slogans, adding: “This stuff spreads fear and social anger unless it is stopped soon.”

In her statement from last week, Dawn Carter-McDonald said: “We have a proud tradition of respect and understanding in Hackney which has helped ensure the safety and security of all our residents.

“Any attempt to use the recent appalling events to provoke abuse or violence in Hackney will be treated with utmost seriousness.

“We received reports of antisemitic graffiti, which we removed immediately. We work closely with our partners in the police and the community year-round to ensure that hate crimes are investigated and those responsible are held to account.

“We urge anyone who sees or experiences antisemitism or other forms of hate crime to report it to the police or to the council.”

Hackney is home to one of the UK’s largest Jewish Orthodox communities, and the police and council have sought to reassure them.

Borough commander James Conway said of the recent violence: “We are aware that this conflict has a far-reaching impact on communities around the world, and we extend our full support to those affected in London.

“We are listening and working with communities – including the Jewish and Muslim communities, and partners and charities – to ensure people feel safe and protected.”

Update, published at 14:41 on Thursday 19 October 2023: Hackney Council press office supplied, at 11:52 on Wednesday 18 October 2023, an additional quote from chief executive Dawn Carter-McDonald.

Dawn Carter-McDonald said: “We would like to clarify that our statement refers to the report from a resident that the graffiti was antisemitic. We removed the graffiti swiftly in line with our usual graffiti policy.

“We are proud that thousands of residents from Jewish, Muslim and other faiths call Hackney home – and our first and foremost concern is their safety.”