UK unveils new extremism definition amid rise in hate crimes against Jews, Muslims

An anti-Israel activist shouts through a loudspeaker on a march through London, during a National Day of Action for Palestine on March 9, 2024. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP)
An anti-Israel activist shouts through a loudspeaker on a march through London, during a National Day of Action for Palestine on March 9, 2024. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP)

Britain unveiled a new definition of extremism on Thursday in response to an eruption of hate crimes against Jews and Muslims since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, although critics said the change risked infringing on freedom of speech.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned that Britain’s multi-ethnic democracy was being deliberately undermined by both Islamist and far-right extremists, and more needed to be done to tackle the problem.

Antisemitic incidents rose by 147% in 2023 to record levels, fueled by Hamas’s October 7 attacks, according to Community Security Trust, a Jewish safety watchdog. Tell Mama, a group that monitors anti-Muslim incidents, said last month that anti-Muslim hate crimes also had grown by 335% since the attack.

“Today’s measures will ensure that government does not inadvertently provide a platform to those setting out to subvert democracy and deny other people’s fundamental rights,” says Michael Gove, the communities minister who heads the department that produced the new extremism definition.

“This is the first in a series of measures to tackle extremism and protect our democracy,” Gove says

The new definition states that extremism “is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance,” that aims to destroy fundamental rights and freedoms; or undermine or replace the UK’s liberal parliamentary democracy; or intentionally create an environment for others to achieve those results.

Britain already bans groups that it says are involved in terrorism, and supporting or being a member of these organizations is a criminal offence. The Palestinian terror group Hamas is among the 80 international organizations that are banned.

Groups that will be identified as extremist following a “robust” assessment over the next few weeks will not be subject to any action under criminal laws and will still be permitted to hold demonstrations.

But the government will not provide them with any funding or any other form of engagement. Currently, no groups have been officially defined as extremist using the former definition which has been in place since 2011.

Even before the new definition was announced, critics warned it could be counter-productive.

Gove says in an interview on Sunday that some recent large-scale pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel marches in central London had been organized by “extremist organizations,” and people might choose not to support such protests if they knew they were giving credence to those groups.

Last week, the United Kingdom’s counterterrorism commissioner warned that the streets of central London have become “a no-go zone for Jews every weekend” because of massive weekly anti-Israel demonstrations held by pro-Palestinian protesters. The protests have featured anti-Israel chants and a number of arrests.

In an opinion piece published Thursday by The Telegraph, Robin Simcox described the atmosphere in Britain since Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, which has led to “skyrocketing” antisemitism in the UK.

“Inflammatory and borderline criminal rhetoric widely shared on social media. A sense that the terrorism threat is rising,” Simcox wrote.

“Protests becoming ever more vociferous, with ‘from the river to the sea’ beamed onto the side of Big Ben during a vote on Gaza. MPs more fearful for their safety than ever,” he wrote, referring to a slogan that critics say is a genocidal call for Israel’s destruction.

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