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Faith, the law and freedom of speech

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Was I on holiday a little more than a week ago? I can’t believe I was. I returned to an unexpected roller coaster of a week that has almost derailed the memories of fabulous food, sunshine and gorgeous views.

It was back to work with a vengeance – and it’s only now that I’ve had the time to relax, let my brain unwind and download all the information from this turbulent past week.

As a born optimist, I would add that there is a small upside to a non-stop week: it’s a great way to lose those holiday bulges! All the dresses that were embarrassingly too tight on holiday are zipping up with ease. “Half of you has gone!” said my husband last night as, exhausted, I finally stumbled into the kitchen in search of a glass of wine. Despite the fatigue, I told him it was the best thing I’d heard all week.

So where could half of me have gone? Let me think…

Much of this week was spent in London. Before leaving, I was thrilled to give a speech to the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks and his wife who had spent the weekend in my hometown of Leeds. We are a small Jewish community, making up only one per cent of the population of Leeds, but as a community we give a great deal back. In particular, we work hard in a city made up of many different communities, to have successful relationships with our non-Jewish neighbours.  The Chief (as he is known) and his wife worked non-stop, meeting as many people as possible in Leeds including the Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire and the vibrant Archbishop of York, and clearly exhausting themselves into the bargain. From Leeds they were travelling on to visit the even smaller Jewish community in Hull and then back to London for his keynote speech that same evening on faith and the law.

Faith isn’t a fashionable topic at the moment. If you have faith you are open to virulent attack, albeit the attack is likely to be verbal or in writing. Fair enough. As readers know, I fully support our democratic right to freedom of expression. We all have different views and we are all entitled to express them. That’s fine. Sixty million people, sixty million opinions.  However if part of your faith includes support for the State of Israel, you will encounter anti-semitism in all its guises and from all different people, some from those you expect, some worse still from those you don’t, who should know better.

If despite this, you are the much loved and admired head of a community of Jews, and you carry on regardless, in the full glare of the public eye irrespective of the threat to your safety, you are a very brave man indeed. What is not generally known about the Chief is that he is obliged to travel with not one, but several bodyguards. He cannot speak without the threat of serious attack in our country in what should be a bastion of democracy.

My admiration for the courage of the Chief Rabbi and his wife and the vital work they do for Jewish people in this country  knows no bounds and It was my great pleasure to be asked to thank them for their visit.

Then onto London. I was accompanied by barrister-turned-trainee solicitor Paul Read. We did not travel lightly: all our bags of files were loaded into an executive van. We set off for what we thought would be a one-hour meeting, or two hours tops…

We returned three days later. Our work detained us.

So I was able to attend a dinner at the newly-reopened Savoy Hotel, that I hadn’t been sure I could make. The guest speaker was headlined as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel who, unfortunately, was also having a stressful week. He cancelled, preferring to schedule a trip to Washington. His deputy, Dan Meridor, should have taken his place at the Savoy dinner. However in this country we still have something little known and most unpleasant, called the “universal jurisdiction principle”. Under threat of an arrest warrant being issued against him, by extremists determined to silence him, and which needs to be signed by only a low level magistrate, Mr Meridor, the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, had no choice but to cancel and avoid an embarrassing diplomatic incident all round and of course the threat to him personally.

Compare and contrast with the warm reception  our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, had from Israel this week, with his visit hailed as a resounding success on both sides. However one Israeli diplomat did comment on how absurd it is that their delegation could face the risk of arrest in travelling to London and continuing the strategic dialogue.  Mr Hague has pledged to resolve the “unacceptable situation” with regard to universal jurisdiction, and legislative changes are expected to come into effect in 2011.

At the Savoy Michael Gove, the UK Education Secretary, gave a resounding speech in Mr Meridor’s place. He, too, called for the repeal of the UJ law. I hope the government will honour its word.

As I have written before, to my mind the truth of the Middle East conflict is made up in differing shades of grey. Travelling through the country as I did only a week ago, from the heights of its Lebanese border in the north, the heights of its Syrian borders to the northwest then through the heights of the Palestinian West Bank, courtesy of our informative Palestinian driver and with only the Mediterranean Sea and the potential rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza to the east, I concluded that secure borders for Israel must be a prerequisite to any resolution of the conflict. But we never get to hear of this. Silencing those with legitimate and opposing points of view, and using our own law to do it, is simply wrong and is not the answer.

Recently an attack was made on my blog was for the second time, after I posted about a holiday to Jerusalem.  It is all very sad. I don’t expect all or indeed any of the readers of my blog, to agree with my views. Why should I? For example John Bolch of Family Lore has become a friend whom I admire, even though we disagree over the subject of faith. And why shouldn’t we disagree? We are a democracy in this country.

But if some people who bravely stand up and speak out about what they believe are targeted and threatened and attempts are made to intimidate them into silence, while those who disagree with them can speak out fearlessly and know no such bars, what is this country and above all our proudly fair and independent justice system coming to?

My trip to London involved a lot of hard work into the bargain. It would have been far easier and less controversial for me to post about the impact of established trusts in family law, the way to resolve a divorce conflict in such circumstances, and the case which occupied us for much of this week. But to me – and, I’m sure, right minded people everywhere – I wish to point out that our hard won, extremely precious right to freedom of speech is under attack in this country. I believe we should make every effort to stop it, whether we agree with what is being said or not.

There!  I’ve said my piece. Normal service will resume next week.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. John Bolch says:

    Marilyn, I am saddened to hear of another attack on your blog. As the cliche goes, I may disagree with your views, but I will defend your right to express them.

  2. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Why else are we lawyers if not to express ourselves and fearlessly so?
    Thanks so much John.

  3. John Bolch says:

    My pleasure. Incidentally, I don’t think our views on family law differ so much!

  4. Joanne Perkins says:

    Marilyn what a fantastic article. On the subject of the universal jurisdiction principle, I find it outrageous that our country welcomes with open arms delegates from other countries that openly preach hate and destruction against our own country and yet democratically elected politicians from Israel, one of the UK’s most faithful allies, cannot visit this country without fear of arrest. What is this country coming to?!

  5. Marilyn Stowe says:

    By way of update, I understand the first reading of the Government’s Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill took place yesterday afternoon.  Attached to this bill was the way in which Universal Jurisdiction law will be changed, stating that consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions will be required before an arrest warrant will be issued to a private prosecutor in respect of an offence of universal jurisdiction. This will interfere as little as possible with the existing rights of private prosecutors, and will not prevent them from initiating prosecutions for these offences where the evidence justifies that course.
    It is estimated that the Bill will receive Royal Assent in summer 2011, as it must go through several readings in the House of Commons, committee stages, House of Lords and then back to the Commons.

  6. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Further update. This is now law.

  7. JamesB says:

    Well written. Although I have been reading your blog and am wondering what you took offence to – I have seen nothing that bad?

    I am not a lawyer, but am pleased when dodgy geezers (and geezeresses) get arrested for their sins. E.g. Pinochet. the Litvinenko murderrer. I also think tax havens suck.

    I was saddened to hear about the Chief needing a body guard, he seems like a nice chap.

    Wrt Israel, the blockade on Gaza and shooting dead of unarmed Turkish protesters on top of countless more in Gaza and West Bank – Turkey is a moderate country which recognises and supports israel and I support it’s accession to the EU (and I’m not a Muslim).

    I do hope that we can have some peace and quiet over there in the Holy Land and here also. I do pray for that. i hope that no news is good news and the killing and persecution against both sides in this dispute will end.

  8. JamesB says:

    Perception can be vicious and wrong and I don’t think the outrage against the bankers has helped this persecution that you mention as there are a lot of Jews in the industry. The three keys logo bank that made the dodgy loss this week also has jewish heritage I think.

    Oh damn, I’m sounding like Adolf Hitler with his international jewish finance conspiracy theory.

    Wrt Jewish people, I prefer Catholics, but have nothing against them. I certainly wouldn’t arrest Benjamin Netanyahu or shout at the chief or anyone. I like the Chief (but not Ben) and listen to him all the time on the BBC and value his opinion very much and have always agreed with him (he tends not to talk about Israel).

  9. JamesB says:

    Henry VIII invited the Jews into England but restricted them to the professions of Finance and Entertainment (which were not well regarded at the time). Since then those professions have done very well. So it is our own fault a lot of this jealousy and envy perhaps.

  10. JamesB says:

    I should say re-invited, as a previous monarch had expelled them. Personally I welcome them and they have done well for the Country and Germany’s and the Eastern European’s loss in the 30s and 40s was the UK and USA and the rest of the worlds gain. Like the Ugandan Pakistanis. But not like the mass economic mitration underway currently as we are full.

  11. Lukey says:

    “Mr Hague has pledged to resolve the “unacceptable situation” with regard to universal jurisdiction, and legislative changes are expected to come into effect in 2011.”


    I know you don’t like the current government Marilyn, but I highly doubt the last government would make such a statement.

  12. Marilyn Stowe says:

    I just dont like the arrogance. I do understand they are trying to clear up a huge mess but there are ways of going about it in a way that is respectful of everyone.
    I agree with you about this issue however. Ed Milliband et al are actually far too left wing for me. The universal jurisdiction law is now in force and a great injustice and embarrassment has been corrected. Credit where credit is due.

  13. Marilyn Stowe says:

    James B
    Have you read the Palmer Report which finds Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is “legal“, “appropriate”, consistent with international law, and that IDF Naval forces have the right to stop Gaza-bound ships in international waters.

    While the report was critical of some of the tactics used by the IDF in defending themselves from IHH terrorists, it also stated unambiguously that their use of force was morally justified, and noted that when Israeli commandos boarded the main ship they faced “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers” and were therefore required to use force for their own protection.

    The report is hard on the IHH sponsored flotilla, Mavi Marmara, asserting that it “acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade.”

    While the report certainly isn’t one-sided, and indeed includes criticism of Israel pertaining to the way the IDF Navy responded to the violence on board the Mavi Marmara, it simply can no longer be honestly claimed that the blockade enforced by the Israeli Navy to prevent arms from being smuggled into Gaza is in breach of international law.
    Thats as far as Im going to enter into this discussion to avoid getting into any arguments about issues which really arent related to family law and will just go on without direction. I just thought Id clear up what seems to me to be a lack of fair media reporting on the subject in the UK.
    Hence its great to see a change of the law.

  14. JamesB says:

    Well, they certainly made a mess of it and didn’t help themselves shooting people dead who were unarmed. I think they are too hard on the arabs.

  15. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Egypt got the entire Sinai peninsula from Israel for peace. Gaza was cleared of its Israelis for peace. Israel has always given land for peace but then what? Egypt is tearing up it’s peace treaty. Gaza promptly increased all it’s rockets and terrorised Israel. Jordan may well be going the same way. And Syria? Lebanon?
    Why not think of 7million people in a country less than the size of Wales surrounded by millions of it’s enemies who will not make peace, who will not accept the right of Israel to exist? Whose stated aim is to drive every Israeli into the sea?
    And by the way:-

  16. Graham says:

    What r u talking about Egypt tearing up peace treaty. They recognise Israel. Syria have enough problems of their own. I don’t see the Israelis as weak. Playing the victim I think you ve seen it too much in your profession and life (as have I) to recognise it when I see it. Israelis and Palestinians both play the victims, on the balance of probabilities 😉 I marginally side with the Palestinians as things stand. To be honest, the Muslims aren’t the bad people the West paint them as. Like I have said before I don’t think they can carry on with this victim mentality with tanks against carts.

    No, I don’t know what the answer is either. I like what I heard on the radio this evening (r4) it doesn’t matter what religion you are, it is how you live your life that matters. I am not a big fan of Ben N. I am not a fan of the Iranian president either. If I’m forced to take sides – I wouldn’t. In Presidents Ultimatum I guess that puts me against him. I do what I can for myself and my family, probably my race, not sure about religion. Whichever one is most practical I think. I must admit I am thinking of turning to catholicism, but the whole paedo priests is not good at all. If they could marry I’d probably do that.

  17. Graham says:

    And it was Jewish terrorists (e.g. Stern gang) that created Israel anyway, therefore your use of the word terrorist is confusing and misplaced.

  18. Marilyn Stowe says:

    The Stern gang did not create Israel. The UN did. Legally. Jordan was a creation too, with a royal family brought in from Saudi. Jordan was part of Palestine. The West Bank was part of Palastine. The Arabs attacked Israel from all sides in 67, 73 .. and lost. That’s where all the current problems stem from. Israel and Egypt made peace and all of Sinai was returned. But how you can say the peace treaty isnt at risk Ive no idea. What about the oil supply agreement to Israel? What about the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the blood curdling demonstrations? What does the peace treaty mean to the Egyptians? Do they think it’s legal?
    So what does Israel do with Gaza whose government seeks only destruction of Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians who do run the West Bank with massive aid from all over the world, (although how they spend it is a different matter) but who all refuse to recognise the existence of Israel and whose stated aim (usually in Arabic) is to drive every single Israeli into the sea? Who demonise Israelis to children through books and tv, who encourage women and children to become human bombs, who tell them it’s their sacred duty to kill Israelis? I’ve watched them on TV, read the vilest propaganda. They’re utterly horrific.
    And finally, their motto? ‘ From the river Jordan to the sea.’
    How do you make peace with them?
    Shouldn’t the emphasis rather be on them for a change?

  19. Graham says:

    Well, I’ve a very good friend from the falls Road in Belfast from University days. He and me used to get into big arguments about the IRA and another one of our friends used to say your having a go at him for killing your children then he has a go at you for killing his children it just seems to go round and round.

    It made me and him stop and think. It’s just like Northern Irelend and their are injustices on both sides. I stand by what I say about Egypt and Turkey. If we are talking UN resolutions then Israel is breaking them with occupying and building on arab land. But like I say, and I quote Ghandi, an eye for an eye and the whole world ends up blind.

  20. Graham says:

    I’ve also seen Israeli extremists and arab extremists all talking about exterminating the other. Then I usualy turn over to the cricket!

  21. JamesB says:

    To be more positive, I do like the Israeli PR (electoral) system.

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