Column for Jewish News Nov 5 2015 by Jenni Frazer
“My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town…. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed”. It’s a tragic image, though sadly not an uncommon one.
But this grandson had a different take on his grandmother’s death. He is the Manchester Gorton MP Sir Gerald Kaufman, and he went on to say: “My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza”.
No, I don’t suppose she did. Nor, I imagine, did this unfortunate woman die to provide an excusable figleaf of sacred Holocaust imagery every time Sir Gerald decides to mount a brutal verbal attack on Israel.
But as we have come to realise, Sir Gerald’s self-righteous drift away from his traditional beginnings in Leeds to an embrace of all things antipathetic to the majority of Jews has become not merely risible, but sinister.
Once, this difficult, tetchy and critical man, a member of the Labour Friends of Israel, appeared to have a good career in front of him after he first became an MP in 1970. He was a junior minister in several departments of state between 1974 and 1979, and achieved lifelong fame by describing Labour’s 1983 election manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history”.
So his gift for phrase-making is not in doubt. But it’s what lies behind Sir Gerald’s talent with words that should concern us. Last week he spared 10 minutes in his busy schedule by arriving late and departing early for an event held in Westminster by the Palestine Return Centre, a group allegedly aligned with Hamas.
Once upon a time, perhaps, this event would have been adorned by the current Labour leader, MP Jeremy Corbyn. As it was, the 45-strong audience had to make do with ex-MP Martin “Tentacles” Linton, he of the 2010 remark that “there are long tentacles of Israel in this country who are funding election campaigns and putting money into the British political system for their own ends…”
So Sir Gerald was in good company when he told the audience that the Conservative Party was influenced by “Jewish money” and that – according to an unnamed “friend” of his in east Jerusalem – more than half the recent stabbing attacks in Israel had been “fabricated” in order to allow Israel to “execute Palestinians.”
Nobody, according to the pro-Israel blogger David Collier, who recorded Sir Gerald’s remarks, raised so much as an eyebrow, though even the Palestinian Return Centre later – grudgingly – distanced itself from his comments.
It’s not just the Palestinians rendered uncomfortable: Gary Spedding, a well-known anti-Israel activist, was moved to write an open letter to Sir Gerald condemning his “conspiratorial statements regarding Jews, Jewish money and Israel… such words are not only racist and anti-semitic, but also highly damaging to the hard work put in to build Palestine solidarity here in the UK”.
Spedding complained that every time there was such an incident “with a high profile public figure such as yourself” it made life well-nigh impossible for pro-Palestinian supporters. Maybe Spedding was thinking of one of Sir Gerald’s other glorious moments, the time in 2011 when the MP Louise Ellman rose to speak in the House and Sir Gerald was heard to intone the immortal words, “Here we are, the Jews again.”
So irritated by Sir Gerald’s remarks was Spedding that he was moved to offer him a primer: an article entitled “How to criticise Israel without being antisemitic”, which makes helpful suggestions such as not using the word “Jew” when the speaker or writer means “Israel” and “not accusing Jews of having dual loyalties or controlling the banks/media/country”.
If this weren’t so serious it would be almost comic. But I am left wondering two things: first, how an 85 year-old man, now styled Father of the House of Commons because of his longevity of tenure, can actually come out with some of this stuff and not know it for what it is – self-serving, arrant nonsense. And second, why did it take a week for Jeremy Corbyn to issue a statement condemning Kaufman?
As the late, great Eric Morecambe was wont to say, Corbyn can play all the right notes, just not in the right order. He – finally, after a week of unhappy community urging – made all the right noises, although I remain uneasy about his reference to “last week’s reported comments” as though he were not really certain that Kaufman had made them. But after “completely unacceptable and deeply regrettable” we were left hanging. What about some action, Jeremy? Some discipline against Kaufman? Or will this, once again, be left on the file, one more great stain on the Labour Party’s lamentable record on dealing fully with antisemitism?