So sue me, Mister President

By Geoffrey Alderman, August 7, 2014

Truth is the first casualty of war. With that in mind, I want to draw your attention to a sordid incident that arose out of a debate that took place at the plenary session of the Board of Deputies on July 20.

At that meeting, there was by all accounts a passionate discussion of the war in Gaza. Among the speakers was Antony Cohen, who then sat as a deputy elected by the Leeds Jewish Representative Council. The JC reported Cohen as having declared: "I'm going to lay my cards on the table, I don't care about any Palestinians, I only care about the Jewish people in this country and in Israel. We are facing a tremendous danger."

Whether Cohen had previously discussed his views with his constituents - the Leeds Representative Council - I do not know. A document, The Role and Responsibilities of Deputies, published by the Board prior to the last triennial elections (2012) makes it clear that deputies are representatives, not delegates. That is to say, they cannot be "mandated" (i.e. instructed) to speak or vote in a particular way - any more than a Member of Parliament can be so mandated. Deputies are elected on the understanding that they will use their best judgment in relation to the issues placed before them. Of course, if this judgment does not accord with the views of those who elect them, they can always be denied re-election.

So Cohen "laid his cards on the table". He said, in public and as a deputy, that he did not "care" about Palestinians, only about the Jewish people in Britain and in Israel. Ten of his fellow deputies were clearly outraged by these openly expressed sentiments, and laid a formal complaint against him. They appear to have taken the view that his prejudices, thus expressed, amounted to "racism" and "discrimination," and constituted, therefore, a violation of the Board's code of conduct.

They reportedly accused him of utterances that could "constitute incitement to racial hatred." For his part, Board president Vivian Wineman "utterly condemned and deplored" the remarks Cohen had made. "We emphasise" (Wineman expostulated) "that his views have absolutely no place at the Board of Deputies." So Cohen's remarks were referred to the Board's constitutional committee. But before it could issue any ruling, Cohen resigned.

Truth is the first casualty of war, even at the Board of Deputies

This is a pity, because the issues raised by this case are not merely significant in themselves. They involve far greater principles.

To begin with, we need to confront the absurdity of the argument that Cohen's remarks amounted to "racism." In a war people are entitled to take sides. During the Falklands War, a great many people in this country said - in public - that they did not care about the Argentinians. And some people - prominent in public life - actually supported the Argentinian position.

Cohen's remarks were in no sense racist. He did not offer any opinion as to the relative biological or ethnographic merits of the Palestinian and Jewish "races," but merely announced that he did not "care" about Palestinians. This is called freedom of expression. Clearly, it's a concept not understood either by Vivian Wineman or by some of those (notably the 10 complainants) over whom he presides.

The Board's code of conduct says that deputies must not "unreasonably discriminate against others" and "must not bring the Board into disrepute." Cohen did no such thing. He merely made a reasoned public statement of his own personal views.

Wineman's assertion that Cohen's views had "no place" at the Board strikes me as sinister. Are all deputies under instruction to love and care for Palestinians?

If so, where does this instruction come from? One newspaper reported Vivian Wineman as having said that "we hold all human life to be sacred." This is in fact contrary to the Orthodox creed that Wineman professes: Orthodox Judaism forbids the deliberate taking of an innocent life but not the life of an assailant.

In my view, Palestinians who support Hamas – an unashamedly antisemitic entity - are at best seriously misguided and at worst palpably evil. In his remarks, Antony Cohen did not go this far. But I do. I challenge Vivian Wineman and the 10 complainants to have me prosecuted for saying so.

Last updated: 4:16pm, August 7 2014