Want my vote? Be honest on Israel

Politicians’ silence on the Middle East is not the way to win over Jewish voters


By Richard Millett, April 29, 2010
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As a British Jew, I sometimes feel as though we have regressed 200 years, especially when general elections come around.

Two-hundred years ago, a Jewish state was nothing more than a figment of some madman's imagination. Jews were simply a religious group needing the protection of whatever state they happened to reside in.

Under Muslim rule, Jews constituted a Millet - a separate nation. They could organise their own religious practices just as long as they were loyal to the Empire.

In 1789, Clermont-Tonnerre declared in revolutionary France: "We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to the Jews as individuals."

Jews were expected to commit wholly to the countries in which they lived, and quite properly did so. There was no mention of Jewish autonomy or, still less, a Jewish state. A couple of centuries on, it seems that our politicians have worked out that, by mentioning Jews but not Israel, they can have it both ways: ingratiate themselves with their Jewish constituents and remain able to harness the Muslim vote.

Shortly before the 2010 general election was called, the three main UK parties were united in their approval of the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat after Israel's (unproven) use of British passports to assist in the assassination of a self-confessed Hamas terrorist.

As recently as a month ago, in the Financial Times, Tory leader David Cameron said: "Unlike a lot of politicians from Britain who visit Israel, when I went I did stand in occupied east Jerusalem and actually referred to it as 'occupied east Jerusalem'". It seems, then, that Cameron was placing his party firmly in support of one side in the Middle East conflict. No one called Jerusalem "occupied" when it was controlled by Jordan between 1949-1967; when Jewish cemeteries and synagogues were trashed by the Arabs and Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall, was allowed to fall into disrepair. Israeli Jews were banned from visiting it.

Now the election is on, things are different. I hear barely a mention - and never a negative one - of Israel from politicians wanting my "Jewish vote". David Cameron recently spoke to the Movement for Reform Judaism and failed to mention Israel. He praised the "Jewish people" and said he was appalled by the rise in antisemitic incidents. He promised that he would ban preachers of hate and the extremist groups that are radicalising British students. But he did not grasp the nettle and confront the fact that Israel is unpopular with many British Muslims because of the Israel-Palestininan conflict.

As for the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg has called for a ban on the sale of arms to Israel, so leaving it highly vulnerable to attacks from Hamas and Hizbollah. But Ed Fordham, their candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, has carefully mentioned - in a JC blog - the concerns of "one house of Jewish voters" and his "Jewish friends", as well as his visit to Dennington Park Road synagogue.

Labour politician Diane Abbott is also to be found on the JC website with her blog Fighting for Yemeni Jews. She wants to offer this persecuted group sanctuary in the UK. She does not consider Israel as an option. She doesn't even mention Israel in her post.

Abbott admits that Yemeni Jews are being persecuted by the forces of "insurgent Islamicism", yet she previously described Israel's defence against the said "insurgent Islamicism", during Operation Cast Lead, as the commission of "war crimes".

For most British Jews, total commitment to Britain does not rule out a strong concern for the welfare of Israel. This is part-and-parcel of our Jewishness, just as for most British Muslims, also totally committed to Britain, their concern for the Palestinians is likely to be part-and-parcel of their Islamic identity.

So, instead of partisan pandering, our prospective leaders and MPs need to show some honest courage and recognise, for instance, that Israel is fighting terror in the same way as our own troops are valiantly doing in Afghanistan. They also need to speak out against the vicious, self-defeating campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, the latest example of which is the Advertising Standards Authority's ban on the promotion of the Western Wall in Israeli tourism ads.

These are real, fundamental and just British-Jewish concerns. The fact that they are not being addressed takes us back over 200 years to Clermont-Tonnerre's refusal of "everything to the Jews as a nation".

Richard Millett blogs at http://richardmillett.wordpress.com

    Last updated: 10:49am, July 9 2010

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