David Cameron: Israel was right to defend itself over Gaza — I feel that very clearly
The Prime Minister talks to JC editor Stephen Pollard about the Middle East, security and why Jews are so integral to Britain
David Cameron is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem last year
Last month’s JC poll showing that 69 per cent of British Jews are planning to vote Conservative might, on one level, owe more to the community’s view of Labour leader Ed Miliband than it does to any attributes of David Cameron.
But that is a far too flippant response to what is, by any standards, a huge endorsement of the Prime Minister.
All kinds of issues lie behind it, but since more than 70 per cent say that parties’ attitudes to Israel is an important factor in deciding how they will vote, Mr Cameron’s almost Blair-esque stubbornness in refusing to criticise Israel during last summer’s Gaza operation — in the face of widespread international opposition — has clearly had a real impact on the Jewish community.
When I met him on Monday, I wanted to understand how this dogged defence of Israeli actions came from the same man who, before becoming Prime Minister, could attack a previous Israeli military operation as “disproportionate and a mistake”, and who had, on an early Prime Ministerial visit to Turkey, called Gaza a giant “prison camp”.
His answer is revealing. He is now even more resolute than he was last summer in his understanding of how Israel’s right to defend itself is more than just the ritual incantation uttered by so many politicians, and can sometimes necessitate military action that others regard as unpalatable.
Being Prime Minister has brought home to him that he is above all else responsible for the safety of his citizens. And that adds a new level of appreciation to Israel’s plight.
As he puts it: “What I’ve seen is the attacks that take place on Israel and the indiscriminate nature of them. As PM, putting yourself in the shoes of the Israeli people, who want peace but have to put up with these indiscriminate attacks — that reinforces to me the importance of standing by Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself.
“I feel very strongly that this equivalence that sometimes people try to draw when these attacks take place is so completely wrong and unfair.
“Because Israel is trying to defend against indiscriminate attacks, while trying to stop the attackers — and there’s such a difference between that and the nature of the indiscriminate attacks that Israel receives.
“I feel that very clearly. I’ve seen it very clearly as Prime Minister and I think it’s important to speak out about it.”
That is as clear an expression of understanding for Israel’s practical right to self-defence as has ever emerged from the mouth of a British Prime Minister.
As for Ed Miliband’s very different stance, Mr Cameron says simply: “He must answer for himself. I just said what I thought was right and I still think it was.”
A few hours before our meeting, Mr Cameron had given a speech in the City of London calling for Britain to become a “start-up nation” — famously, the label applied to Israel. I ask him what lessons we can learn from the country.
“There’s a lot we can learn from the creative culture Israel has produced in the link up between universities, science-based businesses, and defence industries,” he says.
That can go even deeper: “Co-operating with Israel in doing this and having joint tech work is really important.”
Mr Cameron is keen to talk about the threat to the Jewish community, and how it is still being underplayed by some.
Appalling as the Paris and Copenhahen murders were, he thinks that the key date was last May, when French jihadist Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels: “To me Brussels was actually a bit of a moment, and I don’t think it got the coverage it deserved.
David Cameron speaks to JC editor, Stephen Pollard
“It was very worrying because this was the first really dreadful example of people just being targeted simply for their religious beliefs and their identity.”
With Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen showing how real the threat now is, he says he has made the protection of the Jewish community a priority: “That’s why as Prime Minister I’ve tried, in the last few months, to do everything I possibly can to reassure the community about its safety and security, and so the additional money for CST, for independent schools as well as state schools, and working with the police and security services to make sure all the right people are contacted and helped and advised.
“I really feel a huge responsibility to try and get this right.”
The roots of the problem lie in schools and colleges, and he remains “very worried” that not enough is being done to deal with this.
“One of the best ways you defeat terrorism is to be strong and resolute and not to bend or change your way of doing things, which we must do — that’s very British.
“The Jewish community are very bold and forthright in that and we work together on that.
“But we shouldn’t underestimate the extent of the threat. When you’ve got 16-year-old, sometimes 14-year-old, children in great schools with a good future and all the things this amazing country has offered them, being seduced into a death cult of fanaticism and hatred on the basis of a religion it is truly worrying.”
But, I suggest, when he was in opposition he promised to outlaw groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir — and yet it remains in existence.
“We have banned some extremist groups. We haven’t managed to ban all the ones I would like to ban because the law is in my view insufficient.”
So why haven’t you changed it, I ask.
“I have been in partnership these last five years with the Liberal Democrats, who are in many ways admirable people. But when it comes to standing up for small ‘l’ liberal values of free speech, responsibility and defending democracy and our own institutions, I think we need to go further.
“That’s why in our manifesto we talk about banning orders on those organisations that may be just clever enough not to incite violence but are absolutely part of the problem.
“They’re inciting hatred, they’re inciting division, they’re a gateway into violence, they tolerate violence, they have preachers that back violence.”
David Cameron is a staunch defender of shechita, but few people realise how long-standing that interest has been.
Much Meats, one of the largest kosher slaughterhouses in the country, is in the Prime Minister’s Witney constituency.
The Prime Minister explains how this has shown him the importance of shechita: “He’s a good friend of mine, Mr Much. When I became an MP he said: ‘You ought to know, I carry out shechita slaughter for a lot of the UK here and you should come and meet the shochet and come and find out about what this practice involves, what it means to Jewish people.’
“So I went, and ever since then I’ve been a staunch defender of freedom for religious slaughter.”
That’s on a par with his wider view of freedom: “I think that the Jewish community is a model of how to come and integrate into a country and make an enormous contribution — but at the same time as doing that it’s right to respect people’s religious and cultural sensitivities and practices.
“Shechita is one of them. As long as I am Prime Minister, shechita is safe. And the more I have meetings and talk about it, the more secure I feel in that view.”
I end by pointing out that some of his best friends — Lords Feldman and Finkelstein, among others — are Jewish and ask what, if anything, of their Judaism has rubbed off on him.
“Quite a lot. I really admire several things. One is the emphasis on family. All cultures celebrate family but there’s something about the way Jewish people talk about their families and act within their families. And there’s something about Jewish weddings as well. They’re very special.
“I think philanthropy, too. I never cease to be blown away by the unbelievable generosity and public spiritedness, whether it’s organisations like Jewish Care or Norwood or the CST.
“It’s the idea of putting back in, which I so strongly believe in. If you’ve had the chance to make it then you put back in.
“That is so at the heart of what the Jewish community believes.
“And it’s been really special as Prime Minister to come across people like Mick Davis, with the work he’s done on the Holocaust Commission, or people involved with Norwood, CST, and the Ronsons. They’re amazing people.
“So I think that — the mixture of family, community, and just get-up-and-go.
“I hope a bit of that rubs off on me, because they’re thoroughly good things to have.”