Gordon Brown's bid to fix rift with UK Jews

By Martin Bright and Simon Rocker, November 12, 2009
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The government is to launch a charm offensive to rebuild the trust of the Jewish community in response to the anger unleashed by the Goldstone Report on Gaza.

Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis met senior representatives of the community on Tuesday to reassure them about last week’s decision to abstain in the UN General Assembly on a resolution endorsing the findings of the controversial report. Judge Richard Goldstone found that Israel and Hamas should be investigated for war crimes during the conflict.

The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council will meet Downing Street officials next month. They will hope to impress further on the Prime Minister their anger at Britain’s failure to oppose the UN resolution endorsing the report.

Mr Brown has decided to move this year’s official Chanucah reception away from the Foreign Office, where it is usually held, to Downing Street as a gesture of the government’s support for the Jewish community.

Downing Street is said to have been surprised by the lack of feedback from the wider Jewish community about the Goldstone Report, but recognised that the Jewish leadership was furious.

Last week, the Board and the JLC issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the UK government’s position: “We think the government position, however well-intentioned, is wrong…. Progress of the report within the UN contributes to the ongoing delegitimisation of Israel.

“It is presented by her enemies as an endorsement of Goldstone and an accusation of guilt by the UN regardless of the specific text of any resolution.”

The Zionist Federation went further, calling Foreign Secretary David Miliband “duplicitous” over the UN vote.

There is now a growing concern among the Jewish leadership that the report will have domestic implications, especially on campus.

Jeremy Newmark of the JLC said that the joint statement marked a new era of self-confidence within the leadership of the community. “The letter was a huge statement over a matter of principle. During the days running up to the vote there was a natural intensification of the pressure on the government.” He confirmed that attention had focused on the Foreign Office.

Board of Deputies chief executive Jon Benjamin added: “The Board, JLC and others have consistently been critical of the Goldstone Report from the outset… Unfortunately this feeds a narrative that will only gain traction over time, that Israel’s defence of its citizens in the face of prolonged attacks was simply an unprovoked attack on the civilian population of Gaza.”

Behind the scenes, there is a degree of satisfaction that the government was persuaded against full endorsement of the report. As the JC reported last week, UK diplomats were hoping to water down the wording of the resolution so that members of the General Assembly would merely “note” it had been brought before them. Failing that, there was still a fear that they would endorse a watered-down version of the report.

Meanwhile the controversy over the Conservative Party’s right-wing European allies was re-ignited this week after a group of Tory-supporting Jews called on Foreign Secretary David Miliband to stop playing “political football” with antisemitism.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph on Monday, they demanded the withdrawal of “unsubstantiated allegations” against the Conservatives’ East European partners.

But their intervention prompted a sharp reaction from MP Louise Ellman, chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, who denounced “the fevered attempts by the Tory Party to close down the debate about its dubious links with extremists”.

The letter, although not naming Mr Miliband, clearly alluded to his recent attacks on Michal Kaminski, the Polish leader of the European Parliamentary group set up jointly with the Tories, and Roberts Zile from the Latvian LNNK Party, who both visited last month’s Conservative Party conference.

It was signed by former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Young, Howard Leigh, co-treasurer of the Conservative party, party supporters Flo Kaufmann and Benjamin Perl, Richard Harrington, the chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, and 21 others.

They wrote that accusations of antisemitism and neo-Nazism by opponents of the Conservatives were “baseless” and “unfair” and seen in Poland and Latvia as “smears” on respectable, mainstream politicians.

“The Chief Rabbi of Poland has now spoken up on behalf of Michal Kaminski and has made it clear that far from being an antisemite, Mr Kaminski is an outspoken opponent of antisemitism and a friend of Israel,” they stated.

“The Latvian Foreign Minister has publicly stated that ‘none of the ruling parties in Latvia has ever glorified Nazism.’”

But in a statement, Mrs Ellman retaliated by launching a fresh attack on the two men and saying concern about them was above party politics.

She said that Mr Kaminski’s opposition to the Polish president’s apology for the 1941 massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their fellow-Poles “stands condemned”. His defence, that to expect Poles as a nation to apologise for the crime would be equivalent to asking Jews to apologise for the crimes of Jewish Communists, she said, “shows at best, grotesque insensitivity to the unique horror of the Holocaust”.

As for his pro-Israel position, she contended: “Are we to embrace the BNP leader, Nick Griffin because he now ‘supports’ Israel? It is good that Polish-Israeli relations are so positive, but this does not mean that we should ignore Kaminski’s dubious stances.”

She described as “repulsive” the Fatherland and Freedom Party’s [LNNK] support for the “annual commemoration” for the Latvian division of the Waffen SS.

Criticism of the Telegraph letter also came from the Board of Deputies, which is currently carrying out inquiries about the two men.

A senior figure described it as “a pathetic piece of party political propaganda emanating from sources close to the Conservative Party. They speak strictly for themselves and can hardly be described as leaders of the community.”

The Board came under fire a few weeks ago over a letter sent by its president, Vivian Wineman to Conservative leader David Cameron in the middle of the party’s conference, which raised queries about the two East Europeans.

Paul Edlin, a joint vice-president of the Board, also voiced concern that Mrs Kaufmann had apparently signed the Telegraph letter as chairman of the European Jewish Congress. “The Board has been advised that the letter she signed was not authorised by the EJC and they are not associated with it,” he said.

He added that the appearance of the EJC’s name on the letter had “obviously caused some damage to the Board and the EJC. We are looking into the matter further.”

Serge Cwajgenbaum, EJC secretary general, confirmed that the EJC had not yet “officially taken any stand” on the East European links.

Mrs Kaufmann, chairman of the EJC’s council, insisted: “I didn’t sign it in that capacity, I signed it in a private capacity.” She said she did not know how her EJC role came to be used.

    Last updated: 11:36am, November 13 2009