Board urged to invite PA envoy to talk

● Deputies asked to consider address from Manuel Hassassian


A senior officer of the Board of Deputies has urged president Vivian Wineman to issue a "historic" invitation to the Palestinian Authority's UK Ambassador, Manuel Hassassian, to address British Jewry's main representative body.

Board treasurer Laurence Brass, in a letter to Mr Wineman, said it would be right to open dialogue with the Palestinian envoy even if it incurred criticism from right-wingers "who have tended to dominate" its Middle East agenda.

Mr Brass cited the example of UJIA chairman Mick Davis, who sparked controversy last month after calling for more open debate across the Jewish community on Israeli policy.

Mr Wineman was unavailable for comment. But the Board's senior vice-president, Jonathan Arkush, was "not in favour" of asking Professor Hassassian to the Board. "It is not something I would regard as being helpful or appropriate," he said.

The idea was raised at successive Board plenary sessions in October and November by Roger Winfield, a deputy for the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John's Wood.

But Jo Wagerman, a former president of the Board, said an invitation to Professor Hassassian would be "totally unnecessary. The view of the Palestinian Authority is hammered at us in virtually every newspaper and broadcast. The Board has to take the opportunity to show people that Israel has an argument in the debate."

Ronnie Fraser, a United Synagogue deputy and director of the Academic Friends of Israel, said: "I can see that it would be a benefit to the Palestinian Authority in terms of publicity but I can't see what gain it would be for the Board. I think it is far more important to address what the Board can do to support Israel and particularly the problems on campus."

Eric Moonman, president of the Zionist Federation, who represents Belsize Square Synagogue on the Board, declared: "We have more urgent business, which is to discuss the comments made by the UJIA chairman last month."

Former Board vice-president Flo Kaufmann said: "In the light of the furore over the 'Mick Davis affair' and his incautious alleged remarks concerning Israel's policy, I would have thought that if any of our UK Jewish leaders wish to talk to the Palestinians they think twice about it and then if they must, they do it privately, if at all, and in a way that will not undermine or interfere with Israel's declared foreign policy."

But Daniel Handler, who chairs the Board's Israel group, had no strong objections to such an invitation. "I'm always interested to hear what the other side has to say," he said.

Urging Mr Wineman to "grasp the nettle", Mr Brass wrote that inviting the Palestinian envoy would be "a brave move and one which will inevitably bring some criticism from the outspoken right-wing elements who have tended to dominate the Board's Middle East agenda for too long".

He went on: "In the 'post-Mick Davis' era, there is an obligation on the leadership of the community to show a willingness to adopt a more open and receptive attitude towards discussions about Israel. No-one is saying that you or the Board have to agree with whatever Professor Hassassian says but it would be right that we open a dialogue with him at this particular time."

Mr Winfield said he had yet to receive a response to his suggestion. "I think that the Board is lagging behind the moves towards a resolution of the problems of the Middle East and needs to show leadership in this area," he said this week. "If the Israeli government is talking to the PA, then there seems to be no reason why the Board of Deputies in the UK should have a similar dialogue."

Mr Hassassian - who last year accused Israel of having killed 1,400 Palestinians "in cold blood" in its 2009 Gaza operation - has appeared on a mainstream British-Jewish platform before: he spoke at London's
North-Western Reform Synagogue two years ago.

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