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Alienated by Corbyn? Come home to the Lib Dems, says leader

As the leader of a party based on "religious tolerance and equality and freedom at every level", Mr Farron firmly believes the Lib Dems will be attractive to Jewish voters.

    Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat leader (Photo: Getty Images)
    Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat leader (Photo: Getty Images)

    The Liberal Democrats will be a "warm home" for Jews who have been alienated by Labour's antisemitism crisis, according to Tim Farron.

    Describing his "very sincere" desire to offer the community a centre-left alternative, the Lib Dem leader is promoting his party as the only option for Jewish Labour activists who feel they cannot support Jeremy Corbyn.

    "I want to make a bold pitch to progressive voters in the Jewish community and say, we are for you," says Mr Farron.

    "As somebody who considers himself to be a friend of the Jewish community here, supports the right of Israel to exist, supports a two-state solution and thinks antisemitism should be called out at every single opportunity it rears its ugly head, I hope people would find that we are progressive, going places and a warm home."

    Speaking to the JC in his Westminster office ahead of the annual party conference opening in Brighton tomorrow, Mr Farron claims a 25 per cent increase in party members in recent months includes "plenty of Jewish people", and hints some disaffected Jewish Labour donors have already defected.

    I make a choice to say we support Israel as a state and the Jewish community very strongly

    "Whatever one thinks about Jeremy Corbyn's position on antisemitism, the lack of a decent, progressive opposition to the Conservative government should trouble any community - but particularly progressives within the Jewish community.

    "We have a Labour leadership that has tolerated and has stood alongside people who have expressed appalling antisemitic views and who have equated Islamic State with Israel."

    The 46-year-old says he will remain critical of the Israeli government when he feels it is appropriate, but says "to undermine the legitimacy and the security of the state of Israel, and still worse, to give succour to those who are likely to abuse - verbally, physically and in other ways - members of the Jewish community in Israel or anywhere else is utterly unacceptable".

    As the leader of a party based on "religious tolerance and equality and freedom at every level", Mr Farron firmly believes the Lib Dems will be attractive to Jewish voters.

    But, as he looks out across Parliament Square, is it not overly hopeful to imagine the community will be open to his advances? When the JC polled British Jews in May last year, just two per cent said they planned to vote for the party then led by Nick Clegg. By May this year the figure had risen to 4.6 per cent.

    "Obviously there's movement," Mr Farron says with a smile. But with 82 per cent of British Jews claiming they would vote for the Tories, his hopes surely appear to be misplaced.

    The optimistic Lancashire-born MP with a Cumbrian constituency is unrelenting though. "We hope people will come and support us. We continue to see a rhetoric which is divisive and isolationist, which is bad news for everybody and particularly if you belong to any kind of minority.

    "The UK could become quite a cold and isolated place, and if you start being isolationist towards your neighbours, it's not long and not much of a step to become intolerant to those communities within the wider community."

    His positions on the most relevant Jewish policies are clear. Mr Farron would prefer animals to be stunned before religious slaughter, but recognises and accepts kosher and halal practices will not allow it. On circumcision, he supports the right to religious practises.

    For all the warm words, it is hard to see how Mr Farron or his party occupy a central role in the community's political conversation. For example, what about Israel policy? It cannot help that the Lib Dems' foreign affairs spokesman, Tom Brake, is almost entirely unknown.

    In response, Mr Farron outlines what he calls a "more grown-up" approach to talking about Israel and the Palestinians, but when pushed goes on to run through what seems to be little more than a box-ticking exercise.

    The Lib Dems believe in a two-state solution, he says, and under his leadership will "demonstrate without doubt support for the state of Israel and its right to defend itself in secure borders".

    Having in the past spoken of Israel using "disproportionate" force in Gaza, he insists he will always say what he thinks.

    "Providing a critique of the Israeli government on matters that are our business in terms of human rights and proportionate response and so on - I think it's right to do that."

    During the Gaza conflict of 2004, it was the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable who fought for the government to impose an arms embargo on Israel.

    Mr Farron believes his former colleague was wrong to do so. "I'm opposed to embargoes and sanctions of any kind against Israel," he says.

    When he became party leader in July last year, his temporary chief of staff was Jewish public relations specialist Ben Rich. Lord Palmer, the Jewish peer and former Barnet councillor, is his Middle East advisor.

    Earlier this year Mr Farron met a delegation of communal leaders, including senior figures from the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council. As a result, he believes he has a good understanding of Jewish voters' concerns.

    He explains: "I see where criticism of the Israeli government bleeds into really quite hideous stuff. I see that across the political spectrum and consider it to be very wrong.

    "I deliberately make a choice to say we support Israel as a state and the Jewish community in this country very strongly, and to reach out. It's not contrite - I passionately believe in that."

    Given how the actions of two once-prominent Lib Dem figures still jar with British Jews, some might say it is rich for him to lecture Labour's leader on tackling antisemitism.

    But Mr Farron is adamant lessons have been learned from the scandals over Baroness Tonge's and David Ward's comments on Israel.

    "To equate the actions of the Israeli government to the Jewish community and to demonise the community is utterly unacceptable," he says.

    The party may not have dealt with the two individuals "perfectly", he admits, but points out Baroness Tonge was disciplined under Sir Menzies Campbell's leadership - Mr Farron was in the room when she was stripped of the party whip – and Mr Ward also had the whip suspended.

    So how did Mr Farron feel when Mr Ward, a former Bradford MP, was elected as a Lib Dem councillor in the city in May and immediately posted offensive tweets?

    Mr Farron acknowledges his abilities as a councillor but adds: "It's a reminder - with David Ward especially, but it goes to lots of people this - that Israel-Palestine is such a massive, complex issue that we let everybody down if we try to deal with it in 140 characters."

    It was rumoured Baroness Tonge - a long-standing friend of Mr Corbyn - may join Labour. "I couldn't possibly comment," says Mr Farron, again displaying an impish smile.

    His own personal faith -the father-of-four is a committed Christian – provides a different perspective which will help him develop a relationship with British Jews, he believes.

    "If we end up in a society where the assumption is that absence of faith is the neutral, respectable position, and that having a faith is some kind of slightly idiosyncratic aberration that in a free society we will tolerate - I do not buy that at all," Mr Farron says.

    "I think that's an insult to the intelligence of anyone who belongs to any faith group.

    "Seeing common ground and knowing where people come from, that's something I can bring to the table."

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