The donor, the activist and the big questions
How a secret Labour donor and the Prime Minister’s chief fundraiser became embroiled in a new political scandal
NEWCASTLE-BORN DAVID Abrahams, the man at the heart of the Labour Party’s latest sleaze allegations, is well known in Jewish communal circles and Israel-related charities.
Indeed, when the media interest in his 19 proxy donations to the party became intense on Monday, he did not spend the evening at home at his £1 million apartment in Imperial Court, St John’s Wood, in North-West London.
Instead, he headed for the opulent environs of the Royal College of Physicians in Regent’s Park, where the British Technion Society, the UK fundraising arm of the Haifa-based Technion, was holding its annual dinner.
Public-relations consultant Shimon Cohen, whose company represents the charity, was surprised to see Mr Abrahams at the event. “It was unexpected, considering he claims to want to avoid the limelight.”
By the following night, Mr Abrah a ms was a p - pearing on BBC’s Newsnight reading on-air a letter sent to him by Jon Mendelsohn, Gordon Brown’s director of e l e c t i on r e - sources, only two days before the scandal broke in the Sunday papers. This placed the former head of the Labour Friends of Israel at the centre of the row, and led to Opposition calls for Mr Mendelsohn’s resignation.
The only son of Bennie Abrahams, a former Lord Mayor of Newcastle, and Marion, née Shapiro, married at Liverpool’s Princes Road Synagogue in May 1939, David Martin Abrahams was born in 1944, though in 1991, he told a Labour selection committee in Richmond, Yorkshire that he was born in 1954. The JC confirmed that he was born 10 years earlier: his barmitzvah took place at Newcastle’s United Hebrew Congregation on December 7 1957, making next Friday the 50th anniversary of the event.
According to the Yorkshire Post, Mr Abrahams not only attempted to shave 10 years off his age for the Richmond selection committee, but also called himself David Martin and created an instant family. By taking divorcée Anthea Bailey and her 11-year-old son to his interview, he allegedly created the impression they were his wife and son. He claimed that his use of the name David Martin was legitimate, as a way to be independent of his father, a prominent businessman and local politician. After his father’s death, he reverted to Abrahams.
He began his flirtation with Labour politics in the 1970s, when he represented a Newcastle ward on the nowdefunct Tyne and Wear Metropolitan County Council, though he lost the safe Labour seat four years later.
Described as a “Labour groupie” and by journalist Stephen Pollard as “the pushiest person I have ever met”, he was present when Tony Blair gave his resignation speech at his Sedgefield constituency HQ in June.
Though he now has a house in the prosperous suburb of Gosforth, where a large proportion of the city’s secular Jewish community live, he was brought up on the grittier west side of Newcastle. His former solicitor, Howard Gold, said that, unlike many Jewish boys of his age, Mr Abrahams did not attend one of the private schools favoured by the Jewish community, but was sent to a local state school, in line with his father’s socialist principles.
There is no record of university attendance, but Mr Abrahams’s latest project is endowing a chair in Middle East politics at Warwick University’s Centre for Globalisation and Regionalisation. He told the JC that he had selected the Midlands institution because “they have a good track record as far as Jewish students are concerned”.
He is a provincial vice-chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, serves on the board of the Trade Union Friends of Israel, and was among communal leaders who met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during his recent visit to the UK.
He was also the northern convenor of the Labour Friends of Israel and in 1991 was elected to the LFI national executive. It is likely that it was at LFI where he first met Jon Mendelsohn, who became its director in 2002.
Other charities which have benefited from David Abrahams’s gifts include Friends of Bar Ilan University, whose chairman Conrad Morris described him as “a recent donor” who had been present at its May dinner at Guildhall. He has also given to the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations and the Centre for Muslim Jewish Relations, both based at Cambridge’s Woolf Institute, where executive director Ed Kessler described Mr Abrahams as “one of a number of donors who has made relatively modest donations of £2,000 or less in the last couple of years”.
Dayan Ivan Binstock, minister at St John’s Wood Synagogue, confirmed that Mr Abrahams was a member and “an occasional worshipper”, but declined to comment further.
On Tyneside, Rabbi Dovid Lewis, minister of Newcastle United Hebrew Congregation — where a hall was endowed in the name of Mr Abrahams’s mother — told the JC the property developer had “never been anywhere near the shul that I know of in the three years I have been here”.
Shul president Victor Gallant said that Mr Abrahams’s parents had made “huge donations” to the synagogue, but their son “was not a donor”.
Mr Gallant added that he was amazed “that the unassuming man I know slightly has been propelled in to the media spotlight”.
Mr Abrahams was “not an active member of the Jewish community”, not a member of the synagogue and had only “sporadic contact”, noted Mr Gallant, but “he is well known because his father, as lord mayor, was well known.
“I distinctly remember the times I have seen him in shul, he has been saying Kaddish [memorial prayers] for his parents,” added Mr Gallant. He recalled a row four years ago when Mr Abrahams cut down a tree in the local Newcastle cemetery without permission, so that he could erect memorials for his parents. But the row was “amicably resolved”, said Mr Gallant.
On Tuesday this week, after Prime Minister Gordon Brown had denounced Mr Abrahams’s method of contribution to the Labour Party , the JC received the first indication that there was another Jewish player in the affair — Mr Mendelsohn, 28th in the JC’s own Power 100 list earlier this year.
This newspaper obtained a copy of the apparently damning letter written by Mr Mendelsohn, presently the Labour Party’s chief election fundraiser, to Mr Abrahams. The letter, dated November 22, said that the party was “very appreciative of all the help and support you have given over many years”, and asked for a meeting with Mr Abrahams to discuss “the priorities that we are assigning to our resources”.
Mr Abrahams pointed out that this meant Mr Mendelsohn was all too aware of the way in which he was donating money to Labour — and wanted to continue the process.
But in a formal statement issued on Wednesday, Mr Mendelsohn insisted that “given our personal history of past disagreements”, he felt it unlikely that Mr Abrahams would agree to a meeting. His letter, he maintained, “does not ask for funds, but is a polite and courteous request to organise a meeting at which I was planning to tell him of my decision” — that his “method of contribution was unacceptable”. The two had sat next to each other at the Board of Deputies dinner in April.
Jon Mendelsohn with Prime Minister Gordon Brown
David Abrahams with his mother Marion and father Bennie in Newcastle; all three were Labour councillors