So sue me, Mister Pres­i­dent

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Ge­of­frey Al­der­man

TRUTH IS THE first ca­su­alty of war. With that in mind, I want to draw your at­ten­tion to a sordid in­ci­dent that arose out of a de­bate that took place at the ple­nary ses­sion of the Board of Deputies on July 20. At that meet­ing, there was by all ac­counts a pas­sion­ate dis­cus­sion of the war in Gaza. Among the speak­ers was Antony Cohen, who then sat as a deputy elected by the Leeds Jewish Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Coun­cil. The JC re­ported Cohen as hav­ing de­clared: “I’m go­ing to lay my cards on the ta­ble, I don’t care about any Pales­tini­ans, I only care about the Jewish peo­ple in this coun­try and in Is­rael. We are fac­ing a tremen­dous dan­ger.”

Whether Cohen had pre­vi­ously dis­cussed his views with his con­stituents — the Leeds Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Coun­cil — I do not know. A doc­u­ment, The Role and Re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of Deputies, pub­lished by the Board prior to the last tri­en­nial elec­tions (2012) makes it clear that deputies are rep­re­sen­ta­tives, not del­e­gates. That is to say, they can­not be “man­dated” (i.e. in­structed) to speak or vote in a par­tic­u­lar way — any more than a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment can be so man­dated. Deputies are elected on the un­der­stand­ing that they will use their best judg­ment in re­la­tion to the is­sues placed be­fore them. Of course, if this judg­ment does not ac­cord with the views of those who elect them, they can al­ways be de­nied re-elec­tion.

So Cohen “laid his cards on the ta­ble”. He said, in pub­lic and as a deputy, that he did not “care” about Pales­tini­ans, only about the Jewish peo­ple in Bri­tain and in Is­rael. Ten of his fel­low deputies were clearly out­raged by these openly ex­pressed sen­ti­ments, and laid a for­mal com­plaint against him. They ap­pear to have taken the view that his prej­u­dices, thus ex­pressed, amounted to “racism” and “dis­crim­i­na­tion,” and con­sti­tuted, there­fore, a vi­o­la­tion of the Board’s code of con­duct.

They re­port­edly ac­cused him of ut­ter­ances that could “con­sti­tute in­cite­ment to racial ha­tred.” For his part, Board pres­i­dent Vi­vian Wine­man “ut­terly con­demned and de­plored” the re­marks Cohen had made. “We em­pha­sise” (Wine­man ex­pos­tu­lated) “that his views have ab­so­lutely no place at the Board of Deputies.” So Cohen’s re­marks were re­ferred to the Board’s con­sti­tu­tional com­mit­tee. But be­fore it could is­sue any rul­ing, Cohen re­signed.

This is a pity, be­cause the is­sues raised by this case are not merely sig­nif­i­cant in them­selves. They in­volve far greater prin­ci­ples.

To be­gin with, we need to con­front the ab­sur­dity of the ar­gu­ment that Cohen’s re­marks amounted to “racism.” In a war peo­ple are en­ti­tled to take sides. Dur­ing the Falk­lands War, a great many peo­ple in

Truth is the first ca­su­alty of war, even at the Board of Deputies

this coun­try said — in pub­lic — that they did not care about the Ar­gen­tini­ans. And some peo­ple — prom­i­nent in pub­lic life — ac­tu­ally sup­ported the Ar­gen­tinian po­si­tion.

Cohen’s re­marks were in no sense racist. He did not of­fer any opinion as to the rel­a­tive bi­o­log­i­cal or ethno­graphic mer­its of the Pales­tinian and Jewish “races,” but merely an­nounced that he did not “care” about Pales­tini­ans. This is called free­dom of ex­pres­sion. Clearly, it’s a con­cept not un­der­stood ei­ther by Vi­vian Wine­man or by some of those (no­tably the 10 com­plainants) over whom he pre­sides.

The Board’s code of con­duct says that deputies must not “un­rea­son­ably dis­crim­i­nate against oth­ers” and “must not bring the Board into dis­re­pute.” Cohen did no such thing. He merely made a rea­soned pub­lic state­ment of his own per­sonal views.

Wine­man’s as­ser­tion that Cohen’s views had “no place” at the Board strikes me as sin­is­ter. Are all deputies un­der in­struc­tion to love and care for Pales­tini­ans?

If so, where does this in­struc­tion come from? One news­pa­per re­ported Vi­vian Wine­man as hav­ing said that “we hold all hu­man life to be sa­cred.” This is in fact con­trary to the Ortho­dox creed that Wine­man pro­fesses: Ortho­dox Ju­daism for­bids the de­lib­er­ate tak­ing of an in­no­cent life but not the life of an as­sailant.

In my view, Pales­tini­ans who sup­port Ha­mas – an unashamedly an­tisemitic en­tity — are at best se­ri­ously mis­guided and at worst pal­pa­bly evil. In his re­marks, Antony Cohen did not go this far. But I do. I chal­lenge Vi­vian Wine­man and the 10 com­plainants to have me pros­e­cuted for say­ing so.

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