An MP reviled by community
HOW DIFFERENT things might have been.
Under other circumstances, this week’s JC would have been packed with tributes to the country’s oldest, and longest-serving, Jewish MP. We might have lauded Sir Gerald Kaufman’s admirable longevity, praised his efforts in the House of Commons over more than 45 years on behalf of fellow Jews and joked about his quirky dress sense.
He could have been a hero of British Jewry, an influential figure loved across religious and party divides.
Instead, Sir Gerald was reviled. The Jewish community’s responses to his death on Sunday at the age of 86 have been at best muted, but mostly silent.
Fellow Labour MPs were gushing in their praise, his controversies seemingly scrubbed from history. Many of them referred to him being “searingly sharp”; plenty said he was “funny”, “kind” and a good friend.
This for a man who racially abused a Jewish colleague on the Labour benches, and who promoted antisemitic tropes that his party leader claims he wants to fight “with every breath”.
For years, Sir Gerald had been a bête noire of the community – a prominent Jew who spoke out repeatedly against Israel, calling for an arms embargo, sanctions and boycotts at least a decade before such a position became fashionable.
A 2002 BBC documentary, broadcast on Rosh Hashanah, in which he travelled to Israel to record his complaints about the country, was called The End of An Affair and supposed to mark his final engagement with the topic.
But he could not stop. His continued comments resulted in him being verbally abused at his local synagogue and confirmed his persona non grata position in the community.
Little could anyone have imagined he would sink lower almost a decade later. Criticising Israel is one thing, but it was his full-blown antisemitism that was truly beyond the pale. He
compared Israeli soldiers serving during the Gaza conflict of 2009 to the Nazis who forced his ancestors to flee Poland.
His “here we are, the Jews again” comment when Labour MP Louise Ellman rose to speak in the chamber in 2011 was not just crass, but specifically targeted, knowingly full well the hurt that would – and did – follow.
Ultimately, it was a career which should have ended in disgrace with Sir Gerald’s perhaps most outrageous words two years ago. First, he claimed Israel used the Holocaust to justify murdering Palestinians, before later claiming “Jewish money” influenced the Conservative government.
Neither of his claims brought disciplinary action, merely a slap on the wrist from Mr Corbyn for the latter allegation.
I last saw Sir Gerald in November 2015 when I went to ask him about those views on “Jewish money”. I found him apparently asleep in his office, and, after waking him, his only response was to tell me to “go away”. He would not, he added, be explaining himself to JC readers. Defiant to the last.
A son of immigrants to West Yorkshire, an apparent outsider who became a fixture of the political classes — what an example Gerald Kaufman could have set; what a legacy he could have left. How different things might have been.
Sir Gerald with PLO leader Yasir Arafat in 1996