Gerald Kaufman – From Labour Zionist to Israel’s bitterest critic

Middle East
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Gerald Kaufman, who died on 26th February 2017 at the age of 86, was the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland who won a scholarship to Leeds grammar school and Queen’s College, Oxford.  He was one of the original members of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s kitchen cabinet.  Entering the House of Commons in 1970 for the constituency of Ardwick (later Gorton) in Manchester, he was known for his eccentricity of dress.  Having served as an MP for 47 continuous years, Kaufman became the Father of the House of Commons.

Kaufman was on the Right of the Labour Party and was famous for having unfairly described Labour’s 1983 election manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history.’  Yet he was an unusual right-winger known for taking up causes that usually belonged to the Left.

Kaufman deserves credit for, almost single handedly, putting steel into Tony Blair’s backbone over the quaint British custom of fox hunting.  Blair was more than happy to give way to the massed ranks of Tory backwoodsmen, for whom tearing apart a fox was a quintessential British custom.  It was Kaufman who, because he came from the Labour Right, ensured that Blair kept to Labour’s manifesto commitment.

At the 2004 Labour Party conference, Kaufman was ambushed by about 200 snarling members of the so-called Countryside Alliance.  The protestors’ anger at being denied their sadistic pleasures manifested itself in the traditional anti-Semitism of the Tory countryside brigade.  As Kaufman later recalled:

“Never have I seen faces so contorted with hatred and loathing and, as I find with the fox-hunting issue and the fair amount of correspondence I have received, there is a vein of anti-Semitism in it.”

He added:

“But no baying mob out there, trying to tear the clothes off my back and steal my briefcase and hit me, is going to stop me arguing my case.”

Until the Blair era it was the right of the Labour Party which had been less sympathetic to Zionism because British imperialism, after the foundation of the Israeli state, had based itself on an alliance with the Arab regimes.  It was the Tribune left who, up until the Lebanon War of 1982, when Tony Benn and Eric Heffer resigned from Labour Friends of Israel, had seen in Israel and its kibbutzim an island of socialism.  The old imperialist left didn’t notice that the kibbutzim were institutions that an Arab could never join.   

In his early years as an MP Kaufman was a strong supporter of the Israeli state and was a member of both Labour Friends of Israel and Poalei Zion, the British wing of the Israeli Labour Party.  When I first encountered Kaufman, as Chair of the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine, just after the invasion of Lebanon, our encounter was both short and waspish!

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Gerald Kaufman that there can be was that he wasn’t a hypocrite, content to act as a public relations spokesman for the Israeli Embassy when the reality around him had changed.  Kaufman had grown up with Labour Zionism and its myth of making the desert bloom.  Till his dying day Kaufman boasted of his friendship with Golda Meir, Yigal Allon and indeed all Israel’s Labour Prime Ministers.  

Unlike most supporters of Zionism in the Labour Party today, Gerald Kaufman was sincere in wanting to see a two-state solution.  For him it wasn’t a convenient cover for an apartheid Greater Israel.  Both Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement (formerly Poalei Zion) have cynically adopted a two-states position, not because they genuinely want it but as a means of deflecting criticism of their role as Israeli apologists.  Both of these organisations ‘support’ for 2 states includes uncritical support for the military occupation of the West Bank which they justify on the grounds that Israel has the ‘right to defend itself’.  You won’t find a word of criticism of Israel’s military repression, its shoot to kill policies, its imprisonment and torture of Palestinian children, the theft of Palestinian land or the rubber stamp military courts.  As the Al Jazeera programmes ‘The Lobby’ showed, when LFI Chair Joan Ryan was put under pressure by a delegate to the Labour Party Conference as to what two states means in practice she responded with accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’.  

Kaufman was quite sincere in his hostility to Israeli rule over millions of Palestinians and he didn’t hesitate to speak out against the occupation and repression that it entailed.  I am sure that he still thought of himself as a Zionist and couldn’t quite understand why Israel had all ended up as a ruthless and militarised racist state.  

Kaufman’s finest speech and one of the great parliamentary speeches was in response to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 when 1,400 Palestinians were murdered, the victims of an Israeli turkey shoot.  

He summed up the disgust of many when he described how:

‘My parents came to Britain as refugees from Poland.  Most of their families were subsequently murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.  My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow.  A German soldier shot her did in her bed.  Madam Deputy Speaker.  My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.  The present Israeli government ruthlessly and cynically exploits the continuing guilt among Gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians.  The implication is that Jewish lives are precious but the lives of Palestinian do not count.  On Sky News a few days ago the spokeswoman for the Israeli army Major Leibowitz was asked about the Israeli killing of at that time 800 Palestinians.  The number is now 1,000.  She replied instantly that 500 of them were militants.  That was the reply of a Nazi.  I suppose the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants.’

In this speech Kaufman explained how he had been a proud Zionist who had, like so many Jews, put their pennies in the Jewish National Fund Blue box, which most families had in their home.  He like so many of us had seen the experiment in a Jewish state go awry.  Far from being a ‘light unto the nations’ it became the embodiment of all the worst that human statecraft could throw up, the ally of it fellow Apartheid state in South Africa and a partner of Ronald Reagan in the war against the people of Central and South America.  Now is not the time to examine why the Zionist project was flawed from the outset but we should pay tribute to a great Jewish parliamentarian who stood in the finest traditions of Jewish opposition to racism and fascism.

It is a mark of how narrow minded, petty and bitter the Zionist movement is that none of the tributes from the Zionist world to Gerald Kaufman were able to recognise his essential humanitarianism or how he was a continuation of the finest traditions of the Jewish diaspora.  

Robert Brynin in the Jerusalem Post, in the appropriately titled ‘Sir Gerald Kaufman and speaking ill of the dead’, without a trace of irony or self-reflection, bemoaned how Kaufman ‘supported the idea (of Israel) but not the reality.’  That is precisely the contradiction facing many Jews.  Israel as a refuge for Jews seemed fine in theory for many Jews after the Holocaust but a state based on ethnic exclusivity, set up in a colonial context, has a racist logic of its own.  A logic that played itself out in the ethnic cleansing that accompanied its birth and the Occupation that today represents the fulfilment of the messianic dream.

The Jewish Chronicle, the oldest Jewish newspaper in the world and, before its current editor Stephen Pollard, a much respected paper of record, noted in its Obituary that Kaufman had claimed that the British government was ‘under the influence of “Jewish money” ‘ and that ‘Israel had “fabricated” a series of terror attacks in order to allow it to “execute Palestinians”.’  In fact the term ‘Jewish money’ is commonly used by Jews.  I found 590 instances of its use in the Jewish Chronicle’s own archive!  The threat that Jews will no longer fund the Labour Party because of attitude to Israel is a regular one.  Long before Jeremy Corbyn there were newspaper articles such as Labour funding crisis: Jewish donors drop ‘toxic’ Ed Miliband.

As to whether such money influences the positions of political parties, there must be a reason why millions of pounds of money is spent by the various Friends of Israel groups bribing and cajoling MPs.

However the most toxic tribute to Gerald Kaufman was undoubtedly from the misnamed Campaign Against Anti-Semitism – Sir Gerald Kaufman MP’s words have left a rotting stain on our institutions which says more about his Zionist critics than anything Kaufman could ever have said.

About Tony Greenstein

Tony Greenstein is a longstanding Jewish anti-Zionist and an anti-fascist activist from Brighton. In 1982 he was a co-founder of Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Tony was suspended from the Labour Party a year ago as a result of the Anti-Semitism witch-hunt. Tony is the author of The Fight Against Fascism in Brighton and the South Coast. He has written extensively on Palestine and Zionism for, amongst others, the Guardian’s Comment is Free, the Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies, Tribune and the Weekly Worker. Tony was the child of an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi and when young a member of the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva, now part of the Greater Israel movement.

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13 Responses

  1. ErikEast
    March 17, 2017, 2:19 pm

    Great article.

    The obituaries of Kaufman really do show the crassness of the pro-Israel organisations.

    On another note, I wonder in what state the LFI and JLM are following Al Jazeera’s expose. I hope in a terrible state.

  2. Ossinev
    March 17, 2017, 2:24 pm

    “However the most toxic tribute to Gerald Kaufman was undoubtedly from the misnamed Campaign Against Anti-Semitism – Sir Gerald Kaufman MP’s words have left a rotting stain on our institutions – which says more about his Zionist critics than anything Kaufman could ever have said”

    Sad sick twisted pathetic delusional ugly and utlimately so f…… boring these individuals and organisations who are desperately trying to make out a case for there being a major “Anti – Semitic” problem here in the UK and latterly in the Corbyn “led” Labour Party.

    The only A/S problem in the UK emanates from the usual loony crackpot right wing Nazi worshiping fringe groups and their crackpot members. Tiny in numbers and tiny in influence. It`s all about a transparently hilarious and increasingly desperate conflation tactic being used by Zionists in the UK and elsewhere to bludgeon the public into believing that criticism of Israel is by definition hatred of Jews which the Zios are too thick and arrogant to realise ultimately backfires – they assume that the civilised public in the West are generally stupid and will fall for their crap.In particular they simply haven`t cottoned on to the fact that John Citizen in the UK simply cannot fathom how someone who is a Jew and criticizes the words or actions of fellow Jews can remotely be “Anti – Semitic”.

    Sir Gerald Kaufmann RIP was a man of true intellect , true morality and conscience – just like thousands upon thousands of fellow Jews throughout the world who looked and continue to look at what their fellow Jews in Israel were and are doing to the Palestinians and chose to hold them to account.

    The lowlifes who have attacked him are a disgrace to Judaism.

  3. pabelmont
    March 17, 2017, 2:26 pm

    For many, adherence to Zionism is a matter of ideology, and thus beyond either experience or logic or morality. For others, adherence to Zionism is a matter of philosophy and thus subject to the correctives both of experience (facts) and of logic applied to a moral examination of the situation in whole or in part. Kaufman was not an ideologue. As time passes, the ideologues stay “on board”, but others fall away. The direction of motion w.r.t. Zionism is away, not toward.

  4. Kay24
    March 17, 2017, 9:53 pm

    I have never heard any passionate and brilliant speech by any American leader, like the one that was delivered by this brave Jewish leader in the UK. It is a shame that there are not many like him. He had the qualifications to stand up and call a spade a spade, much to the discomfort of the occupier, and by the attacks on Sir Kaufman, you know he hit a home run. Unfortunately people in Congress are too intimidated, afraid, or in the pockets of the criminals who have operated the longest occupation, and who shameless keep building illegal settlements against international laws.

  5. RoHa
    March 18, 2017, 2:15 am

    Sir Gerald deserves every encomium we can offer.

    He was one of the very few worthwhile decent people that have ended up among the contemptible timeservers, drunks, and unemployables who infest the House of Commons.

  6. Theo
    March 18, 2017, 1:41 pm

    I have Kaufman´s commons speech since years in my computer and every time I get disgusted with our politicians for kissing zionist asses, I listen to his words!! One out of hundreds!

  7. Marnie
    March 18, 2017, 2:24 pm

    “Whenever and however the fighting ends, there will still be 1-1/2 million Palestinians in Gaza, and 2-1/2 million more Palestinians in the West Bank, who are teated like dirt by the israelis with hundreds of roadblocks and the ghastly denizens of the illegal israeli settlements harrassing them as well”.

    A simple, verifiable truth that will never be spoken aloud in an address by an american politician. What disgusting cowards.

    RIP Gerald Kaufman

  8. Eva Smagacz
    March 18, 2017, 3:27 pm

    Like Theo,
    I kept going back to that speech of Gerard Kaufman in Parliament, whenever my faith in humanity was diminished. I remember dark, dark days of Cast Lead and visceral, palpable rage and impotence I was feeling.
    His words made such a difference. There was little censure about Israeli assault until this point in the public sphere.

  9. JLewisDickerson
    March 19, 2017, 4:16 am

    RE: “Entering the House of Commons in 1970 for the constituency of Ardwick (later Gorton) in Manchester, he was known for his eccentricity of dress.” ~ Greenstein

    MY COMMENT: Eccentric or not, that tie has beaucoup cachet!

    SPEAKING OF “ECCENTRICITY OF DRESS”:

  10. Steve Macklevore
    March 19, 2017, 7:00 am

    Gerald Kaufman was a courageous and principled man, as well as being extremely intelligent – his intellect was really astonishing. Surely one of the greatest minds of his generation.

    None the less, I could never get beyond respect for him. He was too nasty and hurtful to friends as well as foes to feel any warmth towards him. That huge personality flaw was a shame, as he would have been so much more effective if he’d been more likeable and less cutting towards his natural allies.

  11. Tony Greenstein
    March 20, 2017, 9:23 am

    Like everyone of us Gerald had personality flaws but weighed in the balance his good points far outweighed his bad points. He was almost alone in standing up to the vicious attacks on the Palestinians and offering them real support. That is what we must remember him for, not whether he was offhand, standoffish or even hurtful to friends. Even I am not perfect!

  12. Citizen
    March 22, 2017, 10:11 am

    Kaufman, what would he say about the notion that one can be either Jewish or Universalist, not both? MW supporters, see: The Jewish Left Is Not The Solution, It Is The Heart Of The Problem — @GiladAtzmon http://www.gilad.co.uk/writings/2015/3/22/the-jewish-left-is-not-the-solution-it-is-the-heart-of-the-problem

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