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.”
“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.