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Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Israel's critical Lib Dem friend

Very interested to see the Jewish Chronicle's coverage of a recent visit to Israel/Palestine by Laurence Brass: and

Laurence is a former Liberal candidate who, like me, used to be a Vice-Chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (on whose committee I still sit, although I write here in a personal capacity) and is the Treasurer of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, although this trip by Laurence to Israel/Palestine (organised by a British group called Yachad: was undertaken by Laurence in a personal capacity.

Israel's critics often say (sometimes disingenuously) : "We criticise Israel because, as friends of Israel, we wish to be candid friends and tell Israel when Israel is wrong - that is the act of a true friend." They also often say (again, sometimes disingenuously): "Why can Lib Dems who are friends of Israel not be critical friends who say something when Israel's got it wrong?"

And you could argue that this is precisely what Laurence has done, given what he says about a Palestinian schoolgirl being taken to hospital with head wounds after apparently being stoned by someone living in a nearby Israeli settlement, and what he says about a rusty car having been dumped in a Palestinian village well, in what Laurence considers to have been a deliberate attempt to disrupt the villagers' clean water supply.

As a friend of Israel, am I not allowed to be as disgusted by reports of such alleged actions as I would be by reports of English football hooligans abroad allegedly smashing windows and urinating on the beach? In either instance I would need to hear the facts before rushing to judgement, but would my disgust at the possibility of such behaviour by some Israeli or English people really make me anti-Israeli or anti-English?

Yes, I know that Israel's critics often stray into language that is antisemitic (unlike Israel's enemies, who don't need to stray into such language, as they are already there). I know that Israel's actions attract a massively disproportionate amount of critical attention in relation to other, far more serious things that happen elsewhere in the Middle East and the wider world, and I know that Israeli 'settlers' are demonised and de-humanised in such a way as to suggest that THEY are the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict, when that conflict actually existed long before there even WERE any settlers, meaning that they can't be the conflict's root cause, that root cause actually being the Arab world's refusal to accept the existence of the State of Israel on any terms whatsoever - I know all of this, and have written about it here many times.

I also know that, given that Israel has no lack of harsh critics, it doesn't really need additional criticism from those people who are its best friends. I understand the arguments that diaspora Jewish communal leaders (of which the Treasurer of the Board of Deputies is a prime example) can express their reservations to the Israelis in private and ought not to add grist to the mill of Israel's critics in public.

And I know - and this is very important - that Israel does arrest and prosecute those of its citizens who act in the appalling way that Laurence describes, just as such people would be arrested over here:

But...What if Laurence had gone to the West Bank and not criticised Israel, but praised it? What if he had said: "I applaud Israel's rigorous prosecution of those Israelis who sometimes behave badly towards Palestinians" - would the same people who have booed Laurence for criticising Israel have booed him for saying that? I don't think that they necessarily would, and if Laurence's praising Israel would not have sparked allegations that he has failed to behave impartially, then why should such allegations be sparked by his criticising Israel? The blade surely cuts both ways.

What I assume to have happened (and it is only an assumption - I have not spoken to Laurence about this) is that Laurence, who I have known and liked for years, went with Yachad on a one-day trip to the West Bank ( at a time when he was in Israel (perhaps on holiday) anyway. Having seen what he saw, he said what he said, because that's Laurence, and I'm not going to say that he was definitely wrong to say it. Perhaps it wouldn't work if every Anglo-Jewish leader expressed personal, critical opinions on every detail of Israeli policy all of the time, but I wonder if the world might not end if someone like Laurence does it every now and then.

I note also that, of the distinguished Israelis who have signed a letter (doubtless orchestrated by Yachad) in the Jewish Chronicle supporting Laurence, one (Alon Liel) was the main speaker at Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel's 2011 party conference fringe meeting ( and another (Naomi Chazan) had the same role in 2010 (

Naomi, Alon, Yachad and perhaps even sometimes Laurence are to the left of where I often am (, but that doesn't deter me from wanting to hear what they have to say. Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel deserves greater credit for centring its fringe meetings on pro-peace, liberal-left Israelis like Alon Liel and Naomi Chazan, and I'd love it if Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine would centre its fringe meetings on pro-peace, liberal-left Palestinians.

Jonathan Freedland wrote interestingly on such things at:

(While I was completing this piece yesterday, the appalling news broke of the discovery of the bodies of the three missing Israeli teenagers, about whose kidnapping I had blogged previously. Obviously I condemn the brutal murder of these three young people, which I did not discuss in the piece above, as I had not known about it at the time of writing.)

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