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Gerald Kaufman, the Zionist who turned on Israel in disgust

Jewish Labour MP, who died on Sunday aged 86, was known for decades of opposition to Israel's government
Gerald Kaufman on a trip to Israel in 2010 (AFP)

Gerald Kaufman, the Jewish British Labour MP, who once controversially compared Israel's devastating bombardment of Gaza to the work of the Nazis, has died aged 86.

Kaufman was "Father of the House," the longest-serving member on the benches, having entered parliament in 1970.

Born in 1930 to Polish immigrants, he became known for his irascible and confrontational style, and his often forthright opposition to Israel.

It was a dramatic turnaround for a man who, in early life, had been infatuated with Zionism. "I grew up a supporter of the state of Israel, I was brought up as a Zionist. I went to Israel again and again on holiday," he told RT in 2014. But that infatuation quickly gave way to a disgust that grew deeper with every perceived Israeli transgression.

While critical of Israel in his early political life, it was perhaps in January of 2009, at the height of Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" war on Gaza, that Kaufman's repulsion reached its heights, leading him to compare the Israeli government's actions to those of the Nazis in Poland. 

"My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed," Kaufman told the House of Commons. "My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza."

Israel’s claim that many of the Palestinian victims were Hamas militants "was the reply of the Nazi," he said.

"I suppose the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants."

It was an issue that informed Kaufman's 47-year parliamentary career and made him one of the leading Jewish critics of Israel. 

In 1972, he protested against the entry to Britain of former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, who plotted alongside fellow Yitzhak Shamir in 1948 to bomb the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. Shamir later became twice prime minister.

In the 1980s, Kaufman continued to push Israel on its policies towards Palestine, meeting PLO leader Yasser Arafat and railing against the treatment of Palestinians, describing Israel as a "pariah" and its senior politicians as "war criminals".

Kaufman and Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas (screengrab)

He met many Palestinian leaders, including Arafat and the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, each time drawing more fire from pro-Israel campaigners.

During Israel's controversial "Defensive Wall" operation in April 2002, in which Arafat was besieged in his Ramallah headquaters, Kaufman told the Commons: "It is time to remind Ariel Sharon [the then prime minister of Israel] that the Star of David belongs to all Jews, not to his repulsive government.

"His actions are staining the Star of David with blood."

He denounced Sharon as "a blustering bully ... a war criminal implicated in the murder of Palestinians".

His forthright views inevitably made him a target for right-wing Jewish opprobrium, and claims of being a Jewish anti-Semite, despite the fact that he was himself subjected to anti-Semitism. 

Writing in the Guardian in 2004 about a protest march against fox hunting, he wrote: "A stout, middle-aged man dressed in tweeds... rushed up to me and yelled: 'You Jewish bigot!' [Others] took up the man's theme, offering such observations as: 'You're an immigrant', and 'You weren't born in this country.

"I found their anti-Semitism, though loathsome, ironically amusing, since I was - if I could get there - on my way to make a speech which would undoubtedly impel pro-Sharon Jewish chauvinists to accuse me of being a self-hating Jew and, as a lackey of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has recently put it, straying far from my Jewish roots. Those roots were, at any rate, easily apparent to the pro-hunt demonstrators."

It’s Jewish money, Jewish donations to the Conservative Party... A big group of Conservative members of parliament are pro-Israel whatever the Israeli government does.

- Gerald Kaufman

In his later years Kaufman refused to let up on his cause celebre - but his forays into what many would consider conspiracy theory and rumour did him no favours.

In 2015, in what turned out to be his final political controversy, he stated that the Conservative party was beholden to "Jewish money".

He told a small crowd at a parliamentary meeting of the Palestine Return Centre: “It’s Jewish money, Jewish donations to the Conservative Party... There is now a big group of Conservative members of parliament who are pro-Israel whatever government does and they are not interested in... what the Israeli government does.

“They’re not interested in the fact that Palestinians are living a repressed life, and are liable to be shot at any time. In the last few days alone the Israelis have murdered 52 Palestinians and nobody pays attention and this government doesn’t care.”

He then said that a spate of violent attacks by Palestinians had been fabricated by the Israeli government to allow it to "execute Palestinians".

Four of Britain’s most prominent Jewish organisations – the Board of Deputies, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust – expressed their outrage at Kaufman's comments and demanded that they be investigated.

His party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said the comments were “unacceptable and deeply regrettable,” saying they were "damaging to community relations and do nothing to benefit the Palestinian cause."

However, Corbyn was the first to lead tributes after his death on Sunday. 

"An iconic and irascible figure in the Labour Party, Gerald was always a prominent figure in the party and in parliament, with his dandy clothes and wonderful demeanour in speaking," he said.

"Gerald came from a proud Jewish background. He always wanted to bring peace to the Middle East and it was my pleasure to travel with him to many countries."

Combative to the end, Sir Gerald Bernard Kaufman succumbed to a long illness on Sunday 26 February.

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