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George Osborne needs a reality check

It is heartening that a senior British politician can still find the time to attend a minority community function to offer praise and support for its contribution to British society. What made George Osborne's speech at the Board of Deputies of British Jews 250th Anniversary Dinner on 23 November a bit different is that this was nothing out of the ordinary. It is almost de rigueur for politicians to pay homage at the court of the Board of Deputies and, in the process, pledge allegiance to, sorry, support for the State of Israel.


The Board of Deputies is, of course, an institution that stands as an example for other minorities in Britain to admire; strong, active, wealthy and close to those in power, regardless of which party they happen to belong to. Mr. Osborne's opening remarks included rabbi-like humour ("I asked a friend of mine what to expect tonight and he said 500 people, 600 opinions and 700 cars. I told him that this sounded exactly like the Coalition Government." Pause for hysterical laughter, as if they hadn't heard that one before.), followed by a sickening appreciation of fellow guest Tony Blair: "And it is also a great pleasure to speak tonight alongside Tony Blair. I think this is the first time we have shared a joint platform since we last appeared together at a 'who does Gordon Brown like least' competition." (More humour. Oh, this guy's a comedian. Michael McIntyre watch out.) Clearly on a roll and enjoying playing the fool, he didn't stop there: "I am sure everyone here is really looking forward to hearing Tony speak. His will be a great speech, full of humour, drama and insight. And you can buy a signed copy in the foyer afterwards." They were probably rolling in the aisles by this stage. Osborne had the audience in his pocket. Or maybe it was the other way round.

Anyway, the platitudes for Tony continued: "When he was Prime Minister, of course we had our differences. I wanted to win an election. He made sure I kept losing them. [Ho, ho, ho.] But he is a dedicated servant of our country, who has taken hard decisions to promote liberty and democracy around the globe and I pay tribute to him and his achievements." Pass the sick-bag.

The Chancellor went on to pay tribute to the Board of Deputies which, "for centuries… has fought against the prejudice, ignorance and discrimination so often faced by British Jews", more often than not perpetrated by the same end of the political spectrum towards which Mr. Osborne and his party are edging, but we don't want to go into that and spoil the party, do we?

Mr. Osborne clearly wasn't there for a free dinner, and set out his stall (and, we it is fair to assume, the Coalition Government's stall) on some serious matters: "Tonight we meet together in celebration of your work. But we celebrate more than that. We celebrate our united determination to advance the causes of freedom, of enterprise and of community."

There followed some facts which highlighted that "There are very few Jews, anywhere in the world, whose lives, through their families, haven't been touched by the politics of totalitarians and the crimes of dictators. This country's proudest boast is that here, in Britain, in our land, refugees found a home. Here they lived in peace. Here they rebuilt their lives. Because here we live in freedom. For me freedom is the most important guiding principle of any moral or political outlook." Hear, hear, but I am starting to hear whispers in my head; I know what is coming later because I've got a copy of his speech.

First, though, "anti-Semitism has not been eradicated across Britain and Europe. While anti-Semites daub gravestones and attack Jews in the street we do not have freedom of worship." And Muslims, George, and Muslims! Has nobody told you that Britain's Muslims are the victims these days as well; hence the launch this week of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia one of whose Vice-Chairs, Lord Janner of Braunstone, was no doubt in your audience.

I know that the Chancellor was speaking to a Jewish audience but how could he follow "It is my deeply held view that civilised societies are defined by the attitudes of the many towards the few" with "I stand here proud to say: I am a friend of Israel"? A friend of a state which this week has passed a law requiring a referendum on whether or not end the illegal occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory; a state which treats its "Israeli-Arabs" as second-class citizens; a state which continues to expel occupied Jerusalem's Palestinian residents and allow illegal settlers to settle in their homes?

"On Holocaust Memorial Day there are plenty of politicians to be found to review the history of fascism," said George Osborne, "and say 'Never Again'". So, "after the war when the United Nations studied the fate of Jewish refugees it became obvious that never again had a practical meaning. That the Jews needed a home, a safe haven." At someone else's expense, in someone else's country; Palestine.

That simple fact obviously escaped the Chancellor: "Never again should the land of the Jews fear destruction", he said. "Never again should the enemies of freedom and peace and justice make the Jews their victim. We must stand by the land of Israel, see its existence and its safety as our duty."

There you have it. Far from being the occupier, the aggressor, the possessor of a nuclear arsenal, the country which ignores and violates international laws and conventions with arrogant impunity, poor little Israel must be supported. At any(one else's) cost.

Mr. Osborne, you are right to say that Jews should be safe and be able to live in peace and safety, but aren't the Palestinian men, women and children who have been driven from their homes in what Israeli historian Ilan Pappe calls "the ethnic cleansing of Palestine" also worthy of your support to live in peace and security? Is it enough for you to say that "we want to see the Israeli Government negotiate peace, and we urge upon them an end to settlement building, and an opening up of Gaza", when you can do so much more to make that wish a reality? Words alone have failed to make any impact on the government of Israel, even when they are uttered by friends such as you, David Cameron or even Barack Obama, whose country bankrolls Israel.

I have no problem with "this nation [Britain, being] a friend of Israel" but I do have problem with politicians (and George Osborne is not alone in this) speaking about peace and democracy and then depriving through their rhetoric and political support for Israel the same for Palestinians.

Like Mr. Osborne, "I remember very clearly my first trip to Israel". It was in 1988, during the first intifada; I didn't see the results of a "suicide bomber" in a market. I did see the results of the Israeli Defence Forces and their policies against Palestinians demonstrating against injustice; smashed limbs, broken bodies and tear gas canisters fired inside homes and places of worship. The canisters' labels were explicit that they should not be fired in confined places otherwise they turn the room into something akin to a gas chamber. The IDF ignored that, just as they ignored the prohibition of using white phosphorus shells against a civilian population in Gaza last year. Just as they have ignored their own "Purity of Arms" on so many occasions that the UN's Goldstone Report accused Israel of committing war crimes and "possibly crimes against humanity".

The people responsible for such crimes are the "high-profile visitors from Israel threatened with arrest in Britain under the excuse of universal jurisdiction". Our Chancellor calls this a "travesty" and calls it an issue of "freedom of speech" rather than a matter of criminal activity of the worst kind. Moreover, the Coalition Government "will introduce an amendment to fix this situation, with legislation included in the Police Bill which will be published very shortly". Criminals all around the world, not least in Israel, will be able to sleep easier in their beds at night, knowing that they have a safe haven in Britain. I find it very worrying when one of our leading politicians pledges his support for a state which treats international law with such contempt.

"You cannot bomb your way to peace with Israel," said our Chancellor of the Exchequer, or murder your way to peace with Israel; You must talk your way to peace with Israel."

Let us hope that his audience, which probably included the Israeli ambassador, took this to heart and that the message will be taken to Israel. In order to "talk your way to peace" you must first talk, and Israel refuses to accept that the elected government of Palestine, led by Hamas, as a body with which it will talk. It prefers instead to impose the collective punishment of a brutal siege on Gaza's 1.5 million residents. That's no way to get people to "talk to Israel", Mr. Osborne. Perhaps you need a visit to Gaza to see for yourself and come to the table with a balanced and informed view instead of the Zionist-inspired narrative that you have swallowed to-date along with the no doubt very tasty kosher food at the dinner on Tuesday.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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