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Profile: Sir Gerald Kaufman MP (21 June 1930-26 February 2017)

His disillusion with Israel reportedly began when he toured the country in the 1980s for research purposes.

February 26, 2021 at 11:29 am

On this day, the veteran British Member of Parliament Sir Gerald Bernard Kaufman died at the age of 86. The Labour Party MP left a legacy as one of Britain’s most vocal pro-Palestine political figures.

Kaufman was born in Leeds on 21 June 1930, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. He won a scholarship at Leeds Grammar School and went on to get another scholarship to study at Queens College, Oxford, where he graduated with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

His political career began at Oxford, where he was the secretary of the University’s Labour Club. He stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in Bromley in the 1955 General Election, and again in Gillingham four years later.

Between graduating and entering national politics, he tried his hand at journalism, joining the Daily Mirror in 1955 and then working as a political columnist for the New Statesman a decade later. He was a prolific writer throughout his life.

Kaufman finally got into parliament in 1970, winning the seat for Manchester Ardwick. Following constituency boundary changes, he switched to Manchester Gorton in 1983, a seat which he held until his death. During his political career he was a Junior Minister from 1974-79 and shadow environment secretary (1980-83), shadow home secretary (1983-87) and shadow foreign secretary (1987-92).

As an MP, Kaufman was known to go against the Labour whip on two occasions. Hence, under Tony Blair premiership he voted for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, although apparently disagreeing with it privately. He faced some criticism for this, as well as his opposition to Labour’s more left-leaning figures such as Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone.

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A stance which earned him both praise and criticism was his support for Palestine and his condemnation of Israel. This was surprising, as in his youth he and his family were staunch Zionists, with Kaufman taking regular trips to Israel and lending his full support to the government in Tel Aviv.

His disillusion with Israel reportedly began when he toured the country in the 1980s for research purposes. He visited the West Bank and came across a Jewish settlement and a Palestinian village. While the settlement was “spick and span” with modern amenities and standards of living, he found the Palestinians in the village “living in abject poverty” only ten minutes away.

Kaufman’s subsequent criticism of Israel’s occupation and human rights violations increased gradually. It reached new heights during the Israeli military offensive against the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009, codenamed Operation Cast Lead. Around 1,400 Palestinians were killed, leading Kaufman to slam Israel in the House of Commons where he compared its actions to those of the Nazis.

“My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow,” he recalled. “A German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.”

He dismissed the Israeli army’s claim that most of the Palestinian victims of “Cast Lead” were militants from Hamas. “That was the reply of the Nazis… I suppose the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants.”

Furthermore, Kaufman met with the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat, as well as the leader of Hamas in occupied Palestine, Ismail Haniyeh.

“The sufferings of the Jewish people cannot be used as some sort of justification for what Israel does to the Palestinians,” he said in 2012. “I find it degrading that the sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust should be used as a kind of justification for persecuting Palestinians.”

Such controversial, direct and confrontational views, it was said, often made him a difficult person to get on with, even among his parliamentary colleagues. He certainly attracted a lot of criticism from the pro-Israel lobby in Britain, as well as Jewish community groups.

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What became the last great controversy of his career was a comment he made in 2015 during a parliamentary meeting hosted by the London-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC). “Jewish donations to the Conservative Party,” he said, “[mean that] there is now a big group of Conservative members of parliament who are pro-Israel… 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.”

The then leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, called Kaufman’s comment “unacceptable and deeply regrettable.” He added that they were “damaging to community relations and do nothing to benefit the Palestinian cause.”

Since Kaufman’s death four years ago, the hounding of Corbyn out of office for alleged “anti-Semitism” as part of the pro-Israel lobby’s vigorous campaign to outlaw any criticism of the occupation state, Labour has been transformed – some say “deformed” – under its new leadership. Last month, it came to light that leader Keir Starmer hired a former Israeli spy for the party’s social media team, leading the Labour Muslim Network (LMN), for example, to become suspicious of the party’s changing stance on Palestine.

Many are now asking, as perhaps Sir Gerald Kaufman himself would if he was alive today, if Britain’s Labour Party has committed itself completely to the pro-Israel lobby at the expense of justice for the people of occupied Palestine.

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