Opinion: Handling Israel/Palestine issues can be difficult, but…

I can still remember a night in 2009 when our canvass team came back from a night out on the doorsteps asking “Who is Jenny Tonge? We have just been canvassing and had the most awful time over this person who apparently is a Liberal Democrat…” I explained calmly and with a wry smile that Jenny was a former MP, now member of the House of Lords, that she held strong views and was not afraid to voice them. “But these residents are not going to vote Liberal Democrat because of the views she articulates,” said one of the canvassers. It was not a one-off incident.

I also remember Dr Jenny Tonge’s passionate plea at a Liberal Democrat conference for measures to tackle air quality – especially in London and for cyclists. It is clear that she cares deeply about issues and can voice those concerns with passion and force. But sadly, there my respect ends. So how does someone go from being a passionate and thoughtful campaigner, through being an MP, then a member of the House of Lords and become a poster figure of fear and hatred?

I also speak on issues about Israel and Palestine. I am fascinated by history,politics and religion. I love the Middle East and its mix of heat and dust. I consider myself a friend of Israel (which, for the record, is very different to being a supporter of its government!). But I also know that the cocktail of religion, politics and history is a dangerous one. This is a topic that requires knowledge, facts, understanding and balance – yes passion, but passion for shared agendas not deeper wounds and accusations.

Somehow in the quest for a resolution to the Middle East dilemmas Jenny has become an illustration of what is wrong about the debate on the Middle East. Passionate and forceful, but with a loud tint of prejudice, anger, hatred and perhaps even an endorsed threat.

What happened at Middlesex University was not a one-off incident. It was the latest in a long line of provocations. But when I was on the hustings and people said things I found vile about Israelis, Palestinians, Jews or Muslims, I felt it right to distance myself, to try to add value to the conversation and to show some understanding of the depth of the problems. On this assessment Jenny failed herself and the Liberal Democrats. It was right that she left.

Nick Clegg, inherited this problem. Jenny was an issue under both Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. Nick has been consistent and clear – he is a friend of Israel, recognising its right to exist and he is a pursuer of peace in the Middle East. He was right to act on this occasion and with such clarity.

I could not myself, for example share a platform with some of the people with whom Jenny did – and she knew beforehand how controversial and aggressive they can be. So next time someone associates Israelis as Nazis and denies Al Qaeda, linking Mossad with 9/11 – I’ll be condemning them, as I have done before. It’s a shame Jenny didn’t when she had the chance – and this time it was her last chance. She had had plenty of chances before and passed them by.

* Ed Fordham is a party member and activist in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

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32 Comments

  • Chris white 6th Mar '12 - 1:53pm

    Superb post. I have been dismayed by how few people have confronted the facts in this case.

    It is simply not good enough to say that she is a free speech martyr. Free speech is not something that can be practised without responsibility – the shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre argument matters. Those of us who are appalled by the actions of the Israeli Government – and by Hamas – will find it easier to make the case following her departure.

    She is no loss. But James Graham is.

  • Good post Ed. For those of us who consider ourselves friends of the Israeli and Palestinian people (as well as vigilant to discourse which indulges racist tropes), Jenny Tonge has long been a source of bemusement – its hard to imagine a worse advocate for Palestinian causes than her.

  • mike cobley 6th Mar '12 - 2:18pm

    Level-headedness and composure are the sensible prerequisites for discourse and civilised debate, but what happens when all the calm, composed, civilised exchanges fail to produce the necessary progress – sometimes because the raw facts are deemed too upsetting for the much-sought after courteous debate? It seems to me that Israeli society is in a bind similar to our own, in that a self-aggrandising elite has its hands on the main levers of power and is pursuing policies detrimental both to the population and to the Palestinians. Now, if I were to use such direct language in an open discussion, whether online or at a conference, what’s the likelihood that someone would be outraged to the point of calling me anti-semitic? Even though the critique centres on the matter of political power in Israel?

  • Tony Greaves 6th Mar '12 - 2:45pm

    Perhaps I am in the wrong party if Ed Fordham is in the right one following this vindictive posting. Perhaps Ed Fordham should declare an interest and reveal who he works for and what they stand for and what they do,

    Jenny is a kind, honest and passionate Liberal (and as I understand it has not left the party, just resigned the whip[in the Lords). She is a victim of a prolonged hate campaign by certain extreme pro-Israeli groups and individuals, urged on by that awful newspaper the Jewish Chronicle, all now proclaiming a victory. She said nothing at the MIddlesex University meeting that has not been said by other prominent Liberal Democrats, that Israel is sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Indeed there are enough Jews who think that is the case. It is one of the real tragedies of the past 60 years that Jews of all people are behaving in the way they are in Israel – and that so many people of otherwise liberal opinions cannot see this.

    As for losing votes. I am (sadly) old enough to remember canvassing in 1969-70 and being attacked for the Stop the Seventies Tour campaign – a lesser but still very important matter of principle. If our job is to appeal to bigoted voters on issues like this count me out.

    Tony Greaves

  • The real question is, who ennobled this lifetime loose cannon, thus giving her views a legitimacy (and added incendiary power) they do not justify?

  • So how does someone go from being a passionate and thoughtful campaigner, through being an MP, then a member of the House of Lords and become a poster figure of fear and hatred?
    It is completely and utterly absurd to describe Jenny Tonge as “a poster figure of fear and hatred”. Why does this stuff even get published?

  • “Passionate and forceful, but with a loud tint of prejudice, anger, hatred and perhaps even an endorsed threat”.

    Much of Ed’s article is coolly and rationally argued as befits the subject matter, but the line he used above is not helpful. Anger, yes: Jenny and many others are angry at the way Israel has flouted UN resolutions and continues to colonise occupied territory. I don’t know what a ‘loud tint’ is, but to accuse Jenny of prejudice and hatred is completely unjustified. I have no idea what Ed means by ‘perhaps even an endorsed threat’.

  • Anna Pascoe 6th Mar '12 - 6:15pm

    I wouldn’t have thought that Nick Clegg saying he favours a 2 state solution is synonymous with being “a friend of Israel”, as Ed describes…
    There is a number of Jenny Tonge’s views that I don’t agree with, but the least attractive thing about our party is the way some members round on others who make mistakes.

  • Tony Greaves 6th Mar '12 - 7:30pm

    I always try to make sure that if I have an interest in something I am writing or speaking about I make that clear. I wonder why Ed Fordham does not tell us who he works for? Why is it unworthy for people to require openness?

    Tony Greaves

  • I’m pleased that there has been an energetic exchange – but can I be clear about a few things. All parties need a spectrum of opinion and talents. I have known Tony and Gareth for a very long time, to name but two – we need them, they add value, the speak with passion and with clarity. I was just trying to give the context of how it felt here in NW6 and I know across a wider community. And I don’t feel to keep going into the past is helpful – but this issue of the Middle East is a global problem and the only way forward is through understanding – no-one else has another way forward and further arming and counter threats don’t work…

    But I do believe that the Liberal Democrats should have a role in the Middle East debate – defending nation states and fighting for human rights. After all much of the current situation was of the UK creation after all – and for the record I have been to Israel, to Gaza, to the West Bank in the last couple of years – all on my own organisation, funding and planning, with the UN, seeing the destruction on both sides, the disproprotionate reactions on both sides, the paranoia on both sides… but this post was about the dilemna and crisis that the Liberal Democrats have faced through Jenny being used as a illustration that we were unfit to comments, speak and add value to the debate on the Middle East and specifically on Israel. That for the record is why I didn’t touch extensively on the need for immediate action for a peaceful solution for Palestinians and for Palestine – much as I didn’t touch on the rise of Orthodoxy in Israel, or the issues facing Arab Israeli’s etc.

    So Tony, don’t take me off your Christmas card list please, Gareth I appreciate the dialogue and value it- lets keep talking, but in a way that gets us, as a Party, round the table and into the debate rather than as we have been up to now: divided, sidelined and stereotyped as virulent, off message and ill-informed.

    For the record I currently work for myself, pricipaly with RLM Finsbury in the City of London and with the Commonwealth working with helping troubled democracies. I think Tony is refering to a period of 3 months when I worked at BICOM, now a year ago (which Gareth hoiked up to try and discredit me – and he and I have spoken about this debate and we remain friends!). But I’m in the pay of no-one on this or other topics and my trips to Israel and Palestine in 2010 were entirely self-funded and self-organised. I made a reference to facts and I wanted to show that I value them 🙂

    The last thing I will add is the temper of these exchanges is always incredibly intemperate – it’s one of the reasons why so many people increasingly avoid the topic. I made a decision to participate in the debate a few years ago to try and add value and context, not heat and steam – but I still remain shocked and disappointed at the tone people adopt on this topic, over all others.

  • Tony, I didn’t reply earlier because I was working – I have now 🙂

  • David Pollard 6th Mar '12 - 8:56pm

    The problem with ‘being a friend of Israel’ is that the Israeli Government is continuing to build settlements in the ‘occupied lands’. These settlements along with the roads linking them together are banned to Palestinians. Everyone who desires a lasting peace in the middle east, should withdraw their support for Israel until they stop building settlements and the US should stop their funding until the Israelis stop their building.

  • Tony Dawson 6th Mar '12 - 9:02pm

    @Ed Fordham:

    “I still remain shocked and disappointed at the tone people adopt on this topic, over all others.”

    Given your posting above, do you really expect anyone to take that seriously?

  • Simon McGrath 6th Mar '12 - 9:21pm

    @Gareth “I’ve sat on panels in which people have made remarks that show real ‘prejudice and anger’ – and have challenged those making them.”
    Exactly what Jenny Tonge did not do. The speaker next to her said “Israel and Mossad were directly involved in 9/11” and her response was to shuffle her feet and say nothing.

  • Simon McGrath 6th Mar '12 - 9:29pm

    Tony Greaves comments inspired me to look up Tonge’s interests:
    Visit to Cairo and Gaza, 20-25 November 2011; travel expenses and accommodation paid by Council for European Palestinian Relations (based in Brussels)
    Visit to Qatar, 8-10 January 2012, for discussions with Crown Prince; cost of accommodation and travel met by Council for European/Palestine Relations (based in Brussels)
    Visit to Qatar, 25-27 February 2012, to attend conference; costs of accommodation and travel met by Emir of Qatar

  • Keith Browning 6th Mar '12 - 10:45pm

    The timing of this, and the wealth of pro Isreali propaganda over the weekend from America seems more than a coincidence. You begin to wonder who is running the UK and the USA.

  • Whilst I think that Jenny was, to put it mildly, misguided on this occasion, I am not sure that the withdrawal of the whip was appropriate or serves any useful purpose. We have always tolerated a wide range of views in the party and Jenny Tonge speaks for a significant section of the party even if she does have a record of unfortunate comments which undermines her efforts to get attention for the plight of the Palestinians.

    That said, I agree with Ed Fordham that the tone on Israel/Palestine is always pretty terrible from both sides. So, here’s a challenge – why don’t Lib Dem Friends of Israel and Lib Dem Friends of Palestine organise a joint fringe meeting at the nexxt conference!?!

  • Michael Seymour 7th Mar '12 - 8:09am

    I suggest that many of the people in this blog are uninformed about the history of the Israeli/Palestine conflict. It would help them to be more informed if they read two respected Israeli historians, one is Ilan Pappe who wrote ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’ and the other is Avi Shlaim who wrote ‘Israel and Palestine’.

  • Grammar Police 7th Mar '12 - 9:00am

    @Mark Valladares “I tend to the view that her most recent comment in itself was probably not worthy of the response, she has been punished for the perceived cumulative effect of past incidents.”

    I agree.

  • jenny barnes 7th Mar '12 - 9:49am

    Or you could try The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk, if you want a wider view.

    Interesting that all this comes up as the war drums are beating against Iran.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Mar '12 - 11:27pm

    Perhaps we should set up a ‘Liberal Democrat Friends of Israelis who don’t want Israel’? 🙂

    But, more seriously, why are the two references to ‘hatred’ associated with a party member still left in this article?

  • Ed.
    Jenny did or said nothing that warrented the Israeli lobby (Yes we have one) urging Clegg to remove the whip. On the contrary, Clegg should have told them were to go, nicely of course. All that he has done is pander to the Jewish lobby and not for the first time. Other times include voting not to support Palastine’s bid to become a state at the UN last Septemeber, despite claiming he is favour. iThe Lib Dem friends of Palastine will do all it can to get Jenny back, and if Clegg does nothing to reverse it, he will find his own position in danger when he faces a leadership challenge.

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