Nick Clegg is probably not a household name in Israel. But he is arguably one of the most powerful men in UK politics thanks to his current position as deputy prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
He is also the leader of the left-of-center Liberal Democrats. Popularly known as the Lib Dems, the party is the junior partner in the UK coalition government. In many respects, Clegg and the party have performed surprisingly well. The trouble is, the Lib Dems have a deeply unpleasant habit of offending Jews and demonizing Israel.
The most recent example is David Ward, a Lib Dem MP who, in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day, accused “the Jews” of “inflicting atrocities on Palestinians.” Not only did he refuse to retract his comments, his remarks were echoed by fellow Lib Dem and seasoned Israel-basher Chris Davies who then went on to accuse the deputy PM of being “in Israel’s pocket.” (In 2006, Davies was forced to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats group in the European Parliament after he sent a hateful email to a reader of Jewish News before denouncing Israeli policy and the “Jewish lobby.”)
As a result of Ward’s comments, the deputy PM was challenged in the House of Commons by a Conservative parliamentarian called Robert Halfon. Halfon pointed out that the Lib Dems are “getting a reputation […] for being hostile to Jewish people” and he called on Clegg to “take action against those MPs who use the conflict in Israel to make inflammatory statements about Jews.”
Of course, the deputy PM neutralized the issue by expressing his “unambiguous” condemnation “of anyone who uses insensitive, intemperate, provocative and offensive language, to describe a long-running conflict.”
While he is far from being an anti-Semite, Clegg himself has occasionally used language that is provocative and ill-judged. He has, for instance, penned newspaper articles calling for the economic isolation of Israel. He has accused the Jewish state of “imprison[ing] 1.5 million Palestinians.” And just over a year ago, he called the Israeli government’s support of settlements in Judea and Samaria “deliberate vandalism.”
Another high-ranking Lib Dem, Simon Hughes, is even less friendly towards Israel. Hughes dislikes the very idea of a Jewish state, favoring instead a federal state of Muslims, Jews and Christians as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Moreover, he has spoken of “the genuine feelings of anger and frustration felt by his colleagues over Israeli government policy” such as “forced removals of Bedouin and the wall and demolition of houses on the outskirts of Jerusalem.” But is he equally angry over the actions of Palestinian terrorists and murderers? Do the genocidal actions of Hamas frustrate him? Or is it just Israel which is to blame?
The Lib Dems in the House of Lords are even worse. Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for example, characterizes Israeli settlers as “colonists” and berates America for being “in the grip of a well-organized Jewish lobby.” Such remarks should come as no surprise. After all, Lord Phillips is rather fond of Hamas, particularly its leader Ismail Haniyeh. “I was immensely impressed by the man,” blushed the peer during a parliamentary debate at the end of last year. “I spent an hour with him, man to man. He is dying […] for some encouragement because he never gets a dividend for anything Hamas does, except more colonization and more repression.”
The most infamous Lib Dem bigot is, of course, Jenny Tonge, a purveyor of the modern-day blood libel. In 2010, she accused the Israel Defense Forces’ medical team in Haiti of harvesting organs. Two years later, she appeared at an Israeli Apartheid Week event and called for an end to the Jewish state, which she described as an “aircraft carrier.” (Following these comments, Baroness Tonge resigned the Lib Dem whip position after being given an ultimatum by Clegg to apologize or quit. Still, she retains her position in the House of Lords as an independent Lib Dem.) She has also expressed support for Palestinian suicide bombers and railed against the so-called pro-Israeli lobby, which “has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips.”
To be fair to the Lib Dem leader, Clegg has on occasion made disapproving noises about party members who hold anti-Semitic views. Indeed, he has confronted Baroness Tonge on more than one occasion. And his chief whip, Alistair Carmichael, has threatened to suspend or even expel David Ward for his repugnant comments about the “the Jews.”
But it is increasingly obvious that Clegg needs to do something radical. Yes, expelling Ward and apologizing unreservedly to the Anglo-Jewish community would be an important first step. Cleaning up the morass of hatred and half-baked commentary on the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine website would be a good move. But what Clegg really needs to do is to set an example and discipline his party.
Firstly, if he feels compelled to criticize Israel, then he should do it in a manner that is fair. For example, rather than singling out Jewish settlers for condemnation, he should make an effort to understand the Jewish people’s historical ties to the Land of Israel and denounce the Palestinians for their appalling use of violence and hateful rhetoric.
Secondly, he should invoke the European Union’s working definition of anti-Semitism. After all, the Lib Dems are easily the most pro-European party in the UK and in theory should have no political reason to reject the definitions.
According to the EU, denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination by claiming the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor is anti-Semitic. Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation is anti-Semitic. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis is anti-Semitic. And holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic.
As far as I can tell, David Ward, Simon Hughes, Chris Davies, Baroness Tonge, Lord Phillips and possibly Clegg himself have broken one or more of these definitions. Clegg, if he has any sense, could use these EU definitions as a way of disciplining his party (and himself) without being accused of being “in Israel’s pocket.”
Now that they are in high office for the first time, the Lib Dems have to stop the amateur student politics of hate-mongering and conspiracy theories. Clegg needs to pull his party into line and make it clear that he prepared to suspend or expel any Lib Dem MP who flouts the EU’s working definition of anti-Semitism. Clegg has proved what it takes to be a deputy PM. Now he needs to show he is in charge of his party. In short, he needs to stop offending and go on the offensive.