Jeremy Brier is a barrister, writer and former Parliamentary Candidate.
There comes a point in every conflict involving Israel when someone, usually a Liberal Democrat, uses the “d” word. This time I confess I can resist it no longer. I have tried and tried, but it just has to be said. The number of Liberal Democrats who seem to have, well, something of a “Jewish problem” is just utterly disproportionate to the size of the party.
In case you missed it, last night, David Ward, the Lib Dem MP for Bradford East tweeted: “The big question is – if I lived in Gaza – would I fire a rocket? – probably yes”.
Let’s leave aside for the moment that this was not the big question. What David Ward would do if he lived in Gaza was in fact a question on nobody’s lips at all, except perhaps David Ward’s. But, regardless, consider what lies beneath this comment which states that, given a free choice, this MP would choose to fire a lethal weapon indiscriminately at a nation state. Where would you point your rocket, David? At an airport? At a school or a town? How many Jews would you hope to kill or maim for your gesture to be meaningful? There is much hysteria in this conflict but, with his shocking history of comments about “the Jews”, we should be unafraid to be call out comments which are beyond the pale. David Ward’s comments constitute an unacceptable endorsement of terrorism from an MP who should no longer enjoy the patronage of a mainstream political party.
But that’s not the end of it. Just a short while later, in response to some of the criticism rightfully coming David Ward’s way from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and others, Ed McMillan-Scott, a former Liberal Democrat MEP, tweeted: “David Ward can look after himself. The Board of Deputies is a frightful bag of disputatious Jews and the editor of the Jewish Chronicle is a prat.” Wow. “A bag of disputatious Jews.” Just roll that phrase over in your mind and consider the tone and mindset of someone who not only thinks like that but thinks it’s acceptable to publicly broadcast it. What does the word “Jews” add to that sentence? Nothing but the underlying intimation that the noun “Jews” is a negative; and a hate-filled nudge that somehow because they’re “Jews” they’re like, you know, even worse.
So much for last night. David Ward and Ed McMillan-Scott were only taking their place in a long line of controversies concerning the Liberal Democrats and charges of antisemtism. In 2008, Baroness Jenny Tonge claimed that “The Jewish lobby in the US … makes all political parties obey the will of Israel”, the old Nazi “tentacles” caricature which is remarkably inaccurate given that by far the biggest pro-Israel lobby in the US is the evangelical church (and the vast majority of American Jews vote Democrat, far cooler on Israel than the GOP). More infamously still, in 2010, Tonge said Israel should be investigated for harvesting the organs of earthquake victims in Haiti. This was a new nadir, even by contemporary standards, not just because it was so manifestly untrue, nor just because it was the resurrection of appalling blood libels against the Jewish people, but because it was actually an attempt to taint what was extraordinary and unsung aid work by the IDF. There are other examples. In 2013, there was the candidate in York; there was Sir Bob Russell equating the plight of Palestinians with the Holocaust; and then the Liberal Democrats Friends of Palestine which shared an anti-Semitic hate website.
Antisemitism can and does exist in small measure in all political parties, but it is the lack of core ideology and the absence of a disciplined, unifying mission at the heart of the Liberal Democrats that means that they have become a magnet for the politically outlandish: oddballs, loons and conspiracy theorists. Exactly the types that have always been attracted to antisemitic tropes.
As long ago as 2007, I wrote a piece for this site arguing that the Liberal Democrats needed to ask themselves: what do they want to be when they grow up? An unhappy mish-mash of sandal-wearers and economic liberals, I argued that if you do not exist as a party for a compelling reason, and you can’t tell the electorate why you exist, you become just a group of individuals with convictions. Not much has changed. Such disparate values do not bind the party’s hierarchy together and it is now something of a rabble where the freaks and extremists can mouth off without the careful thought or loyalty that a unified party engenders.
Many of us used to have a mild dislike of the Lib Dems for being holier-than-thou. Now they look holier-than-no-one. If Nick Clegg wants to start to address his rock-bottom poll ratings, he might do worse than rooting out the nasty streak that has long poisoned his party.