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BICOM Daily Briefing January 23 2004

Last updated: 2004-01-23

Today’s papers include wide coverage of Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge’s speech to a Palestinian group in Parliament and further interviews on Sky News, in which she said that she identified with Palestinian suicide bombers and would consider becoming one herself if she were Palestinian. Her comments are widely condemned and she faces investigation within her party. The Jewish Chronicle publishes a survey ahead of next week’s Holocaust Memorial Day, with worrying findings about British attitudes to the Holocaust and Jews. The results of the poll are also reported in The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent. There is also extensive coverage of Ariel Sharon’s statement to Likud youth delegates yesterday that he has no intention of stepping down over bribery allegations, which is the subject of the editorial in the Guardian. BBC Online, Reuters and the Jerusalem Post report on new systems to be fitted to Israeli buses to prevent terrorist attacks.

In the Israeli papers, Haaretz reports that US Middle East envoy John Wolf is set to return to the area. The paper also notes the meeting between National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and Ariel Sharon’s Bureau Chief, Dov Weisglass. Yediot Ahronot reports that Rice and Richard Armitage expressed some frustration at the lack of progress between Israel and the Palestinians. In Maariv this morning, there are reports on a chance meeting between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In breaking news, Israel Radio reports that Minister Natan Sharansky met with officials at the Vatican, in Rome and stressed that anti-Semitism must be uprooted.

Quotes of the Day:

Liberal MP sparks fury by identifying with suicide bombers

Jenny Tonge, Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park (22/01, Sky News): “I do not condone suicide bombers. But I do understand why people out there become suicide bombers - it is out of desperation. If I was in their situation...I might just think about it myself.”

Jenny Tonge (23/01, The Times): “If I had to live in that situation I might just consider becoming one myself. The kindest thing you can say about the situation is that it is like apartheid.”

Liberal Democrat party spokesman (23/01, The Times): "Jenny Tonge was expressing her personal views. The Liberal Democrats do not condone terrorism in any circumstances whether by suicide bombers or anybody else.”

Michael Ancram, Shadow Foreign Secretary (23/01, The Daily Telegraph): “[Her words will] sicken those who have lost loved ones to suicide bombers.”

Lord Janner, vice-chairman of the British Israel Parliamentary Group, (23/1, The Guardian): “She has encouraged and condoned the most atrocious acts of violence.”

Shuli Davidovitch, Embassy of Israel spokesperson (23/01, The Guardian): “We were shocked to hear these remarks which were extremely disgraceful. We would not expect any human being - and surely not a British MP - to express an understanding of such atrocities. Her words show something about her moral standards.”

Ari Jesner, brother of British victim of suicide bomber (23/01, The Daily Express): “Her comments show a complete lack of understanding of the situation in the Middle East. The more remarks like this which are made by supposedly mainstream and educated figures, the more a climate of opinion is created in which terrorist acts are seen as legitimate and are therefore more likely to be repeated.”

JC Poll shows worrying UK attitudes on Holocaust and Jews

David Blunkett (23/01, The Guardian): “It means people are prepared to set aside not only the evidence, but the overwhelming emotion that goes with it. They delude themselves into believing that the Nazis are not what we know them to be and this is very depressing.”

Jim Murphy, Labour MP for Eastwood (23/1 The Guardian): “We like to believe these views are confined to a minority on the hard right but this poll suggests otherwise.”

Professor Robert Wistrich, head of the Hebrew University's Vidal Sassoon centre for the study of anti-Semitism (23/1, The Guardian): “It's a better result than many British Jews might have expected.”

Sharon “will not resign”

Ariel Sharon (23/01, Yediot Ahronot): “I'm calling you so that there should be no mistake. I am not about to resign. I stress: I am not about to resign.”

 Ariel Sharon, speaking to Likud youth (23/01, Reuters): “I came here as prime minister and the chairman of the Likud party... a position I intend to fill for many years, at least until 2007.”

Arab leaders softening attitudes to Israel

Bashar al-Assad (22/01, al Sharq al Awsat): “The Europeans tell us they don't think Sharon will attain peace, but to us it does not matter who [rules], and we don't think that internal changes in Israel are a prerequisite for us to return our lands.”

Pervez Musharref, Pakistani President (22/1, Maariv): “When relations between our countries are formalised, I would be happy to visit Israel

Silvan Shalom (22/1, Haaretz): “Regimes around the world understand there is a price to pay for supporting terrorism and are starting to appreciate there may be much to gain from standing with the community of nations. It looks as if many moderate Arab leaders are willing to have contacts with us more than they were in the past, because they were very afraid of Saddam.”

Behind the News:

LibDem MP’s comment provoke fury

Jenny Tonge, Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park, sparked fury yesterday when she identified with Palestinian suicide bombers, described the situation in Israel as “like apartheid”, and saying that she might also become a suicide bomber if she lived in that situation. Speaking to a meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the Houses of Parliament this week, she said that “many many people criticise, many many people say it is just another form of terrorism, but I can understand and I am a fairly emotional person and I am a mother and a grand mother, I think if I had to live in that situation, and I say this advisedly, I might just consider becoming one myself. And that is a terrible thing to say.” Interviewed on Sky News, she added “What I said was that I did not condone suicide bombers. But I do understand why people become suicide bombers. It's out of desperation. And I guess that if I were in their position ... and saw no hope for the future at all, I might just think about it myself.”

Dr Tonge was under criticism from across the political spectrum. The Liberal Democratic Party immediately distanced itself from Dr. Tonge, who has previously expressed similar opinions on the Israel-Palestine situation. She faces an immediate internal inquiry, and may be asked to stand down as LibDem front-bench spokesperson on children. 

JC Poll reveals worrying British attitudes on the Holocaust

An ICM survey, conducted for the Jewish Chronicle ahead of next week’s Holocaust Memorial Day reveals that one in seven people in Britain believes that the scale of the Nazi Holocaust against Jews is exaggerated. One in five would not be prepared to accept a Jewish Prime Minister of Britain. A third of those polled agreed that Jewish people make a positive contribution to the political, social and cultural life of the country, with 20% disagreeing. Similar proportions were revealed in answer to a question whether Jews have too much influence - 18% agreeing, 47% disagreeing. Asked whether a British Jew would make an equally acceptable prime minister as a member of any other faith, 53% agreed and 18% disagreed - 11% strongly. The last question asked whether the scale of the Nazi Holocaust had been exaggerated, with 15% agreeing it had been - 10% strongly - and 70% disagreeing, 62% strongly.

Davos World Economic Forum debates the state of the Arab world

200 Middle East experts at the World Economic Forum were cautious about the pace of change in the Arab world. Quoted by Reuters, Bassem Awadallah, the Jordanian Minister of International Co-operation, said: “Arab governments have failed to act over the past few years. Arab governments need to rethink their models of development.” In a poll, two thirds of the audience insisted that Arab governments were undertaking less reform than they were given credit for. Asked whether an “Arab renaissance” would begin in the next five years, only 51 per cent of the audience said yes.

The conference was also the stage for a chance meeting between Israeli Leader of the Opposition Shimon Peres and Pakistani President Pervez Musharref. In a conversation that lasted a number of minutes, Peres extended an invitation to Musharref to visit Israel. Musharref responded positively, but conditioned normalisation of relations between the countries on agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The subject of Israeli-Pakistani relations has been the subject of discussion this week, with an Israeli Cabinet Minister apparently invited - and then uninvited - to participate in a UN visit to Pakistan in March.

Also in Davos, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom indicated that Arab states were more willing to meet with Israeli officials, noting the effect of the US-headed war in Iraq as a primary vehicle for change in the region.

Israel reveals new bus security system

Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Thursday authorised the use of a new security technology for public buses, which can detect suicide bombers and prevent them from boarding the vehicles. The system consists of a barrier for the bus's front door, explosives detectors and a back door to be used only for exiting the bus. The innovations are meant both to prevent bombers from alighting and to minimise damage if an explosion takes place. Five buses are to be fitted with the new technology in a pilot project over the next three weeks. If the pilot is considered a success, the technology will be installed on hundreds of buses at a cost of thousands of dollars per vehicle.

Comment and Opinion:

The Daily Express (23/01): “How can anyone at the heart of British democracy claim that she believes it is perfectly acceptable to kill and maim innocent people while blowing oneself up? Supporting violence of any sort to achieve political ends goes against everything our democracy stands for.

No one with an ounce of humanity can support the tactics of suicide bombers. Her comments can only inflame sentiment in the Middle East and elsewhere at a time when any politician worth their slat would be doing everything in their power to calm relations between Arabs and Israelis. Closer to home, her words will only give succour to those fanatics who plan to use similar tactics here. As an elected representative of this country Ms Tonge shames us all.”

Jonathan Sacks (The Times, 23/01): “The findings of the ICM poll can be read two ways. Some will take them as proof that there remains, in Britain, a residual core of anti-Semitic feeling. Others with no less justification will see them as confirming that Britain remains, by a considerable margin, a tolerant society, mindful of the contribution Jews have made to national life and fully aware of the depth of tragedy that the Holocaust represented for European Jewry.

I take the second view. The levels of prejudice represented by the poll are low in comparison with other European countries, and compare favourably even with those in the United States. Since 9/11 the world has faced the politics of insecurity. At such times nations, like individuals, are prone to regressive behaviour. In Britain, the default option is still tolerance. We are not about to lose the heritage of Milton, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. This remains a gracious society, in an age in which such things are all too rare.

What the figures tell us, however, is that there is work still to be done. Anti-Semitism is not the only, or even the most important form of prejudice in British society. Islamophobia, too, needs to be confronted. Sikhs, Hindus and others also face a lack of understanding. The politics of hate can be spread all too easily by new global communication technologies, and are no longer confined to national boundaries. The internet has become a home for conspiracy theories and virulent prejudice.

Racism does not die. It merely sleeps and is all too easily woken. If the poll figures do no more than remind us of the need for constant vigilance, they will have served their purpose well.

The truth is that Britain is not about to become a place of danger for Jews. But Europe as a whole does face a series of racial, religious and ethnic problems of which anti-Semitism is only one. This calls for a sustained effort of education, which is why Holocaust Memorial Day was established three years ago. Its aim was not to focus specifically on Jewish suffering, but to take the Holocaust as a universal symbol of what can happen when, as Edmund Burke put it, in the face of evil “ good men do nothing”. The message I will take to our community will be that we must work with others against prejudice of all kinds, for hate endangers us all, and respect for diversity is no longer a lofty dream but our sole strategy for survival.”

Gerald Kaufmann (The Independent, 23/01): “What I find remarkable about the Jewish Chronicle survey is not that 20 per cent do not believe that Jews make a positive contribution to life in this country but that nearly twice as many favour the Jewish contribution and - even more encouragingly - nearly half the electorate do not care. But those who believe Jews have too much influence are outnumbered nearly three to one; more than three to one find the idea of a Jewish prime minister acceptable.

As for 15 per cent Holocaust deniers, nearly 60 years after that monstrous event, with most people alive now not having been born at the time, this cannot be regarded as seriously disquieting. What I do find remarkable is that the Tory party, traditionally the most anti-Semitic of the main parties (despite having had Benjamin Disraeli, a Jew who was baptised and raised Anglican, as Prime Minister in the 19th century), have chosen a Jew as their leader, without a contest, and have a Jewish shadow Chancellor. This is the same Tory party whose Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, 30 years ago during the Yom Kippur war accused me across the Commons floor of being more loyal to Israel than to Britain; the same Tory party, one of whose backbenchers, at about the same time, told me to get back to Tel Aviv.

I was elected to the Shadow Cabinet 12 years in succession, four times at the top of the poll, though everyone who voted, most of whom were not Jewish, was aware that I am a Jew. My constituents, scarcely any of whom are Jews and thousands of whom are Muslims, have elected me to Parliament nine times.

When a general election comes, maybe next year, if the Tories are wanted by the electorate they will win with a Jewish leader, just as they won with a bachelor leader, Edward Heath, and a woman leader, Margaret Thatcher, in the days when many regarded bachelors as anomalous and women as only fit for the kitchen.

If, as I expect, the Tories are not wanted by voters, they will lose, but not because they have been blind to religion.”

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