Gerald Kaufman, who has died aged 86, was instrumental in saving the Labour Party, back when the Labour Party was something that could still be saved. It was Kaufman who pithily pegged the 1983 manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. He knew the phrase would hang around the far-left and dog any attempt to dodge responsibility for the calamity.
In his heart, he was a radical, but he parted ways with the 1980s Labour left in its mush-headed confusion of ends and means. The mush is now party policy but Kaufman expended considerable wit keeping it at bay during the Kinnock years. A multilateralist, the former Daily Mirror journalist rained scorn on comrades who agitated for unilateral nuclear disarmament:
‘Do they really believe that if we gave up Trident, the eight other nuclear weapons powers would say, “Good old Britain! They have done the right thing. We must follow suit”? Pull the other one!’.
Although a grenade-tosser, his compulsion to do good for the disenfranchised was sincere and his analysis of Labour’s electoral challenges sound:
‘We couldn’t win an election just with the votes of the poor and the deprived and the ethnic minorities. My constituency is a constituency which is predominantly composed of voters who are poor and deprived, with a considerable number of people from the ethnic minorities. I kept increasing my majority at every general election but it didn’t do my constituents any good because what they needed was a different government. The only way we could get a different government was by adding to the votes of the poor and the deprived and the ethnic minorities the votes of affluent people living in the south east of England and other parts of England.’
He helped to begin the formation of that alliance between Middle Britain and the working poor that would eventually put New Labour in power for 13 years. He fought the left from the shadow cabinet, first as shadow home secretary and later shadow foreign secretary, and he was an early backer of Tony Blair.
On Israel, however, he made Bennites sound like Betarim. Kaufman, who was Jewish, was no mere critic of Israel — he was an extraordinary bigot, veering from one unhinged conspiracy theory to another. Generally sympathetic in the early years, the electoral breakthrough of the Likud party in 1977 seemed to mark a breaking point. Kaufman was symptomatic of a certain kind of Jewish leftist for whom the People of Israel had returned to Zion to build a welfare state and get some decent hummus. His lashon hara against Israel was no less legendary for its frequency. He asserted:
‘The Israelis do not believe in a two-state solution and are completely uninterested in any kind of genuine peace process, yet what is being done to curb this regime? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. They get away with it by exploiting guilt over the holocaust. They get away with it by whimpering about their need for security, when they have the strongest armed forces in the region, nuclear weapons and the fourth-strongest armed forces in the world. They get away with it, because Obama, apprehensive about the United States presidential election next year, is scared of Jewish pressure groups in the United States.’
This was no isolated outburst. Kaufman championed arms embargoes and economic sanctions against Israel and counted Yasser Arafat ‘a friend of mine’. He deemed Britain’s refusal to work with Hamas ‘a culpable error’; meanwhile, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak – the leaders of Israel’s centre-left – were ‘mass-murderers and war criminals’ and ‘bring shame on the Jewish people’. Ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009, Kaufman pronounced: ‘[T]he real obstacle to reconstructing Gaza is not Hamas, loathsome though it is, but what is about to become the most extremist government in Israeli history’. Hamas, loathsome though it is. (A week later, Netanyahu formed a coalition between the right and the Labor Party)
If Kaufman condemned Palestinian violence with the crisp impatience of a man keen to reach the comma, he took his time on the outrages of the pre-state militias who drove out the British. ‘Israel was born out of Jewish terrorism,’ he said, denouncing the Irgun and the Lehi. Of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli hostage held captive by Hamas for five years, Kaufman prated: ‘I feel great sorrow for his family but he was a soldier on military duty’.
Kaufman, in every other regard a proud and laudable foe of racism, pioneered the rhetoric of the alt-right in the House of Commons. He branded IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich ‘a Nazi’ and told MPs: ‘The Israelis use the Holocaust: they use the murder of six million Jews to justify their murder of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians.’ Echoing the conspiracy theories of skinheads and Islamists, Kaufman assured the House: ‘[T]he odious pressure group, AIPAC — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — can destroy any United States politician who makes the slightest criticism of Israel’.
Condemnation from Jewish community groups only seemed to spur him to greater feats of outrage. ‘Just as Lord Ashcroft owns most of the Conservative Party,’ Kaufman alleged at a pro-Palestinian event in 2010; ‘right-wing Jewish millionaires own the rest’. In a 2011 debate, he greeted an intervention from Labour MP Louise Elmann with the exclamation: ‘Here we are, the Jews again!’ In a 2014 contribution in Westminster Hall, he explained: ‘You cannot appeal to the Israelis’ better nature, because they do not have one.’
Reflecting on the growth of pro-Israel feeling within the Tory Party, he told pro-Palestinian activists in 2015: ‘It’s Jewish money, Jewish donations to the Conservative Party – as in the general election in May – support from the Jewish Chronicle, all of those things, bias the Conservatives.’ At the same meeting, he claimed Israel manufactured hoax terrorist attacks to provide a pretext for killing Palestinians.
The language was Stormfront and the paranoia straight from the Guardian’s comment threads. And yet these prejudices, with all their grisly precedents, were voiced by a Labour MP, one whose grandmother died at the hands of the Nazis. He was more than a mere shanda for the goyim; he was a minstrel for Jew-haters, an enabler of anti-Semitism. Kaufman dedicated his life to maintaining a Labour party and slandering the Jewish homeland. Only one of these endeavours has endured — what a pitiful legacy that it’s the latter.
Stephen Daisley is a blogger for Coffee House and a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail