Labour and Conservative Parliamentary Candidates Address Jewish Community in SFI Hustings Event

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Labour MP candidate Peter Kyle

HOVE — 2 May 2015, by Winston Pickett

With little more than a week before one of the most closely contested general elections in years, approximately 30 people gathered in Ralli Hall Wednesday night to hear first hand the views of two main candidates for the parliamentary seat of Hove and Portslade.

In a meeting organised by Sussex Friends of Israel, Labour’s Peter Kyle and Conservative Graham Cox spoke to members of the Brighton and Hove Jewish community on a range of subjects including Israel, antisemitism, religious freedom, civil rights and freedom of speech.

Kyle, who has a doctorate in community economic development from Sussex University, said he was particularly interested in the Middle East due to his work as an aid worker in conflict zones in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. More recently, he recounted a fact-finding mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories sponsored Labour Friends of Israel last December. He made his first trip to the country in 2005.

Kyle said he came away from his most recent visit with a deep frustration at the polarisation that dominates both sides of the political debate – one that seems locked in self-reinforcing narratives.

“As someone who has spent much of his professional life involved with community and economic development, I am disturbed how the Palestinian Authority relies on its narrative of victimhood, alienation and historical grievances” which, he said, can put a damper on a clear “ambition and lust for 21st century life” on behalf of Palestinians themselves.

Kyle said he was struck by the degree to which the “mixture of politics, religion and geography” in the region has produced a situation in need of direct conflict resolution. Yet even against the backdrop of a “worsening dynamic of Islamist militancy”, he said, there are opportunities to take advantage of the “small pockets of optimism” he witnessed during his most recent visit.

As a case in point he cited his visit to the Rawabi development town in the West Bank town of Ramallah, a comprehensive initiative that includes initial residences for 25,000 people, a school, hospital, a commercial district and an 15,000-person outdoor arena. The town, which is being built by a Palestinian developer with the help of economic and trade links with Israel –  is a project Kyle extolled on his Facebook page following his trip in December.

For Kyle, these enterprise projects like Rawabi represent a much-needed ray of hope for ordinary Palestinians, but tend to be marginalised by the lack of political progress. “When I talked to the Palestinian chief negotiator and said, ‘I’m surprised you don’t stress this development more’, he kind of brushed it aside and went back to banging his fist on the table about the past.”

Equally, Kyle said, the Likud party who led the coalition at the time of his visit, during which a general election was called, “has been pulled to the right in recent years due to a vocal and influential faction within it” – making efforts on the Israeli side to end the deadlock equally problematic.

“My frustration is that politics have been squeezed out of the debate on the practical issues facing Palestine and Israel – as both sides retreat to their comfort zones and then opt for military solutions. It’s a window I think is closing fast,” he said.

Kyle believes these conditions, reverberating throughout the international community contributed to a desire in the UK, promoted by many members of his own Labour Party, to translate their frustration into action via their vote for Palestinian statehood in Parliament during the summer.

“International moves to recognise Palestinian statehood…are a logical result of the lack of political progress in the region. Military action has crowded out politics and the international community will fill the political void unless regional leaders do,” he said.

While Kyle said that he would not have voted for resolution had he been an MP, “because I don’t think it is the right time,” his own position is that a two-state solution is the only option in the long run.

Moreover, he said, statehood becomes meaningless unless “it changes the facts on the ground.”  In the event that a Palestinian state was established, he said, “What happens the morning after if people are living the same lives as the day before? If we don’t demonstrate that politics can change things in people’s lives, then they’ll move away from politics. It drives people to extremes – both left and right.” Worse still, he said, “the lack of a resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue is too often used as a recruiting platform for radicalisation and terrorism.”

Conservative MP candidate Graham Cox

For Graham Cox, who has spent 30 years with Sussex Police and most recently as Detective Chief Superintendent in charge of Sussex CID, the main concerns surrounding Israel relate to not only the country’s own security but how the stalemated conflict and the increasing virulence of jihadi-driven forces on in Europe as well as the Mideast drive antisemitism and challenge civil discourse in the UK.

Without referring directly to the peace process or last summer’s Parliamentary debate, Cox asserted his admiration for Israel as “a beacon of freedom in the Middle East and the only place where every lifestyle and belief system – from gays to Christians and Muslims and other faiths; in fact, all social and religious minorities – are protected,” he said.

“As a member of the Church of England I’m constantly impressed that Israel is the only country in the region where number of Christians is rising and their lives are thriving.”

What concerns him more than diplomatic impasses is the rise in antisemitism both in Britain, around the world and in the local community. Particularly worrying, he said, are the record number of antisemitic incidents in 2014 throughout the UK. Closer to home he cited the “Free Gaza” hate graffiti spray painted on the wall of Hove Hebrew Congregation as well as repeated calls for cultural and economic boycotts against Israel.

In September, as a member of Brighton and Hove City Council, Cox helped defeat an attempt to table a motion to boycott Israeli goods and services. While serving as a detective with Sussex Police he referred to his efforts to curtail eruptions of hate speech in demonstrations against EDO MBM Technology company from 2005-2013 and during the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions demonstrations outside of the EcoStream store on Western Road.

“I have no time whatsoever for boycotts,” said Cox. “They are a smokescreen for antisemitism and I am personally glad that the current government has taken such a stand on antisemitism. We must not allow the conflict in the Middle East to be a justification for a reawakening of this ancient hatred.”

When both candidates were asked as to their views on calls for boycotts and demonstrations that can threaten businesses, Cox said “I believe this is a serious issue – not just because it can be  a cover for antisemitism, but the way this intolerance can spill over into intimidation.  Businesses like Robert Dyas, which are regularly picketed by the BDS, should be able to trade lawfully,” he said.

On this point Labour candidate Kyle agreed: “If people don’t want to buy a product, that’s fine,” he said.  “But in too many cases there has been a degree of intimidation when people seek to make their positions heard on the street. I don’t support boycotts, the Labour party doesn’t support boycotts and I think they are wrong.”

Cox said he is wary of all manifestations of antisemitism in the public space and pledged that he would bring his experience to bear in the event of his election. “As a policeman for 30 years I believe that serious problems occur – not only when boycotts become a cover for antisemitism – but in the need for zero tolerance when it comes to hate speech. It’s not enough to denounce it. It must also be reported.”

It was on the subject of Jewish religious and civil rights that both candidates showed the most unanimity, even as each admitted to varying degrees of unfamiliarity with issues such as challenges to shechita (ritual slaughter) and circumcision. When asked about opposition by animal rights and other groups to the right of British Jews to carry out shechita or by pressure groups opposed to circumcision, both Kyle and Cox pledged that they would uphold these practices as an issue of fundamental civil rights.

“I’m aware that there are some aspects of the anti-circumcision and anti-ritual slaughter campaigns that have an antisemitic element to them,” said Cox. “But religious freedom is key here. If you don’t like either it’s your option not to observe these rituals or purchase these products, but it’s wrong to prevent others from doing so.”

The Labour and Conservative candidates expressed their deep appreciation for the opportunity to hear the Brighton and Hove Jewish community’s concerns and to speak directly to it.

That appreciation was felt both ways.

Said Rabbi Hershel Rader, who raised the issues of shechita and circumcision during the question period following both candidates’ opening statements, the value of the evening was one of mutual education: “Regardless of how helpful it may been in helping people make up their minds,” he said, “the important thing was that one of these candidates will become our MP. They now know considerably more about the strength of the Jewish community’s concerns.”