The Labour Party – my party – is currently going through challenging times. Frankly, the behaviour of some of my fellow members has not been good enough, particularly towards the Jewish community.
I too fell short of what standards should be expected in a thoughtless act. Earlier this year, I shared a post on Facebook without properly checking the comments below it.
The post contained a video of a violent incident between an Israeli soldier and young Palestinian girl. As a father of a daughter, I felt an instinctive empathy for the young girl and shared the video.
This was a mistake, not least because I had not read the comments below the video. One made a claim that was both wrong and offensive: that Israel was in some way comparable to the so-called Islamic State. I don’t believe this and have never believed it. You can sincerely believe that Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people is a tragedy for both parties, while refusing to indulge in that malicious and lazy smear.
As a local authority leader, I work hard to stop young people and children being groomed into the kind of extremism that ISIS represents. I do not need to be told how evil they are: They have deliberately killed thousands of civilians, used rape as a weapon of war and deployed mass executions as propaganda tools.
ISIS represents nothing but fear. Israel, however, always offers hope. Right from its Declaration of Independence, it pledged itself to democracy, the rule of law and the equal treatment of minorities – an inspirational determination that was born at a time when much of the world lived under dictatorship.
However, whether on purpose or by accident, I shared the comment that made a wholly inappropriate and offensive comparison. I have to accept responsibility for that and say again how sorry I am.
I am the proud leader of Brent, the most diverse borough in the UK. I take my commitment to all our communities very seriously. We must all stand together and that means respect, understanding the realities of each other’s lives.
I understand how critical Israel is to Jewish life in the UK: It could only be, when a plurality of the world Jewish community – more than 40 percent – live in Israel.
My Jewish residents will have parents, siblings and children in Israel.
That’s why I have no time for boycotts. As far as I can see, it does nothing for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It only provides more ammunition to those who wish to divide and polarise.
What it does do is make our own Jewish community feel isolated and disturbed as to why the world’s only Jewish state appears to be the focus of the most vociferous boycott movement.
So when boycotters wanted Brent to cancel its contracts with vendors who do business in Israel, the decision to say no was one of the quickest and easiest I have had to make.
I have always felt a huge amount of solidarity with the Jewish community. My family was forced out of Kashmir. I know what it is to be from a victimised community, looking to find a safe place and a welcoming community in which to live. When they came to Wembley, Jewish neighbours were among the most welcoming – not to be taken lightly during the often difficult 1970s and 1980s.
I share the frustration of the Jewish community at how long it is taking Labour to grapple with the problem of anti-Semitism in our ranks. It makes me very sad to think that I could have been a part of making matters worse. You can be sure that I will be much more careful about what I share in future.
For me the Chakrabarti report has not gone far enough. I would have liked it spelled out that not only should Zionist not be used as a term of abuse, but that Zionism is an entirely legitimate belief. As it happens, British Zionist groups such as Yachad are doing far more for peace than the official boycott movement ever has.
I can pledge that, for Brent Labour, it will only be the start of our thinking on the issue of anti-Semitism, not the end. We can, we must and we will go further to make sure that Jews feel valued and safe in our party and in our borough, working with our local synagogues, the Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust, and the local police.
I personally look forward to travelling to Israel in the near future to see the facts for myself. Whatever our disagreements about the Middle East, making outlandish claims such as Israel being in any way comparable to ISIS do not help the cause of peace.
They only cause hurt and unhelpful divisions.
We can, we must, do better.