The voters of the Richmond Park constituency are about to go to the polls yet again. In the past 18 months, they have voted in the general election, an advisory plebiscite to give permission to Zac Goldsmith to run for mayor of London, the Brexit referendum and now a by-election in which Goldsmith is running as an independent.
The issues in the Richmond by-election might seem obvious. In the referendum, this mainly middle-class, upper income constituency voted Remain overwhelmingly, despite MP Goldsmith being a strong Brexit advocate.
Now Goldsmith has caused a by-election by his passionate promise to oppose a third runway at Heathrow – the main shadow over living in the area is the roar of jets heading for the airport.
The Tories have decided not to oppose Goldsmith, even though he is running as an independent. Lib Dems, who held the seat for several periods before Goldsmith’s election, believe he is vulnerable over Brexit and are pouring resources into the campaign of his opponent, Sarah Olney. She has been endorsed by the Greens, who have also stood aside despite Goldsmith’s environmental record.
The issues for the Jews of Richmond are very different. In spite of his Brexit views, very different from most of the community, Goldsmith is a personally popular figure who is very much at ease on his occasional visits to shul for civic events such as last shabbat’s remembrance services. He is proud of his Jewish heritage and the library of Hebraic volumes inherited from is uncle, the environmentalist Teddy Goldsmith. The acceptable face of the Lib Dems, former MP Baroness Susan Kramer, was also present at the shul service.
Olney and the Lib Dems have an enormous problem. Richmond is also the former constituency of Baroness Jenny Tongue, perhaps the most poisonous figure at Westminster when it comes to Israel and the Middle East. After numerous suspensions and reinstatements she quit the Lib Dems last month after hosting a widely-condemned meeting in the Lords at which Israel was compared to the terror group Isis and Jews were blamed for the Holocaust.
The malodorous impact of Tonge on the townspeople of Richmond goes back years and has contributed to negative attitudes towards Israel. A couple of years ago, pro-Palestinian activists persuaded Sam Walters, legendary figure behind Richmond’s pioneering Orange Tree theatre, to organise a debate on a shabbat morning on Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories. After some discussion with the honorary officers and rabbi, services began a little earlier so I could attend the meeting and, if given the chance, try to state Israel’s case. It was a shocking event. Not so much from the participants in the debate, who included a revisionist Israeli academic ,but because of the attitude of the audience.
The largely white, older, upper middle-class audience launched into a series of accusations against the legitimacy of the Jewish state. My intervention was listened to without interruption but the Orange Tree had become a kangaroo court and it was Israel that was on trial while the rest of the Middle East was in flames. It was at this deeply-disturbing moment I recognised that years of Tonge, public meetings in churches, libraries and the like had helped to turn many neighbours into virulent anti-Zionists.
Lib Dems in Richmond are anathema to those of us in the constituency who identify with Israel. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is an equally toxic choice. Irrespective of Goldsmith’s views on Brexit, when it comes to the Jewish vote he is the only acceptable candidate.