Tim Farron has vowed “muscular intervention” in countering anti-Semitism and to “hold Israel dear as a friend” as he revealed plans to visit the country.
The Liberal Democrat leader spoke exclusively to the Jewish News this week as he sought to reach out to “progressives” in the Jewish community disaffected by Labour during a visit to Westminster synagogue.
After sacking David Ward as the party’s candidate in Bradford East over his repeated offensive comments on Jews and Israel last week, Farron said he was “horrified and surprised” when he discovered the former MP had been re-adopted. “If I’d have seen it coming it wouldn’t have happened,” he said. He insisted he spent the hours after discovering the section exploring whether he could take action, having originally suggested he wouldn’t intervene, adding: “As soon as I found out I was able to act I did.”
It comes six months after another offender of the community Baroness Tonge, another serial offender of the Jewish community, was suspended – and quit the party. He said: “My record is of swift action. I believe in liberal actions and that sometimes means muscular intervention.”
There had been a “deliberate” effort under his leadership, he said, to promote discourse on Israel and the Palestinians “which is inclusive and doesn’t allow the tip-toeing – in fact galloping – into anti-Semitism we’ve seen under some aspects of Jeremy Corbyn’s support and where we’ve dealt with it in our own party. If you’re a progressive and you’re Jewish the Liberal Democrats are a place you’ll find yourself massively welcome with a leader who is deliberately of the view we need to cherish our relationship with the Jewish community and promote it and defend it.”
He also revealed that he had been due to be in Israel on polling day before Theresa May called a snap election – but still planned to visit this year.
He strongly opposes the campaign for an apology for the Balfour Declaration, saying “we shouldn’t be using it [the upcoming centenary] or allowing others to use it as a way to undermine Israel”. He said: “That there is a state of Israel is something we should celebrate. It doesn’t mean the Israeli government is protected from criticism but that’s the same for the American or French governments. We want to hold Israel dear as a friend and support the existence of Israel and its right to protect itself.”
But asked if he’d describe himself as a Zionist, but added: “I think I’ll probably sidestep that. I am however someone who believes in a homeland and who believes in the state of Israel. You can describe that how you wish.”
Relations with the party were also strained after Nick Clegg described Israel’s actions in the last Gaza war as “disproportionate”. Farron said he would defend Israel’s right to defend itself when attacked but reserved the right to call out the government “when it makes decisions we think are excessive and may actually make the situation worse”. He said many were too quick to condemn Israel’s failures “but very quiet when it comes to the terrorists that attack Israel and acclaim innocent lives”.
Following a focus on his own Christian faith in the early days of the election campaign, he said his “faith makes me stronger. Whether it makes me more electable remains to be seen. Those who belong to faith communities need to be able to utterly respect the fact it’s a secular society. But at the same time not be ashamed of who we are. We are stronger in our diversity not via assimilation”.
Saying that “nothing makes you more aware of the importance of defending minority rights than being one yourself”, he back the right to practise shechita and circumcision. He insisted faith schools had been an “advantage” to Britain, added: “I think it’s important we respect diversity and where possible we emphasise the need for integration.”
Turning to Brexit – where the Lib Dems are uniquely offering a referendum on the terms of the final deal – he warned that leaving the Single Market risked giving the appearance of a country isolated and less attractive to business. He said: “If you make yourself isolated and if the message that goes out – intentionally or otherwise – is that we’re less interested in other communities there’s a danger in particular to minority communities that are already proudly part of British life.”