Michael Gove has attacked the “dark and furious energy” fuelling growing anti-Israel activism in the UK – as he described the country as a “birthright” for Jews.
The environment secretary told the annual Conservative Friends of Israel lunch that there had been 176 anti-Israel events here last month alone.
Often, Gove suggested, those who talk about occupation actually mean the entire state. Pointing to last week’s demonstration outside the American embassy against Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he said: “Did it call for a two-state solution? No, they chanted what they really wanted to chant. Not just ‘free free Palestine’. Large numbers of the crowd chanted ‘khaybar Khaybar, ya yahud, Jaish Muhammad, sayahud. That is: ‘Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning. Why instead of referring to land swaps before a final status peace agreement did they summon up the seventh century destruction of a Jewish community near Medina?
“Such people demonstrate all the time they would not be placated by changes in the West Bank or the Golan. They have a fundamental problem with the existence of any Jewish State anywhere in the world, and especially in what has been the homeland of the Jewish people long before any other surviving claimant came along…When somebody criticises an action of my department I can assume that the critic does not secretly or otherwise harbour a desire to wipe this nation off the map. This is not a certainty my Israeli counterparts can enjoy.”
Addressing an audience of more than 700 people at the end of a year that saw the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, he said Britain was right to be proud of its role in restoring Jewish sovereignty in Israel. Commuting to provide a homeland was “not just a moral good, it has been a success for mankind”.
But he insisted Jewish people had the right to live there not because of a letter from Whitehall “but because that land had always been and always will be the historic homeland of the Jewish people. It was not gifted to them by this country. It is their birthright. What’s more every inch of the land has been fought for by generations of Jews and Israelis”.
Referring to Israel’s achievements over the last seven decades, Gove added to huge applause: “Israel truly is a light to the world. And let us pray that light burns brightly for all time.”
The event came only six weeks after some suggested CFI’s work and impact could be harmed by revelations that former International Development Secretary Priti Patel held undisclosed meetings in Israel, alongside CFI president Lord Polak. She later resigned over the affair.
But the lunch was attended by nine cabinets ministers and 170 parliamentarians including Patel. Gove played tribute to the key role of his “special friend” Polak in the bilateral relationship and said CFI was in “rude health”.
The event was also addressed by Israel’s ambassador Mark Regev, former CFI chair Sir Eric Pickles and Middle East minister Alistair Burt, who said the search for peace had been made harder by last week’s announcement from the White House but insisting it mustn’t be allowed to “sink” hopes for the process.
CFI chair Andrew Heller acknowledged it had been a “bumpy ride” in recent months but the organisation had much to be proud of including campaigning in 23 constituencies before the last election and spearheading a letter signed by 100 parliamentarians on the anniversary of Balfour.