In a fiery episode of Question Time last week, a shouting match developed between George Galloway, MP for Bradford West, and some Jewish members of the audience accusing him of stoking anti-Semitism through his criticism of Israel. The discussion ended with Galloway making an impassioned plea for society to rally against both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. I believe this plea was genuine. I do not believe George Galloway is an anti-Semite and criticism of Israel in no way amounts to anti-Semitism. There’s a real danger, however, of allowing Galloway to paint himself as something other than the unsavoury figure he is. He is a man who deserves no place in mainstream British politics.
Support for Palestine must not extend to either apologism for Hamas, or vilification of all Israelis. Accordingly, then, it must not extend to supporting the demagogic figure of George Galloway. For Galloway is guilty of both, and a lot more besides.
Last year, Galloway told a meeting of activists for the Respect Party that he leads that he had ‘declared Bradford an Israel-free zone’. Of course, calling for a boycott on Israeli goods and services is an entirely legitimate political statement. Announcing that ‘we don’t even want any Israeli tourists to come to Bradford’, as Galloway did, certainly is not. Accept this statement at face value (although I can’t help wonder whether Galloway extends this non-invitation to the 1.3 million Israeli Muslims) and it is, at best, xenophobic. Certainly, it is exactly the kind of generalisation that Galloway claimed to abhor on Question Time.
But Galloway’s political inconsistency on this matter should be of no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. The casual Question Time viewer might wonder why, for instance, that a man so committed to opposing anti-Semitism should have begun working for the propaganda arm of the Iranian government at a time when its President maintained a public position of Holocaust denial. Whatever, a better example can be found in his telling reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. When interviewed under caution by police following his comments regarding Israelis in Bradford, Galloway – rightly – complained of ‘an absolute and despicable attempt to curb my freedom of speech’. When Islamist gunmen massacred some French satirists for drawing cartoons they didn’t like, Galloway declared that ‘there are limits’ to freedom of speech. What these ‘limits’ are is anyone’s guess; presumably, they refer to anything Galloway doesn’t like whilst affording him the freedom to say anything at all. At any rate, any politician whose response to such an atrocity is to condemn the victims smacks of moral bankruptcy to me, and I hope to anybody else appalled by the events in Paris too.
The list goes on. In 2005, Galloway described Bashar al-Assad as a ‘breath of fresh air’ after a visit to Damascus. More notoriously, in 1994 he appeared on television telling Saddam Hussein that he ‘saluted your courage, your strength and your indefatigability’ only six years after Saddam had conducted a genocidal campaign in Kurdistan in which as many as 182,000 Kurds were murdered with poison gas. (For clarity, Galloway has since argued that he was addressing the Iraqi people, rather than Saddam. I’ll leave it to the viewer to decide.) He described the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the biggest catastrophe of my life’. He drew criticism from anti-rape charity Rape Crisis after dismissing the alleged sex crimes of Julian Assange as ‘bad sexual etiquette’. These are examples of shocking reductionism; the most appalling crimes are to be overlooked, provided that the perpetrators stick two fingers up to America.
This is why the movements seeking freedom for Palestine need rid of Galloway. To whatever extent his virulent criticism of Israel causes anti-Semitism, if at all, he is not to be blamed. Criticism of Israel is entirely legitimate; indeed, it is both worthy and necessary. Giving a platform to a man with Galloway’s track record, however, is extremely unwise. Apart from anything else, a man who says he doesn’t believe the Iranian regime is a dictatorship doesn’t know what freedom is. There are many other figures in public life who manage to give Israeli policy in Palestine the criticism it deserves without mollycoddling dictators or advising that all Israeli citizens stay away from large UK cities. Though he may not be an anti-Semite, George Galloway is a deeply disturbing figure who does not deserve the legitimacy afforded him by well-meaning activists. He belongs firmly on the fringes of British politics.
By Harry Illidge
[image credit: KNLphotos2010]