Lib Dems suspend Jenny Tonge; she quits party

Former Liberal Democrat MP turned peer Jenny Tonge has quit the Liberal Democrats after being suspended by the party. This happened following a controversial meeting about Israel and the Middle East which she chaired. However, the suspension was not solely triggered by the meeting as it also followed complaints by party members which had gone in to party HQ prior to the meeting. These were about other statements she had made, the details of which have not been made public.

It’s a topic which has often caused controversy in the past. Back in 2012, for example, I wrote of Jenny Tonge,

She is probably best known in recent years for her views on the Middle East which often generate controversy, including when she said in 2006, “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party” (comments which then leader Ming Campbell called “unacceptable” for their “anti-Semitic connotations”).

During the 2010-15 coalition she also made a series of unusual public demands, such as calling for a general election to be called promptly in December 2011 and for Vince Cable to quit the Cabinet.

She has in recent years been a member of the party but not part of the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords.

Now the BBC reports:

A former Lib Dem MP has had her membership of the party suspended after chairing a meeting criticised as “shameful” by the Israeli embassy.

Baroness Tonge, who was already sitting as an independent peer, said she would now quit the party for good.

One person at the meeting reportedly compared Israel to so-called Islamic State.

Baroness Tonge said the comments had been a rant that “made no sense” and said she was “irritated” by the row…

The Jewish Chronicle reported that another audience member had implied an American rabbi had provoked Hitler into murdering Jews.

A recording of the meeting sparked criticism from the Israeli embassy and a UK government minister said he was “genuinely horrified” at reading the reports.

A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said: “She has been suspended. She was not a member of our group in the House of Lords, she was an independent peer, she has had her membership suspended.”

That Jewish Chronicle report adds:

Another speaker is shown announcing, to applause: “If anybody is antisemitic, it’s the Israelis themselves.”…

Video footage of the event shows Baroness Tonge listening to the audience member’s comments about Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leading figure in the United States in the 1930s.

The man – reportedly a member of the anti-Zionist strictly Orthodox Neturei Karta sect – claims Hitler was “pushed over the edge” by the rabbi’s comments, and goes on to talk about boycotts.

Baroness Tonge responds: “Thank you very much. I think it’s very important that the word boycott has come up. The BDS, the campaign to boycott Israeli goods and services, and divestment from Israel, most of us think is very, very important indeed.”

Her departure from the party is likely to be controversial, so it’s worth adding how problematic her defence of her actions at that meeting are. Jenny Tonge said:

Is it a cardinal sin to chair a meeting? I made no speeches or pronouncements. I’m extremely sad and frankly just irritated by it all.

If you are chairing a meeting and people make extreme, nasty or discriminatory comments then absolutely you should speak up. As a practical aside, it’s also a remarkably self-defeating way of being a proponent of the Palestinian case as you allow controversy about your own silence over such comments to overshadow the cause you are trying to promote.

But more fundamentally, it’s just plain wrong to be silent in the face of such unpleasant and discriminatory extremism. You aren’t responsible for what others say. You are responsible for failing to react or respond to them. Saying “I made no speeches or pronouncements” in response to such comments isn’t a defence; it’s an admission of failure.

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