Layla Moran: Battling antisemitism while fighting for my Palestinian family

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Layla Moran: Battling antisemitism while fighting for my Palestinian family

One of the Liberal Democrats' rising stars chats about Jeremy Corbyn, BDS, how her heritage informs her politics and why she doesn't pay attention to George Galloway

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Layla Moran on the campaign trail
Layla Moran on the campaign trail

It’s striking how many times MP Layla Moran mentions her mum Randa during our 40-minute chat.

“My reference point in many ways is my mother because she taught me my values. We’ll often talk when I’m wondering whether or not to speak about a particular issue,” she says, before offering a hint of her feisty side: “Not that she’ll ever tell me what to do – she learnt early on when I was a child that’s not how to deal with me.”

So it’s no surprise that it was to her Palestinian parent the Liberal Democrat MP turned when she received a letter recently from a voter who appeared to have been riled by her strident position on antisemitism in the Labour Party.

“It said ‘how dare you call yourself Palestinian?’. I found it quite upsetting so I asked if she agreed with the sentiment. She said ‘no, I’m proud of you and it’s because you are Palestinian that it’s right you stand up.’”

Layla Moran in the Commons

The former teacher became Britain’s first MP of Palestinian and Arab descent just two years ago and this is her first interview with a Jewish publication. We meet in a side room in Westminster’s Portcullis House because, she tells me, her own office is on the cosy side. Weeks earlier she had given up a good shot at grander surroundings – not to mention other benefits and strains – by deciding not to run for her party’s top job, despite being urged to throw her hat into the ring by many colleagues.

Though “education, education, education” has remained her focus as the Lib Dems’ spokesperson on the subject, the 36-year-old’s roots mean her repeated and very public interventions on anti-Israel antisemitism have drawn attention. “It does nothing for the Palestinian cause,” she told the BBC’s Question Time last year. In a further TV appearance she unequivocally condemned posters branding Israel ‘a racist endeavour’.

The MP for Oxford West and Abingdon “completely disagrees” with any suggestion the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism curtails criticism of the Jewish state – as was suggested by some when Labour initially resisted adopting all its accompanying examples.

She said: “I think you can be strident in your criticism of things that deserve it so long as you are specific. If you are going to criticise Benjamin Netanyahu and the policies of the Israeli government – some of which send shivers up my spine – then you absolutely must criticise them because it’s not in line with British values. But if you broaden it to say somehow it covers the entire Jewish community in this country that is absolutely wrong. I don’t think it is that difficult.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, December 4, 2018. Photo by: JINIPIX

Moran – who only recalls one brief encounter with Jeremy Corbyn during her time in Westminster – doesn’t hold back from placing the blame for the antisemitism crisis engulfing his party squarely at his door.

“The buck has to always stop at the top,” she says. “I think he’s a really bad leader in the way he’s managed this situation and what he has therefore ended up doing is allowing the flowering of some of those who are genuinely antisemitic to find a home and a voice with his party.”

While she disagrees with those like MP Margaret Hodge who have labelled him an antisemite, she said: “Where I struggle is why there hasn’t been stronger leadership from the top.”

I think he’s a really bad leader in the way he’s managed this situation and what he has therefore ended up doing is allowing the flowering of some of those who are genuinely antisemitic to find a home and a voice with his party

Referring to the abuse suffered by former Labour MP Luciana Berger from the far right and left, Moran said it was a “sad” moment when she received extra security protection at her own party conference.

Jeremy Corbyn (Photo credit: Aaron Chown/PA Wire)

Part of a family from Jerusalem which largely moved away from the region in the 60s, hoping one day to return, today Moran still has cousins in the city as well as in Ramallah and Jericho. While she is fiercely proud of her heritage “which is a big part of how I live my life” (and describes easy access to Palestinian food as an advantage of living in London), it brought with it a level of “pressure” when she first entered public life.

“How would I navigate it? How much would it define me?,” she recalls thinking. “I don’t have a foreign affairs degree but people would expect me to comment. I squared the circle because my strong liberal values are the basis of everything I do including speaking up for my family and my personal experience of what it means to come from that background.”

The Lib Dem high flyer’s most notable intervention came last November when she presenting a bill for the UK to recognise Palestine. While the House of Commons backed recognition in a symbolic vote in 2014, many argue such a move would be premature and dis-incentivise Palestinians leaders from returning to negotiations. But Moran insists: “You don’t use statehood as a stick to beat someone to the negotiating table. The way you negotiate a settlement that is genuinely advantageous for both sides is to treat both with respect – that starts with recognising that we are a people and deserve a state. You start there.

You don’t use statehood as a stick to beat someone to the negotiating table.

“The symbolism of Britain recognising the state of Palestine, recognising the fact political rights is the part of the Balfour Declaration that was forgotten, would be incredibly powerful as a counterbalance to some of what we’ve seen from Donald Trump. I’m not suggesting that if Britain adopted this policy there isn’t a huge amount of work that needs to go on economically and socially to make it real for people on the ground.” A passionate opponent of Brexit, she also expresses frustration that Britain is set to leave the body she feels has more chance than any one country to make progress.

British and European flags

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will always be deeply personal to Moran but she says she “treads lightly as much as I can” when discussing it “because there are so many competing sides”. It is an approach, she says, inspired by her great-grandfather’s famed memoir ‘The Storyteller of Jerusalem’, which paints a picture of friendship between the city’s multi-faith residents in the early part of the 20th century.

Certainly, she refuses to see it as a black and white issue. She said: “When Hamas declared they didn’t recognise the Israeli state that’s thoroughly unhelpful and ridiculous and we shouldn’t be condoning any sort of violent protest.

“On both sides there are big flaws that need to be criticised. My view is that if international rights are being violated I don’t care who is violating them – we need to stand up against that. If it’s the Israeli government we absolutely need to say that and if it’s Hamas or Hezbollah or others who are not living by our values – they need to be called out equally. I’m sad that those of us who are moderate are made to feel like you have to pick a side.”

I’m sad that those of us who are moderate are made to feel like you have to pick a side.

However, she opposes the government’s decision to fully proscribe Hezbollah; a move which recognised that the terror group’s own leaders don’t differentiate between the military and political wing and stopped its gun-featuring flag from being displayed in this country. While Moran says she “understands” the move, she would have preferred it to stick to to the EU position of only outlawing the military wing for fear any change would impede the ability to facilitate aid and promote change in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is part of the government.

Though Moran insists the blockade of Gaza has “stoked division”, she said: “I can understand if you have Hamas terrorists bombing your cities how you end up in that position. But then my question is ‘has this really kept people safe? Is this really going to solve the problem in the medium and long term? If not, where is this going? Without even touching on things like ‘67 borders and Right of Return there are things you can do to improve the lives of Palestinians.” A leading proponent of trans rights, it’s clear that the conflict is not the only issue on which she wouldn’t see eye to eye with the leaders in Gaza.

Protesters, one holding a Palestinian flag, stand in front of Israeli soldiers during a demonstration near the Gaza Strip border with Israel, in eastern Gaza City, Friday, March 30, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

The MP says her family in the region “feel despair” and are losing hope. She admitted her “heart sank” at the results of the last Israeli election and believes it will be harder to achieve peace while Trump is the White House following moves like the relocation of the American Embassy. She said: “There are those who now say it’s now impossible [to achieve peace], that we need to work out which side is going to win. I don’t,” she said.

When it comes to the boycott Israel campaign, the politician believes avoiding products from settlements is “clear cut. Where I struggle more is when you say we’re just not going to doing anything with Israel ever again. The same applies to people who come under fire in the scientific community for having research collaborations with very eminent Israeli researchers and universities. I don’t sit there”.

But she declined to directly condemn Roger Waters and others who urge other artists to boycotts Israel, saying: “Every musician will have to make a choice for themselves. People said should we boycott Eurovision or not? I think that’s entirely up to an individual. I think it’s a whole other level when it’s at a state level – I wouldn’t want Britain to boycott anything.”

Moran decried the fact that some wrongly thought being a Zionist means being inherently opposed to a Palestinian state, adding that many “antisemitic remarks I see come from a fundamental misunderstand of what the word means to different people”. However, it’s a sign of just how loaded the term has become that she wouldn’t be comfortable describing herself as such.

Calling for people to talk and learn more about the Middle East, she suggests it’s a lack of “education and understanding” that often leads activists to step over the line into antisemitism. She added: “I would also say there is a huge amount of antisemitism that is stoked by the far-right and comes from another insidious, disgusting place that has been allowed to flourish as a result of that lower level infraction.”

I would also say there is a huge amount of antisemitism that is stoked by the far-right and comes from another insidious, disgusting place that has been allowed to flourish as a result of that lower level infraction

She was unaware of an investigation in the Evening Standard earlier this year showing Palestine Solidarity Campaign activists sharing antisemitic images – but insists members she knows in Oxford were genuine and would be “mortified to think they are being tarred by an antisemitic brush. “My message to all who campaign – on both sides – is be careful with your language and what you’re sharing. You’re probably moving the situation backwards unless you watch yourself.”

One veteran Palestine campaigner for whom she has little time though is George Galloway, who has in the past refused to debate with an Israeli and was recently sacked by talkRADIO after tweeting Liverpool’s victory in the Champions League meant no “Israel flags on the Cup”. She said: “I don’t follow George Galloway . I don’t find myself agreeing with very much of what he says.” Asked if his is a useful voice on the Palestinian cause, she said: “No, no. Anyone who ends up in that kind of position ends up moving things backwards.”

I don’t follow George Galloway . I don’t find myself agreeing with very much of what he says

George Galloway

Moran’s meteoric rise in her party is all the more noteworthy given that it that she hadn’t considered entering politics before studying for a masters in comparative education 11 years ago. It was, she recalls, “one of those waking up and realising what you had to do moments. I was learning that despite all we’ve got going for us there is still has an enormous link between how well off and educated your parents are versus where you end up in life – and I feel that just fundamentally wrong”.

It was not wanting to let go of the Lib Dem education brief and her determination to champion her constituents that led to her decision not to run for leader. “Those are now more important to me than being the leader of a political party” she said. “I would say don’t count me out next time, but don’t assume it either.” For now, she is more than happy to focus on the topic that brought her into politics in the first place and pledged to continue standing up against hate. “I will speak up for all minorities including the Jewish community if they find themselves under attack which I’m sorry to say they have done horrifically in recent years.”

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