Muslim Web site targets pro-Israel legislators

LONDON, May 16 (JTA) – British legislators are reacting angrily to a Web site that encourages Muslims to vote against members of Parliament seen as pro-Israel.

The Web site, Votesmart, urges “British Muslims, Don’t Just Vote – Vote Smart” when the nation goes to the polls June 7 to elect a new Parliament.

Jewish experts say the existence of Votesmart is a sign of the increasing politicization of the British Muslim community. The community has flexed its muscles over issues including the recent national census, where it pushed successfully to include a question on religion for the first time since 1851.

The Web site says it wants to inform readers about “politicians who are sensitive to Muslims’ issues and those who are less so.”

Under the “Issues” section of the Web site, however, only one “issue” is listed: “Palestine.”

The site’s history of “Palestine” describes the “modern conquest of Islamic Palestine and its transformation into Zionist Israel, making one people’s dream another’s nightmare.”

Legislator Mike Gapes, the vice chairman of Labor Friends of Israel, gets the Web site’s lowest possible rating, minus 5.

He has also been the target of a leaflet campaign in his district, showing a Palestinian confronting an Israeli tank over the slogan “Mike Gapes. No Friend of the Muslims.”

Gapes told JTA he is “insulted” by the accusation and the “caricature and distortion in the leaflets.”

He described the creators of the Web site as “fanatical and obsessive,” and said they would not affect his support for Israel.

“I don’t compromise with rejectionists and extremists,” he said of the Muslim campaigners.

Gapes is campaigning for re-election in Ilford South, where he won by a large margin in the last election in 1997.

Gapes said he did not think voters in his heavily Muslim district would be affected by Votesmart.

“The vast majority of Ilford Muslims are politically moderate, and they are not being duped by this,” he said.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Conservative Party candidate Daniel Finkelstein agreed with Gapes.

“The importance of these Web sites is vastly overrated,” he said. “Nobody seems remotely aware of their existence.”

Finkelstein is campaigning against a strongly pro-Israel incumbent, Gareth Thomas.

Votesmart identifies the district as one where the Muslim vote could be crucial – but the site does not endorse either candidate.

Finkelstein said the Web site would not change candidates’ views.

“It would be bizarre and silly for anyone to be swayed from their support for Israel by it,” he said.

He said Votesmart had not contacted him to establish his position on the Middle East, “but I imagine they can guess it from my surname.”

While Gapes is defiant and Finkelstein is sanguine, the director of Labor Friends of Israel is both furious and concerned.

On the one hand, David Mentzer said, “it is offensive and perverse in the extreme to say that being a member of LFI means you are anti-Muslim. It is nonsense.”

He pointed out that LFI, which takes legislators to the Middle East, made a point of arranging meetings with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and legislator Hanan Ashrawi as well as with Israeli politicians.

“We take people to both sides. We are very proud of that,” he said.

On the other hand, he said several legislators condemned by the site are defending small majorities in their districts, and Votesmart’s negative campaign could make a difference.

“A lot of Labor members of Parliament are worried,” he said.

For economic reasons, many Muslims are natural Labor voters, Mentzer said, and Labor candidates could suffer if they lose Muslim support.

By focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said, the online campaign had introduced a worrying element into British politics.

“Middle East politics shouldn’t figure in a British election,” he said. “Bringing it in isn’t helpful.”

Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, said it is unusual to bring foreign affairs into domestic politics in the United Kingdom.

“Unlike U.S. senators, members of Parliament here don’t make foreign policy. And British foreign policy is not up for grabs anyway,” he said.

He added that foreign affairs are “the only thing that doesn’t play any role in this election at all. It hasn’t even been mentioned.”

Ahmed Farsi, editor of the monthly free newspaper The Muslim News, disagreed.

“We have done straw polls. Domestic issues are, strangely enough, less important than foreign affairs” to British Muslims, he said.

Farsi, whose newspaper praised the creation of Votesmart in an editorial in March, said the ongoing Palestinian intifada “has affected the British Muslim community a lot,” even though most British Muslims are not from the Middle East but from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Farsi said Votesmart is run by a small group of volunteers who are “media-shy.”

The Web site did not reply to e-mail queries from JTA.

The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella organization cited as a backer of the Web site, did not respond to repeated telephone and e-mail requests for comment.

Farsi said the Web site currently deals only with Middle Eastern issues because it is a small, volunteer effort.

“They cannot afford to monitor other issues at the moment,” he said, but added that they would expand to cover Kashmir, Chechnya and domestic issues for the next election.”

Referring to their increased politicization, Farsi said, “The ‘second intifada’ has woken up Muslims.”

But Laborite Gapes is not convinced.

“These people believe you can deliver votes based on religion in Britain,” Gapes said, “and you can’t.”

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