Jews at center of British scandal

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's administration has been weakend by a Labor Party scandal involving two prominent Jewish political figures. (International Monetary Fund)

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s administration has been weakend by a Labor Party scandal involving two prominent Jewish political figures. (International Monetary Fund)

(JTA) – A campaign financing scandal in which two of the principal players are Jewish is dealing a heavy blow to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s already weakened administration.

The involvement of two Jews at the center of the very public scandal is making many British Jews uncomfortable, but Jewish community leaders say it has not caused any alarming anti-Jewish media coverage or sign of anti-Semitic fallout.

“You can’t escape from the fact that the main dramatis personae in this saga are Jews,” said Antony Lerman, the executive director of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “Not only are they Jewish, they are committed Jews.”

But, Lerman pointed out, “the media’s coverage on this issue has been fair.”

As might be expected, the accused’s links with an Israeli advocacy organization has fueled the cadre of anti-Israeli conspiracy theorists.

The crisis began at the end of last month, when the British media reported that real estate magnate David Abrahams anonymously donated 670,000 British pounds, or $1.37 million, to Brown’s center-left Labor Party over the past four years.

Anonymous donations above 5,000 pounds, or $10,228, are illegal in Britain following the enactment of a law in 2000 – spearheaded by the Labor Party – that was intended to make political influence peddling more transparent.

Politicians described Abrahams in the British press as a “hanger-on” who unable to win elections for higher office, sought influence through his money.

The Abrahams donations, made through four intermediaries, implicated chief Labor Party fund-raiser Jon Mendelsohn, 40, who also is the director of the Labor Friends of Israel. The group of 44 legislators supports Israel and Middle East peace.

Mendelsohn and Abrahams reportedly met through the Labor Friends of Israel.

Mendelsohn said he was unaware of the donations until September and admitted he tried to handle the matter quietly, without informing the country’s electoral commission. Abrahams claims Mendelsohn called his intermediary method “a good idea” and knew of his donations as far back as April.

Abrahams, who owns six real estate firms in Newcastle, is being investigated by the police for his role in the affair.

This is not the first political scandal for Abrahams. In 1991 he had to quit his campaign to become a member of Parliament when the Sunday Sun newspaper reported that he was paying a woman to act as his wife.

Also, there has been confusion about his age: Abrahams says he is 53, but some records show he is 63, according to media reports.

The woman who says she was paid to play Abraham’s wife told the Daily Telegraph that Abrahams has a 7-foot pink statue of Elvis Presley and enormous piles of cash lying around his Newcastle home.

With such titillating details, “Donorgate,” as the donations drama was been dubbed, has received extensive front-page and television coverage in Britain.

Brown is being accused by the opposing Tories and Liberal Democrats of running a party awash in sleaze.

The Labor Party secretary has resigned and numerous others are expected to be ousted, including a number of Parliament members who did not declare the source of their donations.

It is the scale of the scandal that has diffused the Jewish factor, said Rabbi Andrew Goldstein of the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue in a London suburb.

“The focus is on Brown being incompetent rather than on Jewish plots,” he said. “The press is not focusing on the Jewish connection. I have not seen any anti-Israel or anti-Semitism in the coverage.”

This contrasts with the affair of Lord Levy, the chief fund-raiser for Tony Blair, the former prime minister and now a Middle East envoy.

Levy was investigated by the police this year and last year over accusations that wealthy supporters provided Labor with secret loans in return for positions in the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament.

“The media never failed to mention Levy was a prominent Jew,” one Jewish resident of London, Richard Millet, told JTA.

In the case of Abrahams and Mendelsohn, the media has not ignored their Israel- or Jewish-related activities, but the reportage has not had the anti-Jewish taint that coverage of the Levy scandal seemed to carry, community members said.

The Daily Telegraph reported Nov. 30 that Abrahams “was politically ambitious and enjoyed mixing with people in the higher echelons of the Labour Party and Jewish society.”

Thursday’s Guardian said “Abrahams had high-ranking friends among the Labour Friends of Israel and the charitable world, where many of Labour’s donors come from.”

Rather than stoking Jewish fears of an anti-Semitic backlash, the scandal has made Jews merely “uncomfortable with the media focus on two Jews involved in financial wrongdoing,” said Lerman of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

So far, the most inflammatory piece in the mainstream British press was written by a well-known critic of Israel, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. In an editorial Monday in the Independent titled “The shadowy role of Labour Friends of Israel,” Alibhai-Brown connected what she views as the illegitimacy of Labor Friends of Israel with the finance scandal.

“Mendelsohn is a passionate Zionist and infamous lobbyist, described by the Jewish Chronicle as ‘one of the best-connected power brokers,’ ” she wrote. “So we can assume LFI plays a part in shaping our foreign policies in the Middle East.”

But such pieces have been the exception, not the rule.

Donorgate “is not a Jewish issue,” said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the umbrella organization of British Jewry, the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “It only becomes one when commentators like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown rely on speculation and conjecture to fabricate conspiracies where none exist.”

Millett said there is a fringe element intent on exploiting the fund-raising scandal to fuel anti-Israeli sentiment, “but at the end of the day we have to trust the British public to know that writers like Brown are left-wing extremists.”

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