AN OPEN LETTER TO LUTFUR RAHMAN

Dear Mr Rahman,

 

I think you are a rather silly man. I have to confess that I have only occasionally heard of you in the media (usually spoken of derisively), so I am not able to comment on your political opinions, or your achievements as Mayor of Tower Hamlets.  The only evidence I have on which to base my accusation is the fact that you recently chose to place a Palestinian flag above Tower Hamlets Town Hall. And on the basis of that alone, I believe my accusation is well founded.

In recent weeks we have seen flags being waved, flown from cars and adorning people’s homes – and even town halls. That is because the 2014 World Cup has just ended; a global celebration of a sport in which national rivalries are taken onto a football pitch. Flags and national colours are displayed to indicate support for one particular team and the hope that this team will be triumphant against all others.

Of course, you have described your decision to fly the Palestinian flag by saying its presence was a symbol of support for "ceasefire and peace" for Gaza as the conflict with Israel continues. Well excuse me for being a little naïve, but I thought that ‘ceasefire and peace’ require at least a bilateral agreement. In that case, would it not be more appropriate and honest to fly the Palestinian flag and the Israeli one side by side? Perhaps there isn’t room on your flagpole for two flags. Perhaps you don’t have an Israeli one. Or perhaps there are other reasons dictating your decision as to which flag should fly on your town hall.

Do you have a Syrian flag? A Nigerian one? How about Myanmar? Libya? There are many places in the world where peace and ceasefire are just as necessary, where oppressed and brutalised people deserve to have their flags flown from your town hall. Why have you singled out the Palestinian flag? I am not for a moment suggesting that Israel’s actions can be condoned. But details of the humanitarian record of Hamas are, shall we say, a little sketchy too, only we don’t see that on the news. And thousands more people have been dying in neighbouring Syria for the last three years.

Allow me to share with you something I experienced about twenty years ago. I was visiting Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic; a trip arranged by the organisers of an international Jewish education conference in which I was participating. Several Israeli teenagers who were also part of the conference listened to the guide explaining the history of this concentration camp with Israeli flags draped across their shoulders. I found the image indescribably offensive. For me it insulted the memories of those who had suffered and perished in that dreadful place. It spoke of that same side-taking that is demonstrated when two or more football teams take part in an international tournament. It was arrogant, it was defiant. And it spoke only of division and lingering hatred, a perpetuation of an ‘us and them’ mentality.

Your choice of flag, flying alone on your Town Hall, transmits the same message. If you were genuinely interested in and committed to the ceasefire and the peace you claim to desire, then you would either fly the flag of every country in which there are oppressed, brutalised people or you would, as I have already suggested, fly both the Israeli and Palestinian flag together. Of course that would not satisfy your need to be seen to be supporting what you – and public opinion – deem to be the ‘right’ side.

Which brings us back to the football analogy with which I began my letter. If you wave the flag of one country in a ‘contest’ that involves two sides, you are, by definition, seeking the defeat of the other. In so doing in this particular instance you not only trivialise a problematic and deeply entrenched conflict, you also pander to the genocidal aims of the side whose flag you have chosen to wave. You also condone the words and deeds of those who are increasingly unable to separate the actions of the Israeli government from the religion of Judaism, thus endangering many of the residents of Tower Hamlets and this country who are deemed to be supporting the ‘wrong’ side.

So please, Mr Rahman. Do us a favour. Take down the Palestinian flag. Or put an Israeli one alongside it. Or – here’s an idea – perhaps fly a United Nations flag instead. That might offer a more coherent, less divisive message. If you don’t do something, and choose to leave the Palestinian flag flying alone, then I shall be obliged to revise my opinion of you. You aren’t a silly man. You’re actually a rather dangerous man.


Rabbi Pete Tobias

 

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