Saturday, 3 March 2012
By the rivers of Babylon, sit down and weep: the background to the Coleman hearing
On Monday morning, Tory councillor Brian Coleman will attend a meeting of Barnet Council's Standards sub committee, which will consider the findings of a report into two complaints by local residents Dr Charlotte Jago, and Mr Ron Cohen, relating to remarks made in emails sent to them by the member last year.
The investigator has found that, in his view, Coleman has breached two separate paragraphs of the code of conduct for members, in both cases for failing to share respect, and also for bringing his office or authority into disrepute.
Mrs Angry reported on Wednesday that she has been sent information suggesting that, at the request of certain parties, an invitation has been sent to some protestors to lobby the hearing in an attempt to 'take on' what the organiser has provocatively and insultingly labelled 'the Forces of Darkness', that is to say the complainants, one of whom is Jewish, and an Israeli.
Mrs Angry has forwarded this information to the council, because in her view, such agitation is clearly meant to intimidate the complainants, and possibly the members of the committee, and smear the reputation of the complainants. Worse still, it is an attempt to divert attention from the real issue, which is not a matter of debate over the issue of the state of Israel, or the policies of its government, but an issue of the behaviour of an elected representative of this council.
Let's take a closer look at the report, and what it has to say about the impact of this behaviour on the individuals concerned.
The background to this story is that more than a year ago, four residents wrote to Councillor Coleman in regard to the involvement of a company, Veolia, with a tender process run by the North London Waste Authority. Coleman is one of our representatives on the NLWA. The residents objected to Veolia being accepted as a bidder in this process on a basis of what they see as the unethical status of the company, which has been associated with transport ventures in occupied territories in Israel.
At the beginning of the report, the investigator, Keith Stevens, makes the following statement:
"I do not believe it is necessary or appropriate as part of the whole local authority standards process for value judgements on political, religious or other controversies around the world to be made as part of that process."
What is the issue in this case is not the wider political context, but whether or not Councillor Brian Coleman has breached the code of conduct for members. As it happens, the complainants themselves have happily discussed the subject of their original complaint, so as to refute the remarks made in the emails that have caused such offence.
Four complaints were considered by the investigator, and two, those of Dr Charlotte Jago and Mr Ron Cohen, have been forwarded to this hearing for consideration, but the subject matter of all emails, the contents of which have not been challenged by the respondant, are discussed by the investigator, and help to explain the context of the complaints by Dr Jago and Mr Cohen.
In all cases, the investigator describes the emails sent to Brian Coleman as courteous, carefully argued, and which he or she was perfectly entitled to send.
In the case of Mark Stuart-Smith, his reply had been what the complainant put as a' single curt and abusive sentence, which he found 'rude and dismissive' - Coleman told him his email was 'another cut and paste anti - Israel nonsense'. In his statement Mr Stuart-Smith said 'I am not anti- Israel'.
The investigator decided that Coleman's remarks in this email gave the impression of being 'intemperate' but had not crossed over the line into being directly or personally offensive.
To Mr Roger Higginson's email, Coleman had stated 'I shall not be taking the slightest notice of your views'.
Mr Stevens took the view that it is a duty of a councillor to take into account all relevant matters in regard to consultation on issues: this remark gave no explanation why the councillor here considered that Mr Higginson's views were irrelevant.
After complaining to Coleman that he expected a more professional and polite response, Mr Higginson was told 'Please don't bother, your emails will be blocked' and that 'In my view, anti Zionism is the same as anti semitism' ...
As he explains in his carefully reasoned statement, Mr Higginson is a civil servant who has worked in two government ministries, including the Export desk for Israel and the Palestinian territories. In his job he deals with UN agencies. 'I was not taking a view on Israel, whether it was good, bad, or indifferent ... I hadn't even mentioned Zionism ... Every time I look at it, (the email response) I find it less and less possible to believe or understand ...'
The investigator found that in this case, the mitigating circumstances for not finding a breach were ultimately that Coleman had not directed the accusation of anti semitism personally at Mr Higginson.
Now we come to the case of Dr Charlotte Jago. Again, her email is described as perfectly polite and one which she had every right to send. In response, Coleman accused her of sending a 'cut and paste' job, which was 'anti Israel', and would be 'duly ignored'. She complained about his reply to the Chair of the GLA, the NLWA and the leader of Barnet Council. The chair of the NLWA apologised to her.
In a further email Councillor Coleman made the most outrageous statement:
'And I will continue to ignore this campaign from you and other anti Zionists. In my book, anti Zionism is just a modern form of anti Semitisim, i suppose 70 years ago you would have been in the black shirts.'
In her statement, Dr Jago said that she found these remarks 'deeply unprofessional, abusive and insulting'.
Furthermore, she said: 'I find it particularly offensive and upsetting because 70 years ago, my grandparents' friends were being persecuted and murdered by the Nazis. Her grandmother had personal experience of Germany before the war, had smuggled property belonging to Jewish friends out of the country, and her family was all too painfully aware of the terrible fate of German Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
'... to be actually accused of being a fascist was just ... to be honest it's one of the most horrible things anyone has ever said to me. In fact, probably the most horrible.'
'I was shocked. I was really really offended. To call someone a fascist is just absolutely beyond the pale.'
'It has got such emotional hatred behind it ... something that emotionally loaded, something that is such a terrible accusation, I think it is absolutely abuse.'
In regard to the accusation of being 'anti Israel', Dr Jago observed:
' ... you can't really let it go because you think, 'Well, I'm not anti Israel ... I'm not anti Israel. I oppose some of Israel's policies, but then, to be honest, I oppose some of the UK's policies - that doesn't make me anti-British. I know many Jewish people oppose some actions of the Israeli government too ...'
As to the acusation of being an 'anti-Zionist', Dr Jago made it absolutely clear that this was completely untrue:
'I think it was the disconnect as well. 'Where have you got that I'm an anti- Zionist? As I understand it, Zionism is wanting a Jewish homeland, which I agree with. I have studied enough medieval history to know that it was a terrible situation for the Jews: they got kicked out of absolutely everywhere, persecuted, murdered. Of course they want a homeland, as I would hope for and want one if I were in their place. In fact, that's the point, I have a homeland: it's Britain. I bleieve that Jews deserve one just as I have one. I totally agree with the Zionist principle. I just think that some of Israel's policies need tweaking. So to be called an anti-Zionist is just so far off the mark, it is absurd, without even going into the 'black shirt' aspect ...'
Finally, let's look at the case of Ron Cohen, an Israeli now resident in the borough, who describes himself as a peace activist for about the last forty years.
To his email about Veolia, Coleman had responded: 'I am afraid I will not entertain this anti Israel nonsense'.
Mr Cohen replied: 'But I am sure you will entertain an illegal occupation and by the way I'm an Israeli ...'
Coleman: 'A disloyal one at that'.
The investigator comments that Mr Cohen tried to continue a political discussion without being personal or abusive, unlike Coleman who then remarked:
'Doesn't take much to flush you out.'
Mr Cohen stopped there, and did not respond because, as he states, he felt very insulted, and that he had been referred to 'as if he were vermin'.
The investigator comments here that it is clear that Coleman had 'crossed the line into deliberately personal, offensive and insulting abuse'.
In his statement, Mr Cohen makes some very interesting observations. From a personal perspective, he says:
'As an Israeli who has spent a lifetime campaigning for a just peace and human rights for Israelis and Palestinians alike, accusing me of disloyalty is as insulting as it can possibly be.
Councillor Coleman has every right to disagree with my views, but as an elected official, he must do so on a respectful manner, especially when he is acting in his capacity as a member of the council.'
Mr Cohen addresses the issue of the occupied territories in Israel, and in particular the case of East Jerusalem:
'I approach it from a pro peace position, in order to secure the ongoing acceptance of the State of Israel ... I am an Israeli who believes in peace and the continued existence of Israel. This is not anti Israel, it is for Israel and Councillor Coleman's insinuation otherwise is very insulting.'
Restating his objection to the accusation of 'disloyalty', Mr Cohen points out that, for example, he does not belong or take part in the boycotting activities organised by the BDS campaign.
And anyway, it must be said, reading this report, and I'm afraid I can't keep up my attempt at objective reporting much longer: who the hell is Brian Coleman to force Mr Cohen, an Israeli born Jew, to defend himself against accusations of 'disloyalty', anti Zionism, and even, ridiculously, insultingly, stupidly, of anti semitism? By what right does Coleman see himself in a position of authority on such issues? He says he is a great supporter of the State of Israel: but whose state of Israel is he speaking on behalf of? And what section of the Jewish community?
The subject of Zionism is a very complex and sensitive one: as an Israeli Jew, Mr Cohen is perhaps better placed to define what this is or may be, than Brian Coleman, who is neither, and yet so often purports to be some sort of spokesman for all Jewish people, whether they like it or not.
Many non Jews simply do not know what Zionism means, or that it can mean different things to different people, or that within the Jewish community there is a wide range of views on the subject, and indeed a broad range of political positions on almost every aspect of Israeli government policy.
In his statement, Ron Cohen says that Zionism has many variations, from extremists, to liberal Zionists, central Zionists, post Zionists. To say that anti-Zionism equals anti semitism is 'quite stupid'. It is an idea generally promoted by right wing Zionists, and the right wing political parties in Israel.
He objects to Coleman's 'crude stereotyping' and says: '... do not put all Jews in the same basket ... there are many streams in the Jewish community ... and here is a very significant point - he draws our attention to the EUNIC working definition of anti semitism, and the last point which refers to 'holding Jews to be collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel'.
Mr Cohen feels that 'This is actually what Councillor Coleman is doing: saying that since I am Israeli, I must be responsible for what Israel is doing or is not doing.'
He concludes: 'To summarise, this exchange with my elected representative left me feeling insulted. I was insulted, personally and also on behalf of the Jewish community.'
In the interests of balance, it would be best to give a represention of the arguments put forward by Councillor Coleman in defence of the complaints against him. Unfortunately, the report documents available do not include either of the following: Enclosure D, Pre hearing forms, and Enclosure E: skeleton argument of the subject member.
This may or may not be connected to Councillor Coleman's apparent reluctance to engage with the investigation process, as the investigator informs us in the report, and as is required by the code of conduct which he last signed in May last year.
The report includes an email sent by Coleman's solicitor, Stephen Hocking, who has yet again accepted the challenge of defending a Barnet councillor at a Standards hearing - he was used by Tory Andreas Tambourides recently, when his colleague Kate Salinger successfully took him to the committee, and also unsuccessfully defended Coleman when Barnet Eye blogger Roger Tichborne made a complaint to the committee a couple of years ago.
In this email Hocking states that the complainants 'were asking Cllr Coleman to interfere in a procurement process.made accusations of war crimes, and made several alegations concerning a lawfully constituted democratic state with which the UK enjoys good diplomatic relations.'
The email sent by Hocking expresses surprise that Coleman is not going to be interviewed. The reply from the investigator points out that the respondant has had since 7th June to cooperate with his inquiry, and so he had no points that he could follow up by telephone interview. He also comments: 'I do not need any lessons from you in this and nor am I interested in whether or not you are surprised'.
Hocking replies : 'Many thanks for your email. Both its substantive content and its unnecessarily offensive tone are noted.'
This spat follows two exchanges on the same day by the investigator with Coleman, who has apparently ignored previous requests for responses and then, when given an ultimatum, declared that 'I now consider that you are harassing and bullying in this matter' and that he, Brian, is being subjected to 'a denial of any form of natural justice and extroadinary (sic) behaviour'.
Hmm. Well: this report will be presented to the committe tomorrow, and they will decide whether or not to accept its findings.
In the meanwhile, let's finish with a reminder of the investigator's findings and comments, shall we?
On the part of the complaint by Dr Jago, and the reference to blackshirts, he states that Coleman's reply was:
'personally offensive, abusive, demeaning, and designed to cause hurt and distress to the recipient'
As regards the replies to Ron Cohen, Coleman is described as crossing the line into 'deliberately personal, offensive and insulting abuse'.
Further more the investigator states that Coleman 'would have known that the language of his replies would cause hurt and distress to an Israeli and that he was being personally offensive, abusive and demeaning.'
Oh, and here is the investigator's comment on the attitude of Councillor Coleman to the investigation itself:
'The respondent has shown no insight into the effect his conduct has had, no recognition, no contrition, no apology and no likelihood that he would not do the same sort of thing again if he wanted to.'
Earlier this week Mrs Angry reported that an extremist group, who refer to the complainants as ' the Forces of Darkness' was planning, in response to a 'request', to demonstrate outside the Town Hall before the hearing. There were consequently assurances given that this protest will be dropped, but Mrs Angry has been told that the individual responsible for the original invitation has ignored the demand that his demonstration not take place, and intends to attend as planned. You may wish to speculate as to the motives of anyone wanting to encourage any such protest. You may also wonder at the lack of intelligence and integrity demonstrated by such motivation.
Mrs Angry will attend tomorrow's hearing, and report the proceedings.
Battle of Cable Street