Coleman listens to the guilty verdict at his standards committee hearing earlier this year, in which he accused an Israeli of antisemitism, and compared a correspondent to the 'blackshirts'
Well. I had almost decided to stop blogging for a while, for a number of complex personal reasons, but this morning I read something which has upset me so much, I feel I have no choice but to confront it head on.
Last week I had the unenjoyable experience of being targeted by the odious Brian Coleman in various ways: insulted in the council chamber, slandered in the town hall corridor, and then defamed in his ludicrous, attention seeking blog.
Today I was alerted to something via twitter, again in reference to something he has written in another post. Although he has not named me, he has attempted once more to upset me, discredit my reputation and this time by making a false accusation of, yes, here we go: anti -semitism. No, he has not named me, but he has referred to where I live, deliberately. Ok: now I will tell the story of how I first fell foul of this man, and what sort of tactics he uses in his desperate political manoevres.
First, you need to understand my background.
I grew up in Edgware, in a road just around the corner, as it happens, from Tory Cllr Mark Shooter, and Dan Hope, the Barnet Bugle blogger. It was then a predominantly Jewish area: most of my neighbours' and friends' fathers were black cab taxi drivers, born in the East End, moved out to North London.
All my local friends were, yes, Jewish, and the home of my closest friends down the road, one of three sisters, and still my closest friend, effectively gave me a second family, an alternative upbringing, and perhaps a refuge, in some ways, to the somewhat chilly, unemotional atmosphere in my own home.
The father of this family was an artist, and the house was full of his massive canvases with scenes of biblical imagery: Belshazzar's Feast, Moses and the burning bush ... the mother had grown up in Bethnal Green, as the child of immigrants, and spoke only yiddish until she went to school, and the phrases, rhythmn of language, stories and superstitions from her background were part of the culture of the home, and something I in turn absorbed as part of my own childhood. I spent most shabbos afternoons there, took part in Friday night dinners, the festivals, the barmitzvahs, weddings, circumcisions, funerals. Most memorable to me, as a greedy child, was the annual festival variations of food, especially cake: honey cake, cheesecake, hamantaschen. It was a privilege, in fact, to live half in another cultural environment, and an unusual one, perhaps, a interesting counterpoint to my own Catholic upbringing, with its own strong reliance on religion, humour, family - and guilt complexes.
As an adult I worked for some years in Golders Green library, obviously in the heart of a more observant/charedi community. I've written before about the relationships formed there with particularly the older residents, many of them pre war refugees from Nazi Germany, or even survivors of the Holocaust, and the experience, again, a privilege, in many ways, of hearing their stories of persecution, survival, and the memories that still lived with them. I thought about this time last week, as it happens, in the first meeting in the Friern Barnet Library squat, when trying to understand why it is that Barnet Council, its councillors and senior officers simply do not see that a library is not just a place with bookshelves, and pcs, and leaflets, but a central part of any local community, a place where residents, especially the elderly, go to for company, as part of a routine, as a resource for entertainment and education, but also because they like the familiarity of the library staff, who know what they like to read, or ask them how they are, and provide some sort of human contact in an increasingly virtual world.
So: fast forward a few years, about ten years ago, when my children were at St Theresa's Catholic primary school, in East End Road, next to what is now the Sternberg Centre, but used to be Finchley Manor House, and the original St Theresa's school.
The nuns who own St Theresa's had sold the former Finchley Manor House to the Sternberg trustees, for a Jewish community centre, on the understanding that the building and grounds would be carefully maintained and preserved with all the care that a Grade 2* site requires. Some local people and preservation societies were concerned that the historic building was not being properly maintained, and that the site itself was perhaps not appropriate for the large number of bodies being squeezed behind the ancient boundary walls. Several plans were submitted to develop the site and greatly enlarge the private Akiva school making it a non fee paying school with a large intake. These development plans were turned down due to the inappropriate nature, but then a new PR based strategy was brought in and new plans submitted, with a massive lobbying campaign to accompany it.
Our school was deeply concerned about the development for several reasons. The already inappropriate and over populated usage of the site. The expansion of the school only worsening the already chronic traffic and parking problems and there had been numerous accidents and near misses in a very congested area. The new buildings were going to be cheek by jowl with our school, blocking light.
The construction period was going to cause huge problems, noise, disruption etc for St Theresa's. And there were serious concerns from a security point of view: despite positioning security people (and cameras) outside our school, the Centre refused to involve our school in any meaningful discussions of the issue, despite it being behind the same (listed) boundary wall and effectively on the same site. There was inadequate provision for emergency access in the event of any 'incident' which, at the time, was highly likely, post 9/11 etc. (Around the same time some Iranian 'students' were arrested for photographing and carrying out suspected surveillance of the centre in an incident which was never fully explained). A friend of mine who works in security circles told me that the Sternberg's security arrangements appeared to be 'remarkably low key' in the circumstances, and as we found out, this was a very sensitive issue.
The local residents' body, and the Finchley Society, were absolutely opposed to the development for all these reasons but also of course because of the effect on the site itself. It has an historical life span of around fifteen hundred years, uniquely in London within the same boundaries, the present Manor House following much older settlements. There is a listed ancient monument, a moat. Funnily enough, as I discovered, when the plans were drawn up and submitted, the drawings failed to show that the rest of the moat, the section as yet unscheduled due to lack of a full survey, was right where the new building was going.
The woman who ran the local residents' body lived very near the site and was heartily sick of never being able to leave her house in her own car because of parking across her driveway (on a double yellow line), but more importantly shewas an ex Manor House girl who was really upset about the devastating effect of the development on the site - apart from the ugly new buildings, I think 60% of the ancient woodland and shrubs in the grounds were being torn up.
Local residents and school parents were asked to lobby councillors in the run up to the planning meeting. I did my bit as a parent and also as someone with an interest in local history. I'd just been helping to run an unsuccessful campaign to stop the demolition of the Barnet Workhouse, and also was involved in trying to get some houses in Finchley listed. I could understand the Sternberg wanting to expand the school and was sympathetic to the importance of all the bodies on the site (and had visited several times with friends) but felt strongly that it was not suitable for more use, and a new school and hated the thought of the destruction of the grounds.
So like many others I dutifully emailed all the councillors, including Coleman who was then a substitute member of the Planning Committee. Every councillor who replied, of all parties, was polite in their response. Except one. Guess who. His response was incredibly rude, saying he had never paid any attention to lobbying or petitions and wasn't going to start now. I was gobsmacked. I knew his reputation but I also knew that ten days earlier he had replied to a friend of mine who lives very near to the Centre and was another parent (and resident continually putting up with cars blocking access to her house) that, and I quote, he agreed that the plans ' appeared to be a case of over development'.
Since then, however, something appeared to have changed his opinion, and his latest response to me now made it quite clear that any objection to the plans were nonsense and going to be ignored. The tone of his email was simply unacceptable in an elected member of the council to a resident. I replied instantly, objecting to his rudeness and pointing out that as an elected representative it was his job to listen to the opinions of his constituents. He replied again even more rudely. I told him I would be taking the matter further. Next thing the phone rang: he had got hold of my phone number from somewhere and started shouting. This is 'blackmail' ... and any lawyer will agree with me ... What? He seemed to be of the opinion that telling him he was accountable to electors was 'blackmail' and he was going to consult his lawyers because I had suggested such a thing - very aggressive and intimidating. I told him I was not going to continue this discussion and was going to make a formal complaint, and put the phone down on him, shaking, because I really was shocked at his bullying.
The Sternberg was now being described by Coleman as 'the jewel in the crown' of the local Jewish community, backing the development at council meetings, using his right as GLA member to address them. Some pro development supporters cast aspersions on any objections, implying a 'sinister' motive to perfectly valid concerns about security. Nasty articles started to appear in the press suggesting that the woman who ran the residents' campaign was an antisemite. The Finchley Society was similarly vilified, despite the fact that the President who spoke at all meetings - and many local residents who were objectors - were themselves Jewish.
The development was approved, this time - and is still not complete.
I made a complaint about Coleman to the Standards Board. This took months. The guy who dealt with it was very nice and helpful, and entirely professional. Eventually there was a hearing - to which I was not party. And then: two days before this meeting I had a call from my officer at the Standards Board. He was very embarrassed. He said through gritted teeth that Coleman, who had been 'difficult' throughout, had now, at the last minute, suddenly alleged that when he rang me - guess what - I had made 'an anti semitic remark'.
I was so stunned by this stinking, shameless lie that I burst into tears, and had to terminate the conversation.
I later asked what it was I was supposed to have said. He had claimed, apparently, that I had said that 'they' were 'ruining the area'. By 'they' I had meant the Sternberg. Therefore this was an antisemitic remark.
I see now from Coleman's vile post he has now embellished this story: (you will note that he has turned me into 'a constituent', even though Squires Lane is not in his ward, which neatly averts any question as to why he had phoned me ...)
"I was appalled a few years when discussing the Sternberg Centre planning application with a constituent from Squires Lane Finchley on the phone, to be told “these people are ruining Finchley“, when I asked “which people?” back came the reply “The Jews”."
If anyone believes that I would make such a stupid, stupid, offensive, mindlessly racist remark, then they do not know me. 'The Jews'?
How could anyone, any decent human being, who has any knowledge of the ultimate, hideous reality of antisemitism really be guilty of making such a shabby, idiotic, and frankly nutty accusation?
Of course Coleman did not know anything about my own background, or associations, or attitudes. He just gambled on a favourite tactic, making an accusation of antisemitism - with absolutely no proof, because it did not happen.
He should have done better research, though, perhaps, in this case.
Luckily the Standards Board didn't believe him. However: the next day a friend handed me a copy of the Standard and warned me that I needed to read the City Hall section. When I did so, I nearly had a stroke. There was a story about Coleman. He admitted, in response to a query from a reporter, that it was true that the GLA was paying for legal help due to a complaint being investigated by the Standards Board, but that the complaint was from a constituent 'who had made an anti-semitic remark'.
I can't tell you what effect this had, to read this filthy lie published in such a widely read paper: and one that I could not fight without revealing my identity, and thus libelling myself. And the story had appeared, coincidentally, just the day before his hearing.
I loathe and despise anti semitism: anyone who knows me know that I would never do such a thing, but anyone who does not know me might have believed it. What could I do?
One of my closest childhood friends, who happens to be an eminent Jewish historian, and in whose company, in fact, I'd been to the Sternberg to various talks and exhibitions was so disgusted by what had happened, she actually went to the trouble of writing me a character reference to 'prove' that I was most certainly NOT an antisemite. This reminded me, with grotesque irony, of a letter another friend has in her possession, written by a German Jewish great uncle to the Nazi authorities, desperately trying to 'prove' that the rumour, sent by a malicious informer to some official, that he was not of pure aryan descent, was completely untrue. Unfortunately, it was to no avail, and he died in Auschwitz.
Such are the consequences of mindless hatred, you may conclude, Councillor Coleman.
Didn't have to use the 'I am not an antisemite' character reference, luckily. The guy from the Standards Board told me, before I had to resort to such action, that they absolutely did not believe his belated but very distressing allegation, and they refused to add it to the official record. In the end, because there was no witness to the phone call, they told me they would have to let Coleman off but, the man at the Standards Board added, unofficially, whispering down the phone, he wanted me to know that I had his deepest and most sincere personal sympathy. They put a summary on their website which went into unneccessary detail about my allegations and nothing whatsoever sympathetic to Coleman, which gave me a certain satisfaction.
Coleman has continued to use the accusation of antisemitism at times he considers appropriate. He refers in his latest post to the Etz Chaim school opponents, and those who objected to a road built as part of the JCOS school in Barnet were the subject of accusations of this type. This is unacceptable: there must be a right to oppose a community development without being accused of racism. To use a false accusation in this context is so easy, but despicable. And of course such a smear is impossible to fight, and the damage caused is impossible to quantify.
And then: the reason Coleman lost his rag at last week's council meeting, you may recall, labelling the residents in the public gallery as 'sad, mad and mad', and 'old hags' was due to the demands for an apology from him, shouted from the gallery, by a Jewish resident, an Israeli, whom he has labelled, ridiculously, as an 'antisemite' in the course of correspondence regarding Veolia, and similarly made an extremely offensive remark to another correspondent in which he called her a 'blackshirt'. After formal complaints to the Standards Committee, Coleman was found guilty, and ordered to write apologies to his victims. He did not, and appealed. That appeal was lost, and the verdict upheld, and the sanction given. We understand that he has still not written an apology. Why is this tolerated?
No one can deny that antisemitism exists. Bigotry and hatred is everywhere, and comes in all sorts of disguises, and in the most surprising places. It is indeed, hidden under a veneer of 'respectability' to a large extent. But to use false accusations of antisemitism in a political context is simply appalling, and insult to those who experienced the real, obscene consequences of such persecution.
Who anyway is this man to dare to speak, as he does, for the Jewish community? Does he really think he is seen by members as some sort of hero, a righteous gentile? Probably he does.
Coleman has had a sharp fall from grace this year, losing his Assembly post, his chairmanship of Lfepa, and then his Cabinet position. He is clearly struggling to come to terms with the loss of status, power and lifestyle. He does not blame himself or his behaviour for his downfall, of course, he blames those like me who campaigned against him, and have exposed him to the wider world through blogs and the press. He has learnt nothing from his experiences this year, in short, and continues to behave as he always has.
Coleman's post is headed 'Next year in Jerusalem'.
Perhaps he is unaware that this phrase invoked at the end of Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, a day of self denial and repentance, dedicated to the expiation of sins committed in the previous year.
One might well suggest that Councillor Brian Coleman widens his knowledge and understanding of the religious principles and values which have been, and happily continue to be the strength and blessing of the Jewish people, and urgently consider the need for his own act of atonement.
Starting his blog has clearly given Coleman an opportunity for self promotion, and an outlet for his tedious views. For the first time he is writing unedited, and unrestrained. Some of us have already predicted that this will prove to be his final undoing, and, oh look: this is exactly what we are seeing now.
The unravelling of the last vestiges of Brian Coleman's career has already begun - and all by his own hand.