LONDON – Britain’s oldest serving MP and a veteran lawmaker for the opposition Labour party, Gerald Kaufman, died on Sunday at the age of 86, his family announced.
Kaufman died after several months suffering from an undisclosed illness.
The British-born child of Polish Jewish immigrants, Kaufman was one of the few prominent Jewish politicians in Britain. He was also a well-known and strident critic of Israel, calling for sanctions against the Jewish state over its policies toward the Palestinians and comparing IDF soldiers to Nazis.
Former party leader Ed Miliband, who is also Jewish, said Kaufman was “an outstanding servant of the Labour movement” whose “principles, values and friendship will be sorely missed,” the Daily Mail newspaper reported.
“Sir Gerald dedicated his life to serving those who he believed would benefit most from a Labour government and Labour values in action,” his family said in a statement.
The octogenarian first stepped into the House of Commons in 1970 and has represented his constituents in Manchester, north-west England, ever since.
Kaufman was for many years among the most vociferous anti-Israel voices in British politics.
In April 2002, at the start of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield to stop the suicide bombing wave then targeting Israel’s cities, Kaufman called Israel an “international pariah,” and accused then-premier Ariel Sharon of ordering “his troops to use methods of barbarism against the Palestinians,” according to the BBC.
In his speech to the House of Commons at the time, Kaufman, who had served as shadow foreign secretary from 1987 to 1992, said it was “time to remind Sharon that the Star of David belongs to all Jews and not to his repulsive government. His actions are staining the Star of David with blood.”
in a 2004 Guardian oped, he urged South Africa-style economic sanctions against Israel.
And during the 2009 war between Israel and Hamas, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” by Israel, he accused Israel of exploiting Holocaust guilt to justify its actions in the Gaza Strip.
“The current Israeli government ruthlessly and cynically exploits the continuing guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians,” Kaufman said in a speech in parliament.
Referring to his personal background, as the son of Jewish refugees from Poland, he said: “My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.”
Kaufman compared Hamas’s fighters in Gaza to Jewish resistance fighters during the Second World War, saying: “The spokeswoman for the Israeli army, Major Leibovich, was asked about the Israeli killing of, at that time, 800 Palestinians. The total is now 1,000. She replied instantly that ‘500 of them were militants.’ That was the reply of a Nazi. I suppose the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants.”
His opposition to Israel persisted into old age. In 2012, he penned a Huffington Post oped labeling Israel a “rogue state” and arguing that the fact that Israel is a democracy “means that the Israeli electorate is complicit in its government’s war crimes.”
And in 2015, he drew criticism from his own party leader Jeremy Corbyn for telling an audience at the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Return Centre that “Jewish money” was the reason Britain’s Conservatives held pro-Israel views.
On Sunday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn paid tribute to Kaufman, whom he described as “an iconic and irascible figure” within the party.
“He loved life and politics. I will deeply miss him, both for his political commitment and constant friendship,” Corbyn said.
During his time in parliament, he saw nine prime ministers take the reins of power.
When Kaufman was most recently re-elected, in 2015, he was 64 years older than the youngest parliamentarian, Mhairi Black of the Scottish National Party who was then just 20.
JTA contributed to this report.