LONDON — A once-prominent British politician has come under fire by Jewish and Conservative leaders for likening British citizens in the Israel Defense Forces to Muslims who join paramilitary and terrorist groups.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who resigned from the government in 2014 after calling its policy towards Israel “morally indefensible,” made the new inflammatory statement in a March 29 interview with Middle East Eye (MEE) ahead of the launch of her new book, “The Enemy Within.”
Before she stepped down, Warsi was chairman of the Conservative Party and Foreign Office minister, which made her the highest-achieving Muslim politician in the country.
In the interview this week with MEE, Warsi complained of a “loophole designed to protect Israel” and said that “the only reason we allow the loophole to exist is because of the IDF, because we are not brave enough to say if you hold British citizenship, you make a choice. You fight for our state only.”
‘If you don’t fight for Britain, you do not fight’
In the interview with MEE, Warsi said that she asked the Foreign Office about distinctions between state and non-state militaries. Those who joined paramilitary groups, Warsi claimed, were prosecuted upon their return to Britain. She felt the same laws should apply to those who fought for state armies such as Israel’s.
“If you go out there and fight for any group, you will be subject to prosecution when you get back. If you go out and fight for Assad, I presume, under our law, that is okay. That can’t be right,” said Warsi.
Public debate, she believed, focused “exclusively on demanding loyalty from British Muslims.”
“The same rule should apply to all,” she said. “Let’s shut down this loophole. If you don’t fight for Britain, you do not fight.”
But Stuart Polak, honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, disagreed.
“To equate the actions of the Israel Defense Force and non-state actors that can include vile terror groups such as Islamic State, is misguided. This blasé attitude is both careless and shows a total lack of understanding of the only true democracy in the Middle East,” said Lord Polak.
Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush went further.
“Sayeeda Warsi lost all touch with reality when she flounced out of government over her Gaza issues, and into well-earned obscurity,” he told The Times of Israel.
“If she is really suggesting that a Briton who volunteers for the French Foreign Legion or serves in the armed forces of a close ally is a traitor, then no one can treat her seriously,” Arkush said.
There are no figures available for how many British Jews volunteer for the IDF through its Mahal program. A spokesperson for Mahal told MEE that the exact number was a “state secret” and referred inquiries to the Ministry of Defense.
Warsi also told MEE that she believed Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza in 2014, and that British policy towards Israel was “flawed.”
“If you go back to statements that [then-Foreign Secretary] William Hague made, [regarding] the recognition of Palestine as a state, the government said not now, maybe in six months’ time,” said Warsi.
“Now we are four or five years forward. What’s changed? The settlements are still being built. There is no formal recognition [of Palestine], the peace process is no further forward. The reality on the ground is changing,” she said.
Prime Minister Theresa May, said Warsi, had shown a “real lack of moral courage and leadership” by failing to attend the Paris peace conference in January and blocking the EU from adopting its closing statement.
“All sorts of legitimate opposition to current Israeli government policy is now being seen as illegitimate,” Warsi said.
Chairman of the Zionist Federation Paul Charney, a decorated IDF tank commander, called Warsi’s comparisons “irrational.”
“Baroness Warsi’s comments come dangerously close to comparisons between the defense forces of the democratic state of Israel, and the extremist forces in Syria,” said Paul Charney, chairman of the Zionist Federation. “This is a wildly irrational comparison and simply serves to demonize not only the Middle East’s but arguably the world’s most moral army.”
Charney noted that British citizens have served several armies outside of Britain, including in the IDF, as well as the French army, Spanish army — “and even the British Army.”
“Indeed, international volunteers were one of the key reasons Israel was able to stave off total annihilation during the Six Day War, whose 50th anniversary we will celebrate later this year,” said Charney.
“Baroness Warsi is driven by her own personal agenda, which is an anti-Israel one, and would sooner see Israel’s capability to defend itself limited than support the one true democracy in the region,” claimed Charney.