Splashed across the front page of the Jewish Chronicle on 13 May, like a sensational scoop, was the ‘revelation’ that the Pears Jewish family foundation funded an organization, Forward Thinking, which was responsible for bringing an associate of the 7/7 bombers to the House of Commons. The story was credited to Martin Bright, the political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, and published online on 12 May. And it appears at first to raise justifiable and serious concerns. Yet the story is not all it’s cut out to be, to say the least.
In Bright’s account, Tafazal Mohammad, who attended a training camp with the 7/7 ring leader, Mohammed Sidique Kahn, was invited by Forward Thinking, a body headed by former Catholic priest Oliver McTernan, which aims to work for a better understanding between British Muslims and the wider society, to attend a reception in parliament in 2008. Bright adds:
Mr Mohammad was last week named in the coroner’s report into the 7/7 attacks as someone viewed by MI5 as a ‘suspected terrorist sympathiser’. He was a trustee of the jihadist bookshop Iqra in Beeston, Leeds, which acted as a hub for extremists.
He later set up Muslim Youth Skills, which charges clients such as the Metropolitan Police for advice on how to reach alienated young people.
Bright, backed by the Jewish Chronicle‘s leader, makes a case for regarding Forward Thinking as virtually a front organization for Hamas. He seems to support the view, expressed elsewhere on the internet, that Forward Thinking’s founder, William Sieghart, is effectively a spokesperson for Hamas. In a short op-ed piece published at the same time as his news report on Pears’s role in funding Forward Thinking, Bright wrote:
I have always thought Forward Thinking were cavalier to the point of recklessness in their attitude to political Islam.
But I am still shocked that they did not carry out more rigorous checks when they invited Tafazal Mohammad, an associate of the 7/7 bombers, into the House of Commons to talk about youth engagement. For that matter, I am shocked that the Pears Foundation did not do its homework on Forward Thinking.
And in his news story, Bright quoted this comment from the Labour MP Denis MacShane:
There seems a wilful blindness on the part of elements of the London political class to the racist ideology of ultra Islamist jihadi propagandists.
Stephen Pollard, the JC’s editor incorporated his interpretation of McShane’s comment in the paper’s leader:
When the JC contacted the key communal organisations for their reaction to the news about the funding of Forward Thinking – a body which treats Hamas as wholly legitimate, even worthy – there was near-universal anger. But not one person was willing to say so publicly. Yet non-Jewish figures such as Denis MacShane MP are quite prepared to do so, attacking the Pears Foundation’s ‘willful blindness’ towards ‘Islamist jihadi propagandists’. There is something fundamentally wrong when our own leaders think one thing, say nothing, and leave it to others to do the job.
In a measured response the Director of the Pears Foundation, Charles Keidan, stressed that the same due diligence had been done as with any other charity the grant-maker funds. Bright asked Keidan ‘about Forward Thinking’s links to Tafazal Mohammad, [and] Mr Keidan said: “We are not familiar with the person in question. But we believe Forward Thinking does important and highly regarded work. We will seek to understand more about this particular situation”.’
But within hours, the story began to unravel. Pears published an angry statement from MacShane on its website, complaining that his comments, given by mobile phone while travelling on Eurostar, were taken out of context and distorted in the JC‘s Leader. MacShane stated:
I had no idea my brief quote which made no reference to the Pears Foundation would be used to blacken the name of a man [Trevor Pears, Chairman] I respect as much as anyone in Britain for his commitment to Jewish causes and in particular his generous support in different ways for the common struggle against contemporary antisemitism.
MacShane could not emphasise enough his admiration for Trevor Pears and gave this piece of information:
On Wednesday night at a London University dinner I had the honour of greeting Mr Pears as a fellow Honorary Fellow of Birkbeck College and his Honorary Fellowship reflects the high esteem in which he is held after helping set up the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College.
A post on Harry’s Place more than endorses Bright’s and Pollard’s attack on Forward Thinking, Sieghart and McTernan, claiming that Sieghart is ‘an outspoken Hamas supporter’ and linking, by way of proof for this assertion, to a piece Sieghart wrote for The Times website on 31 December 2008. In ‘We must adjust our distorted image of Hamas’, he concluded:
It is said that this [Israel-Palestine] conflict is impossible to solve. In fact, it is very simple. The top 1,000 people who run Israel – the politicians, generals and security staff – and the top Palestinian Islamists have never met. Genuine peace will require that these two groups sit down together without preconditions. But the events of the past few days seem to have made this more unlikely than ever. That is the challenge for the new administration in Washington and for its European allies.
It could be argued that this is a somewhat utopian idea, but the words of an ‘outspoken Hamas supporter’? Sieghart certainly is a strong advocate of the idea that Hamas, having been legitimately elected as the Gaza government, should be brought into dialogue withIsrael. But this is a view argued by many Israeli commentators, including former senior security and military officials. Are they outspoken Hamas supporters too?
It’s not difficult to find out information about Forward Thinking. Both on their website and in their annual reports and accounts, which are published openly on the website of the Charity Commission, they are quite transparent about their activities. What emerges is a picture of an organization very much at odds with that painted by Bright, Pollard and Harry’s Place.
For example, their most recent public event, held in March, was a meeting in parliament addressed by David Glass, an Israeli lawyer who advises Israel’s deputy prime minister (and this is not the first time that Glass has spoken at one of their events.) Look back at their list of earlier meetings and they seem to be very wide-ranging and certainly not obviously driven by ‘outspoken support for Hamas’. I have often heard Oliver McTernan delivering ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and he appears to be extremely sensitive, level-headed, practical and with an unimpeachable moral and ethical outlook.
As for the event that Tafazal Mohammad attended, for Bright to give the impression that his discovery of the fact is some kind of scoop is disingenuous in the extreme. Forward Thinking make no attempt to hide it. First, it’s referred to quite clearly in the 2008 report and accounts as having taken place on 19 May of that year. Second, the event was a seminar in the House of Commons that the 2008 report says Forward Thinking was asked to hold as a follow-up to the launch of ‘Forgotten Voices’, the results of a project during which 73 open-ended one-to-one interviews were conducted with young British Muslims. Third, Tafazal Mohammad spoke on a panel with two other Muslims and discussed ‘issues relating to the engagement with Muslim youth and communities’.
Pears is not included in the list of foundations named as having contributed funds in 2008, but it is named in the 2009 report. This suggests that Pears was not even a funder when the meeting in question took place. To make it look as if Pears’s money was somehow responsible for Tafazal Mohammad’s appearance in the House of Commons is quite outrageous.
If, as Pears’s statement to the JC implies, its £23,000 was a grant spread over 2 years, given that Forward Thinking’s annual income was £399,000 in 2009 and £359,000 in 2010, Pears was responsible for supplying less than 4 per cent of the organization’s annual funds. The largest single donor was the highly respected Esmee Fairbairn Foundation (EFF), one of the largest grant-making bodies in the country – it gave away £27.9 million last year. During the 2 financial years ending 31 July 2009 and 31 July 2010, EFF gave a total of £313,000. Forward Thinking are completely open about the fact that William Sieghart is a trustee of EFF. And it is by no means unusual for the interests and preferences of trustees to be, at least in part, the basis upon which foundations allocate their funds.
If Forward Thinking were such an evil outfit, it’s hardly the Pears Foundation that deserves sanction.
But the evidence suggests precisely the opposite: that Forward Thinking are doing rather good work. There is nothing at all to indicate that they are in any way encouraging the propagation of terrorism or Jihadi extremism. On the contrary, combating these things is precisely what Forward Thinking is about. And in my view Pears has no case to answer.
So what drives the intemperate attack on Pears and Forward Thinking mounted by Bright and Pollard?
There’s certainly no denying that antisemitism figures quite prominently in the ideological outlooks of radical Islamists and Jihadi extremists, and it’s plain for all to see in the Hamas Charter. Bright and Pollard are among a number of people who see it as their duty to make a special point of exposing the antisemitism of such Muslims and their terrorist objectives. And the two journalists are driven by the perception that Western Arabists and left liberals are particularly susceptible to whitewashing groups like Hamas either because such groups conform to the stereotype of the underdog, the modern-day oppressed, or because the Western sympathisers romanticise Islam and the Arab way of life, or because it’s an outlet for Arabist and left-liberal antisemitism. While there are elements of truth in all of these characterizations, Bright and Pollard obsessively take them to extremes. And a manifestation of that obsessiveness is regarding any attempts to open a dialogue with representatives or sympathisers with Hamas and similar groups as not only reprehensible, but actively encouraging their racism, antisemitism and terrorism. Whether intended or not, this emerges as a generalised anti-Muslim discourse.
All of these factors come into play in this instance. Whatever his views, or his association with the 7/7 bombers, it’s hard to believe that Tafazal Mohammad’s appearance in parliament represented the kind of danger implied by the tone and content of the JC‘s reporting and editorialising. Parliamentarians may not all possess great intellects, wisdom or judgement, but are most of them really so naive that they are incapable of resisting being brainwashed by this one individual? And given that he spoke at a seminar on engagement with Muslim youth, the whole representation of him as a threat in this particular context seems absurd.
Moreover, the judgement of Bright and Pollard on these issues is highly suspect. Bright wrote a highly inflammatory article about antisemitism in Scotland last year, in which he misrepresented the response of the Scottish government to the problem and the danger it represented to the Jewish community. As for Pollard, if Denis MacShane is to be believed, he seems to have tripped himself up rather badly in his rush to make Trevor Pears personally responsible for allowing an alleged ‘Islamist Jihadi propagandist’ into parliament. Pollard’s championing of the Polish MEP, Michal Kaminsky, whose antisemitic past was well documented, as fully suitable to head the right-wing group in the European Parliament to which the Tories stupidly agreed to attach themselves, on the grounds that his support for Israel outweighed his racist views, makes him utterly unreliable when it comes to assessing the salience of an individual’s antisemitism.
Now just because an organization is a registered charity and a grant-making foundation with laudable aims does not mean that it is above criticism. It’s perfectly right that such a body as the Pears Foundation be subject to scrutiny. I myself have questioned Pears’s activities in the past. But what Bright and Pollard have done in this instance is shoddy and entirely undeserved. If they had any decency, they would withdraw the story and the leader and apologise.