Gerald Kaufman, Longest-serving Member of British Parliament and Critic of Israel, Dies

Kaufman, who was proud of his Jewish roots, accused Israel of exploiting the Holocaust to justify its actions in Gaza Strip and in 2002 and called Israel a 'pariah state.'

Gerald Kaufman during a 2010 visit to the West Bank city of Hebron.
Hazem Bader / AFP

Gerald Kaufman, the longest-serving lawmaker in the House of Commons, has died aged 86. Kaufman's family says the Labour Party legislator died Sunday after a long illness.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called Kaufman "an iconic and irascible figure" who was proud of his Jewish roots and strove to bring peace to the Middle East, but Kaufman also often attracted attention and controversy for his strong criticism of Israel.

Kaufman represented a district in Manchester, northwestern England, since 1970. In 2015 he became "father of the House," a title given to the longest-serving member of Parliament.

"Sir Gerald was a controversial figure," the Jewish Chronicle of London noted in its coverage of Kaufman's passing. "His years of anti-Israel activity drew criticism from the Jewish community," the newspaper said, but it attributed "the most serious anger" to what it characterized as anti-Semitic comments.

The Chronicle noted that in 2015, Kaufman was recorded as saying that the British government had become more pro-Israel in recent years due to "Jewish money, Jewish donations to the Conservative Party [and] support from the Jewish Chronicle."

In its coverage of Kaufman's death, the Independent news website made reference to his public opposition to Israeli government policies, notably in his criticism of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002. That year, he reportedly called Israel a "pariah state" and branded Sharon a "war criminal" and a "fool."

Speaking in the British parliament in January of 2009, during Israel's Cast Lead Operation against Hamas and its allies in Gaza, Kaufman 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," he said. 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."

Born in the English city of Leeds to Polish Jewish refugees, his father was a tailor. The future member of parliament won a scholarship to Oxford University and became the chairman of the Labour Party club on campus.

After graduating he worked at the Daily Mirror newspaper and later was a writer at the New Statesman magazine. He was first elected to parliament in 1970 following failed bids at the polls in the 1950s.

In its coverage of Kaufman's death, The Independent characterized him as follows: " Kaufman was Jewish, Leeds Jewish, Polish immigrant Jewish, even a Zionist, of a civilized and deeply troubled sort. He spoke as a proud Jew, but not proud of Israel under Sharon. As a parliamentarian, Kaufman represented with real passion ill-served and unprivileged people and newer racial minorities in a hard part of a hard city; genuinely devoted, yet leaving no small point unscored, Gerald Kaufman was always a class act, if, on occasion, something of a strain."

With reporting from JTA and AP.