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Liz Truss comments about woke civil service ‘straying into antisemitism’ condemned as ‘abhorrent’

Tory leadership favourite’s claims are ‘inflammatory’ and ‘insulting’, says FDA union

Adam Forrest,Anna Isaac
Friday 12 August 2022 18:26 BST
Truss wrongly says Cheltenham hustings are in Derbyshire instead of Gloucestershire

Tory leadership favourite Liz Truss’s vow to tackle a “woke” civil service culture that “strays into antisemitism” have been strongly condemned by government staff and union leaders.

The FDA organisation representing civil servants said the “inflammatory” comments were “insulting and abhorrent” – saying they “go further than the usual dog-whistle politics” of the Conservative leadership election.

The Truss campaign put out a press release on Friday which said she would “change woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism”. Ms Truss said the culture was “not fixed, it can be changed”.

The foreign secretary also appeared to suggest some reluctance to support Israel among some staff in Whitehall. “I’ve been very clear with our officials about the positions we take on Israel, and that will continue if I become prime minister,” she said.

In response, the FDA’s general secretary Dave Penman said Truss had provided “no evidence for her accusation that many civil servants will find both insulting and abhorrent”.

Mr Penman added: “A prime minister is also minister for the civil service, and throwing around such unfounded inflammatory accusations illustrates a lack of leadership, the very thing that she claims to be demonstrating.”

Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect trade union, which also represents civil servants, challenged Ms Truss to provide examples of antisemitism. “If there is evidence, she should publish it,” he said.

The FDA and Prospect union leaders have now written to Ms Truss, asking her to provide any evidence she has to support her claims to cabinet secretary Simon Case “as a matter of urgency”.

They argue that such assertions from someone seeking the office of PM undermine “those working to drive forward diversity, inclusion and an open and welcoming culture in the civil service”.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge – who has campaigned to rid her party of antisemitism – accused Ms Truss of using the issue trying to stoke “culture war” divisions.

“Using antisemitism to peddle the right’s “anti-woke agenda” is below the belt. The oldest form of racism is not a tool to use in the divisive culture war nonsense,” she tweeted.

The Jewish Labour Movement decried a “desperate and divisive attempt by Liz Truss to drag Jews into her campaign to win over the Conservative membership with nonsense buzzword pledges”.

A senior civil service official who is Jewish told The Independent of their frustration with the Truss campaign’s comments. “To suggest there is a culture of antisemitism within the civil service without presenting evidence, as a throwaway remark, is deeply disappointing.”

The official added: “The press release conflates views on Israel and its relations with the UK with Jewish identity and with antisemitism. I am proud to be a British Jew, I am proud to be a civil servant, and I am proud to serve the government of the day within the law.

“This clumsy remark from the campaign of a potential British prime minister brings this pride into question.”

Another official, who has Jewish family links, said the suggestion that civil servants could impede progress on trade talks with Israel was “outrageous”, adding: “Offering broad and challenging advice on ties with any nation state is the job of a civil servant. Ministers decide, and that is respected, not resisted, in my experience.”

Alexander Rose, a former government lawyer, said he had seen no sign of antisemitism in the civil service. “I was in a small team with two Jewish people and a couple of Muslims. Everyone got on. They not only respected each other’s beliefs, they showed an active interest. It’s how it should be,” he tweeted.

The Independent understands the comments were at least partly meant to relate to local authorities involved in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign (BDS) to cut ties with firms investing in Israel and West Bank settlements.

The foreign secretary is also setting her sights on boosting links between the UK and Israel, with a plan to secure a free-trade deal, her campaign said.

In a written statement issued after she spoke at a synagogue in Manchester on Friday, she also pledged to review whether schools are doing enough to educate pupils and teachers about antisemitism.

The Truss campaign also said its candidate wanted to make sure university campuses were “ridded” of antisemitism.

A campaign source claimed that Labour has been a “talking shop for antisemitism and anti-Zionism” under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer, and formerly Jeremy Corbyn. “This has increased anxieties within the Jewish community,” they said.

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