Jerusalem's new British-born deputy mayor: Israel is no apartheid state - it just has an issue with bad PR

Exclusive interview: Fleur Hassan-Nahoum wants to become an ambassador for Israel and says the country's poor international reputation is simply a matter of 'atrocious' public relations

Joe Wallen
Tuesday 16 January 2018 20:12 GMT
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‘I can only conclude that the oldest hatred in the world – antisemitism – is at play here’
‘I can only conclude that the oldest hatred in the world – antisemitism – is at play here’ (Youtube)

Born in London and raised in Gibraltar, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum has Donald Trump to thank for making her new job one of the most interesting and controversial in the world.

She has been named as the new deputy mayor of Jerusalem, weeks after the US President declared that his country would recognise the city as Israel’s capital, sparking international condemnation.

Ms Hassan-Nahoum is the first British citizen to hold a senior political role in Israel’s history. Yet despite her own international background and her evident pleasure with Mr Trump’s recent Israel policy, the 44-year-old makes clear in an interview with The Independent that it is not a matter for any foreigner to decide how Israel conducts its affairs.

The perception among the international community of her adopted country – she completed her aliyah (or move) to Israel in 2001 – is more a matter of “atrocious” PR than the reality on the ground, she says, adding that there must be something more sinister at work to explain “how the liberal public in Europe have so blindly accepted the rhetoric” of the Palestinian side.

“The world shouldn’t take this totally one-sided narrative of the poor Palestinian and this brutal, apartheid Israeli rule,” she says. “I can only conclude that the oldest hatred in the world, antisemitism, is just at play here.”

In Israel, Ms Hassan-Nahoum is a member of the Yerushalmim party and is proving to be something of a revolutionary figure, seeking to woo supporters from the fringes of Israeli society, from Ethiopian Jews to ultra-Orthodox Charedi women.

It has seen the Israeli media dub her an “Orthodox feminist”.

“I’m a religious woman and in this country the extremist groups have women excluded from the public sphere and political life," she says. “I don’t think if you are religious or Orthodox that you then can’t have a voice as a woman."

Her campaign was regarded by many as a breath of fresh air - contrasting with traditional Israeli politicians who typically pander to powerful members of ultra-religious groups.

But she says she believes that her city must cater to all who call Jerusalem home, from zealot Haredi rabbis born in Israel to Jewish orphans who have relocated to the city from former Soviet bloc nations.

Ms Hassan-Nahoum was born in London but spent her childhood in Gibraltar where her father, Sir Joshua Hassan, was the Chief Minister for over 20 years.

She moved back to the UK at the age 18 to study law at King’s College London and fondly recalls legal dinners with friends from across the globe and watching Bob Dylan live at the first Party in the Park.

She then worked as campaign director at the World Jewish Relief charity and credits her time living in the multicultural capital as inspiring her pluralist policy in Israel.

The mother-of-four moved back to the UK at 18 to study law at King’s College London, and fondly recalls legal dinners with friends from across the globe
The mother-of-four moved back to the UK at 18 to study law at King’s College London, and fondly recalls legal dinners with friends from across the globe (Supplied)

But despite her London connection, she is dismissive of the city’s former mayor Boris Johnson and his recent comments, as Foreign Secretary, suggesting Israel must make the two-state solution a reality and face up to the actuality of its “apartheid” system.

“I don’t think it is up to Boris Johnson to tell us how any peace deal should look,” she says. “We should have the say on what our borders will look like, not a British Foreign Secretary.”

Conversely, Ms Hassan-Nahoum embraces the recent recognition given by Donald Trump when affirming Jerusalem as the capital of the Israeli state.

“Absolutely, we welcomed it, even if it does nothing more than confirm a reality which already exists on the ground,” she says.

“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, always has been, every independent country should have the right to choose its own capital.

“It is not just the capital of the state of Israel but also the capital of the Jewish people and it has been for thousands of years.

“Yes, I’m very happy that they gave us that recognition. Did we need it? No. Is it significant geopolitically? Yes.”

For her own part, Ms Hassan-Nahoum believes a two-state solution is indeed the answer to the Palestinian question – the details of which should be agreed between Israel and the Palestinians beforehand.

On the morning of our interview, Ms Hassan-Nahoum visited a school in underdeveloped East Jerusalem, home to a significant Palestinian population, and says that “as municipal leader the first thing I want to do is to even out spending and make sure they get more resources”.

Hassan-Nahoum was born in London but spent her childhood in Gibraltar where her father, Sir Joshua Hassan, was the Chief Minister for over 20 years
Hassan-Nahoum was born in London but spent her childhood in Gibraltar where her father, Sir Joshua Hassan, was the Chief Minister for over 20 years (Supplied)

From her political leader father, Ms Hassan-Nahoum says she “picked up many things ... but the one I always think of is his love for people”.

Ms Hassan-Nahoum traces the start of her career in politics to being president of the King’s College Jewish Society.

And she is outspoken about what she sees as the rising levels of antisemitism on university campuses across the UK and its pervasion through British politics.

“I think it’s tragic what is happening in the Labour party,” she says. “When I went to England in April I met with a lot of city councillors from the Labour party. They are so angry at what is going on in the party.

“I do feel that this has only got worse since my time at university and in England – it’s what I hear from my friends in London. The fact is that you can wear a hijab and not have to make an excuse for yourself, yet friends of mine in London have to take off their yarmulkes because they are scared of getting attacked.”

She adds: “You can agree or disagree with Israeli policies but ultimately if Jewish students feel threatened in a campus environment there is something very wrong with this picture.”

A proud Zionist with otherwise liberal policies, Ms Hassan-Nahoum has been tipped as a future prime minister of a modern Israeli state, but she says she sees herself more in a diplomatic role.

While dismissing the UN as a “morally warped organisation which sanitises world dictatorships”, she says she “can see [herself] in a foreign role long term, [such as] Israeli ambassador to the UN”.

“Israel’s PR is currently atrocious and we are war criminals in the foreign media. I intend to become an important figure for Israel in terms of how we are represented outside of our country,” she says.

People around the world believe a “false narrative” propped up by the media, she says, of “a brutal genocidal Israeli apartheid rule”.

She insists it is in fact the Palestinians who “time and again, when they are at a crossroads of peace or war, have chosen the path of war”.

“I will never understand how the liberal public in Europe have so blindly accepted the rhetoric from misogynist, homophobic and genocidal groups in Palestine without question,” she adds. “It does just make you wonder if antisemitism is not just that little bit deeper than everything else.”

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