Why non-Jewish Luke's family has always given support to Israel


BEING appointed director of BICOM's We Believe in Israel department was a dream job for Luke Akehurst.

Luke, who has just stood down after 12 years as a Labour councillor in Hackney, spent 11 years as a lobbyist for a PR company and worked with Weber Shandwick, largely for the defence industry, as well as for property companies and local authorities.

"As a PR consultant, you don't get a lot of choice about your clients," he said. "It was almost my dream job to run a pro-Israel campaigning organisation.

"To focus on one campaign, in which I really believe, was extremely attractive."

So what was it which made Israel's cause so attractive to this non-Jewish political animal?

Luke came from a political family with a long tradition of sympathy with Israel.

"My great-grandparents were Labour councillors and mayors in Gravesend," he said.

"There was an awareness in my family of the justice of Israel's cause. My grandfather had Jewish friends when he served in the army. He had a strong opinion in favour of Israel and friendship towards the Jewish community, which he passed onto my mother, who passed the same set of ideals to me.

"By the time I was involved in the Labour Party from the age of 16, I already knew that I was supportive of Israel."

After graduating in politics at Bristol University, Luke worked for two years as the National Union of Students' Bristol convenor and for a year as Labour Students national secretary.

His support for Israel became reinforced during the years he was involved in student politics.

He said: "I had an extremely good working relationship with Bristol J-Soc when I was a student, then with the Union of Jewish Students at national level.

"I already had the gut instincts, but my understanding and deepening of support for Israel came through working alongside Jewish students in the NUS."

Luke is full of praise for the work of the UJS which has created a whole generation of non-Jewish pro-Israel political activists, some of whom he is working alongside at BICOM.

He said: "The younger MPs who prominently identify with the Labour Friends of Israel disproportionately come from the same background as me in student politics. That is the long-term benefit of all of the work that the UJS does.

"MPs Jim Murphy, Michael Dugher and Stephen Twigg, current BICOM chief executive Dermot Kehoe, former BICOM chief executive Lorna Fitzsimons and I have all come from the same background. I have never felt isolated over Israel in the Labour Party."

Luke's involvement with Jewish issues has not only come over Zionist politics.

As a Hackney councillor for 12 years and living in Stoke Newington for 16, he has had much interaction with the charedi community of Stamford Hill.

Soon moving to Oxford to live nearer to his wife's family, Luke recently stood down after serving for eight years on the board of Agudas Israel Housing Association.

He said: "I was very touched at my final council meeting at the end of my 12 years that charedi councillors Ian Sharer (Liberal Democrats) and Simche Steinberger (Conservatives) both thanked me for being a friend to their community. That meant a lot to me."

Luke's primary engagement with the charedi community was over housing needs for the ultra-Orthodox. There was tension around planning laws.

He said: "The Jewish community would like relaxation of planning laws to allow them to build extensions. This is difficult to resolve and has to be handled sensitively."

The anti-Israel boycott even raised its head in the Hackney Council chamber when boycotters tried to stop the council using Veoilia for their waste management because the company helped to build the tram system in Jerusalem.

Luke said: "Whenever Veoilia go for a UK contract, the boycott people turn up and try to persuade councils not to use them. I was very proud that all the parties on Hackney Council united in agreeing not to even allow a statement from the boycotters in the chamber.

"We were very conscious that ours is a very multi-ethnic borough and we didn't want the Middle East conflict to get played out in our council chamber. We wouldn't be told whom we should procure our bins from."

He added: "Even the charedi councillors who, on religious grounds, would not call themselves Zionists, were certainly opposed to boycotts and delegitimisation."

We Believe in Israel was founded at the 2011 BICOM conference which was attended by 1,500 people.

Luke said: "After the conference people asked what happened next. You can't tell them to be grassroots activists and then not support them."

In his former PR position, Luke had been a consultant helping the run-up to the conference. Then BICOM chief executive Lorna Fitzsimons persuaded him to run the ongoing organisation.

Luke said: "I did not need much persuasion. I was very enthused and my enthusiasm has been sustained. It has turned out to be a job with which I am very happy and am making a lot of headway in terms of the organisation's objectives."

We Believe in Israel aims to build up grassroots pro-Israel organisations and initiate and implement pro-Israel campaigns. The organisation started with 1,500 members and now has a mailing list of more than 5,000, nearly half of whom are non-Jewish, mainly Christian.

Luke said: "The pro-Israel community in the UK has always been good at top level stuff with politicians. My job is building campaigning infrastructure for ordinary people at local level."

He continued: "I am very keen to reach parts of the UK which are not getting support because of geography. I've been a lot to Scotland, because the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign is a lot more extreme than the English one. It is a very hostile political environment for a beleaguered Jewish community of 5,000, which is not enough.

"I went to Stirling with someone from the Israeli embassy and spoke there to 100 Christian supporters. I went to Dundee, which is the last place you would expect 40 pro-Israel people.

"I also went with Stephen Jaffe, of the Board of Deputies, to Bath to a packed meeting of Christians from across Somerset and Wiltshire, where there is a small Jewish population. But the area still has the potential to build a pro-Israel campaign."

One of We Believe in Israel's successes has been in local government, where it has created a network of pro-Israel councillors.

Luke said: "We need to be there because the boycott issue comes up and a lot of councillors go on to hold national political offices. We need to get to know them at the start of their political careers."

Luke is very active in attempting to counter the Co-op boycott, encouraging people to join the organisation, go to meetings and argue Israel's case.

He is also involved in trying to persuade the British government, as a major funder of the Palestinian Authority, to put pressure on the Palestinians to clamp down on hate education.

He said: "I am very pleased that Prime Minister David Cameron raised the issue at the Knesset as one of the obstacles to peace. That shows that this issue is being taken seriously right at the top level of government."

He added: "One thing I would like to stress is the cross-party nature of We Believe in Israel. Although I have a life outside work, which is heavily involved in Labour politics, I work with a coalition at We Believe in Israel of people of all parties or none."

Once he moves to Oxford, Luke plans to commute daily to his central London office.

And, although he and councillor wife Linda Smith have stood down from local politics for the move, Luke doubts that his political career has come to an end.

He said: "I am such a political person. I have ongoing projects. I am in the middle of an election campaign to try to get back onto the Labour national executive committee, where I was from 2010-2012 and then narrowly lost.

"I am also interested in seeking a parliamentary selection if there are any late retirements next year."

He has already stood for Parliament in Aldershot in 2001 and in Castle Point in 2005.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph