Jenny Tonge: A ‘Woman of Substance’

By Felicity Arbuthnot – London

"Unrespited, unpitied, unreprieved,
Ages of hopeless end." (John Milton, 1608-1674.)

Politicians with backbone are a rarity. (UK) Liberal Democrat M.P., Jenny Tonge (The Rt. Hon., The Baroness Tonge of Kew) has one. Liberal Democrat Leader, Nick Clegg, does not.

Jenny Tonge is a doctor by training, married to a consultant neuroradiologist. Her positions have included Senior Medical Officer for Women’s Services in the large, multi-racial, London Borough of Ealing. In politics, she has been the Party’s spokeswoman for children and for health.

After her daughter was killed in a electrical accident, in 2004, she retired as an M.P., in order to help care for her two young grandchildren. However, made a Peer in 2005, entitled her to address issues of concern in the House of Lords.


In January 2004, she was sacked as children’s’ champion, by the then leader of the Party, Charles Kennedy, for saying of Palestine suicide bombers, in the hopelessness of the remnants of their land: "If I had to live in that situation – and I say that advisedly – I might just consider becoming one myself." Refusing to apologize, she pointed out that: " …having seen the violence, humiliation and provocation that the Palestinian people live under every day and have done since their land was occupied by Israel, I could understand …" 

Her statement echoed the haunting words of the late Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. In his "State of Siege", he poignantly tiptoes between despair and what Western and Israeli governments label "terrorism." Darwish walks in the shoes of one with only his being remaining:

"I love life
On earth, among the pines and the fig trees,
But I can’t reach it,
So I took aim,
With the last thing that belonged to me", he wrote of the suicide bomber. Such acts, he too, held, were not of a people with a culture of death, but a reflection of the despair of life under over sixty years of destruction and occupation.

"Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope – a political solution – they’ll stop killing themselves."

Even in death, Darwish mirrored Palestine’s tragedy, her sons and daughters either exiled or captive – walled, or checkpointed in. He died in August 2008, far from the land he loved, after a life reflecting his nation’s plight in words of searing, soaring beauty, during enforced wanderings among temporary roofs.

In November 2008, Tonge joined a group of twelve parliamentarians from the UK., Ireland, Switzerland and Italy, breaking the Israeli siege of Gaza by boat, an act of not inconsiderable courage, given Israel’s addiction to ramming, shooting at or apprehending craft, whether attempting to take in aid (1) or fishermen engaged in their livelihood.(2)

In January 2009, in the House of Lords, she drew attention of the relevant Minister to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights speaking of "war crimes being committed in Gaza" (during Israel’s month long bombardment) and asked that the British government "show leadership" (that would be a first) "and call for an immediate … UN fact finding commission … to investigate all breaches of international law." 

That March, Jenny Tonge was part of a small delegation of UK parliamentarians who travelled to Damascus, to meet Khaled Meshaal, Hamas leader since the assassination of Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, in 2004. "You don’t make peace by talking to your friends (but) by talking to your enemies", she commented at the time.

The group, she said, were attempting to pressure the British government to talk to Hamas, who had won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006. Such contact might lead to the US following suit, they hoped. They knew their meeting might be considered illegal and lead to arrest, but: "That is one of the risks you take", said Tonge.

Strange times when talking to an elected government can lead to arrest. Wrong kind of democracy again?

In a distinctly undemocratic action, Israel’s Mossad also attempted to assassinate Meshaal, in Amman, Jordan, in 1997, approaching him from behind and spraying a lethal nerve gas in to his ear. Two of the agents were apprehended by the Jordanian security services, with King Hussein demanding of Israel the antidote. On their refusal, amid growing international furore, President Clinton successfully intervened.

"Israeli threats have one of two effects: some people are intimidated, but others become more defiant and determined. I am one of the latter", commented Meshaal, of the episode.

This month, Tonge was again sacked by Nick Clegg, after suggesting an independent inquiry should be established into allegations of organ harvesting in earth quake devastated Haiti, by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). As Liberal Democrat Health Spokeswoman in the House of Lords, her concerns were valid, given statements by even a senior Israeli forensic scientist, over Israel’s past practices. (3)

Ironically, the storm was caused by her measured statement to the Jewish Chronicle, in which she suggested perfectly reasonably that: "To prevent allegations such as these – which have already been posted on You Tube – going any further, the IDF and the Israeli Medical Association should establish an independent inquiry immediately, to clear the names of the teams in Haiti." It is fair to assume that were any other country’s nationals accused, their Medical Associations would need little prompting for such an inquiry.

For her stand, Tonge has been dubbed, by a juvenile group of scribblers, "Jihad Jenny." Contrasting her humanitarian concerns, the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, in answer to an email from a reader, who asked whether his paper considered: " ..extra-judicial murder by Israel or any other state acceptable in any way", allegedly replied: "Yes."

Contributors to the Chronicle include Geoffrey Alderman, who has argued that according to Jewish law, it is "entirely legitimate to kill" every Palestinian in Gaza who voted for Hamas."(4)

The "Jihad Jenny" nonsense, would seem to have come, from amongst others, Douglas Murray, a "self-described neocon and Zionist" and author of  "Neoconservatism: Why We Need It." He seemingly fails to convince. At the time of writing, it is remaindered on Amazon at $2.00; 59c used. (5)

Nick Clegg, who found her comments re Israel’s teams in Haiti: "wrong, distasteful and provocative", on becoming Leader of his Party, described himself as: "A liberal by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing." Indeed. In an interview with GQ magazine, pressed on the number of women he had slept with, he replied: "No more than thirty…" assessing his frolicking skills: "I don’t think I am particularly brilliant or particularly bad." The interview earned him the title of "Cleggover."
Frolicking aside, Jenny Tonge should have had a natural ally in Clegg. International in upbringing and outlook, he worked widely overseas before entering politics and speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish. His father is half Russian and his Dutch mother, as a child, was interned with her sisters and mother by the Japanese, in what is now Jakarta. Her father was in an adjoining camp, where they sometimes saw him through the wire.

Clegg’s mother is still a special needs teacher. Her son has also lectured at Cambridge University on International Relations, a discipline which includes international law, state sovereignty, nationalism, human rights and terrorism. The study is thought to have its roots in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which constituted the legal concept of Sovereignty, encouraged the rise of the independent nation state and the institutionalization of diplomacy. Haiti and Palestine’s crying needs addressed in a nutshell.

He has defended civil liberties, supports liberal intervention, talked at children’s’ charity Barnardo’s recently about " every child a fair start in life" and in the past has supported Survival International. Another politician perhaps selective about application of beliefs.

Perhaps the principled Baroness Tonge sums up the dilemmas of those with more malleable backbones than hers, when she said:

"The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grip on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party." Slapped down again, by the then Leader of her Party, Sir Menzies Campbell for "unacceptable" comment, she emphasized that she was citing: " .. the Israeli lobby in politics … a big distance from being about anti Jewishness or anti-Semitism."

Those whether temporarily or over decades, denied a voice, need the courage of those who can speak out on their behalf, seek redress – even if to dispel an allegation which may have no substance. That is democracy.

Jenny Tonge and her like are an endangered parliamentary species, world wide, as are those they seek to speak for. Perhaps fellow travelers should call Survival International.

– Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist and activist who has visited the Arab and Muslim world on numerous occasions. She has written and broadcast on Iraq, her coverage of which was nominated for several awards. She was also senior researcher for John Pilger’s award-winning documentary, "Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq". She contributed this article to


(1) December 2008; January 2009; February 2009; June 2009.
(2) September 2008; November 2008; January 2009; May 2009;    August 2009 (decapitating a 25 year old fisherman); January 2010;
February 2010.

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