OPINION - Wes Streeting's election battle over Israel-Gaza is especially sad given Ilford's historic diversity

Labour’s shadow health secretary faces a challenge for his seat from independent candidate Leanne Mohamad (Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Labour’s shadow health secretary faces a challenge for his seat from independent candidate Leanne Mohamad (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Two or three times a year my school would half-empty, leaving the remaining gentiles, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims to twiddle our thumbs. That was because in Ilford, Jewish children were excused for religious holidays. It was, after all, a Jewish community. I grew up in the Ilford North constituency in the Eighties, so watching its Labour MP, Wes Streeting, face a challenge from a Muslim independent candidate because he has refused to denounce Israel feels particularly sorrowful.

Ilford was hardly utopia back then. There was plenty of everyday racism against people of colour — the BNP were active, if unsuccessful, in the area until about 15 years ago. Despite its faults, this part of north-east London and Essex is a natural staging post for communities after serving time in the East End. My paternal grandparents were from Whitechapel and Bow, and the many Jewish children I grew up with were also in families who had moved from Brick Lane and Hackney after the Second World War. Our snobbish teachers used to call us “East End overspill”.

So it was perfectly natural that this pattern would be repeated in the late Eighties and Nineties as families of south Asian heritage, the majority of them Muslim, headed in the same direction. One of the most poignant ironies of the current divide is that thousands of Muslim families who moved to Ilford would have bought their houses from Jewish families who were moving on.

It is unusual to seek to depose a sitting MP because of an opinion about a conflict about which he has no specific link or influence

There’s nothing odd about single-issue parties, but it is unusual to seek to depose a sitting MP because of an opinion about a conflict about which he has no specific link or influence. The plans of the Redbridge Community Action Group are something new — an expression of community exceptionalism in which religious solidarity is the dominating factor. The message is that a London MP’s view on whether Israel has a right to defend itself or not is more important than local services, housing, tax, energy, health, education, trade, social care, the environment, policing and, well, literally everything else.

Palestinian flags line the streets of Ilford North and neighbouring Ilford South. Along Beehive Lane, Cranbrook Road and The Drive, council staff pull down flags and posters only to see them replaced. Mass pro-Palestinian walkouts were reported in my old secondary school involving 300 Muslim students.

Those Jewish people who did not sell up and leave Ilford are predominately elderly and increasingly isolated. When they look out of their windows they see the signs of hostility. In October, an Imam at the Redbridge Islamic Centre in Gants Hill, Ilford, asked God to “curse the Jews” and “tear apart their gatherings and destroy their homes. Destroy their homes and bring down upon them your tyranny”. One wonders how an elderly Jewish couple in Gants Hill would feel about this, with the knowledge of their own forebears’ migration from eastern Europe to escape pogroms or annihilation.

The takeaway for the observant is that the Imam said “Jews”, not Israelis or even “Zionists”. In this hothouse, they are often indistinguishable. Gants Hill is where community leaders — including the Muslim mayor — gathered with Streeting to light the giant menorah by the roundabout during Hanukkah last December. Streeting posted on social media: “I’m proud of the diversity and solidarity within our borough. Hate won’t win.” But tolerance does not always go both ways.

Taken coldly, this campaign is perfectly legitimate in that it is the democratic right of anyone who wishes to enter politics to do so and it’s understandable that a community would want to be represented. But where does this act of separatism lead us? The idea that Streeting has “blood on his hands”, as the prospective candidate Leanne Mohamad claims, is patently absurd. Streeting isn’t a warmonger. At a time when we set such store on the acceptance of pluralism, this is like filing for divorce from the rest of the constituency.

This pocket of suburbia, like many similar areas in the capital, serves communities who move from inner London in search of prosperity, stability and safety. It is a tragedy in waiting if this tradition of being somewhere people can find a new home and raise families, grow their businesses and maintain their identity in a multicultural society is put at risk by a descent into sectarianism.

Opportunity and openness — a multi-faceted co-existence — is the best thing about this rather humdrum part of the world. If this electoral tactic spreads elsewhere we will be facilitating self-created enclaves that will exclude others and exclude the idea of diversity itself — of thought, of association, of expression. It cannot fail to create anything other than more division.

George Chesterton is the Evening Standard’s executive editor