British policy and the British “Israel” lobby
(To be read in conjunction with our “Overview Position Statement of Sept. 2016”)
British Policy re Israel and Palestine
Since the Suez debacle of 1956 when Britain (and Israel) found themselves on the opposite side to the Americans, British foreign policy has largely shadowed US policies. A determination to retain the position of America’s closest ally has been one of the main aims of every British government, except possibly that of Edward Heath who tried to lead the country towards a more European foreign policy. This has led Britain into dubious wars in the Middle East, to helping to prop up Arab regimes with appalling human rights records, and also to only very mild criticism of Israeli belligerence and human rights abuses. While it is true that Britain has been less slow to criticise Israel than the US, it has always refrained from dissociating itself from American policies and did not vote for Palestinian membership of the General Assembly of the UN when most of the world did.
In the early decades there was great support for Israel in Western countries, in substantial part in reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, but opinion polls show that Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian territories, repeated pulverisations of Lebanon, systemic defiance of international law and scant regard for the human rights of non-Jews has turned the tide of sympathy towards the Palestinians. The same applies to Israel’s refusal today to recognise its moral and legal responsibility.
With the Oslo Agreement, the European Union and member states have become the main source of funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA) which has control over certain areas of the West Bank. As regards Gaza, they follow the US policy of refusing to negotiate with Hamas.
The Coalition Government of 2010-2015 took timid steps to put pressure on Israel, by working with European partners to prevent produce from illegal Israeli settlements from enjoying special tariff benefits that Israeli and Palestinian producers enjoy. However, the Conservative government that took charge in the election of 2015 seems to have abandoned the Palestinian cause and to be openly collaborating with the Government of Israel, just at a time when Israel is becoming ever more extreme (this process is described in the last section of a Brief History of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).
This is evident in its ban on local authorities engaging in ethical boycotts inspired by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The government uses WTO rules to defend its anti-BDS policy, although this is clearly mistaken. Given the time-honoured and noble role of boycotts in the UK, starting with the sugar boycott against the slave trade in the 1790s, and more recently against apartheid in South Africa, the measure is a thoroughly retrograde step. It also has an adverse impact on the working of local democracy.
The British “Israel Lobby”
As noted in the page on Brief History, Zionism started as a small minority movement among Jews, but it has for long enjoyed more widespread support and it has major influence on the institutional life of the country, and notably in the media. The Israel Lobby is most evident in a clutch of institutions including the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish Board of Deputies, the “Friends of Israel” organizations of the political parties, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) and the “Community Security Trust” (CST).
The Conservative journalist Peter Oborne is a particularly informative source regarding the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), according to whom: “No other lobbying organisation – and certainly not one that acts in the interests of a foreign country – carries as much weight at Westminster. Every year, it takes a significant number of parliamentarians to Israel. Meanwhile, its sponsors play an important role in financing both the Tories nationally, and MPs at the local level”. Oborne estimated that 80% of Conservative MPs were members of CFI; we believe that such a high percentage sends out a message that joining CFI is a good career move for upwardly-mobile parliamentary candidates and MPs.
BICOM is a PR company funded to promote right-wing Israeli viewpoints and whitewash the abuses of human rights in Israel. According to a Spinwatch report, BICOM focusses its attention on the political elites, believing that this is more important than public opinion or even opinion in the Jewish community.
CST is a charity that monitors and reports on anti-Semitic incidents, in principle a very worthwhile activity. However it contributes to the narrative that European Jews suffer a uniquely deplorable type of racism, something which was certainly true in pre-World War 2 Europe when they constituted the largest and most visible ethnic/religious minority, but which is highly questionable in the multi-ethnic Europe of the late 20th and 21st centuries. CST has participated in the move to conflate anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel, and has sought to discredit Jews who criticize Israel. Anthony Lerman describes as “very troubling” the institutionalized politicization of anti-Semitism by bodies like CST claiming to be non-political or academic.
The pro-Israel lobby is unwaveringly supportive of the Government of Israel, and does not represent the diversity of opinion among British Jews. There are many Jews and indeed Jewish pressure groups that argue for justice for Palestinians. An in-depth public opinion survey in 2010 showed considerable diversity of opinion, and notably that almost three quarters of British Jews were at odds with expansion of illegal settlements. Even among those defining themselves as Zionist, 70% were opposed. Evidence is growing of similar trends in the USA, especially among younger Jews, but they have limited influence on the mainstream Lobby organisations as yet. In both countries the Israel Lobby seems unmoved by this change in attitudes and continues to defend Israel at all costs.
Inventing bogus language to serve the Zionist cause
A key strategy of the Israeli Government and western lobbyists has been to redefine the term “anti-Semitism”, a term we normally take to mean “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group”. Tel Aviv’s new wider definition includes most criticism of Israel, the Zionist doctrines that inspire its continued expansion at the expense of Palestinians, and peaceful actions like boycotts of goods produced on stolen land.
Lobbyists have had some success in getting this definition applied more widely in the UK, in HM Government’s decision to impose a ban on ethical boycotts, and in limitations on freedom of expression in the Universities. A number of senior conservatives including Michael Gove and Eric Pickles have given their wholehearted support to this initiative, by broadcasting the view that BDS is tantamount to anti-Semitism and by advancing an expansive definition that would allow most criticism of Israel or Jews who support Israel to be deemed anti-Semitic.
Lobbyists have not had it all their own way, particularly when the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) abandoned a previously politicised definition of anti-Semitism as unfit for purpose. Notwithstanding, the sheer clout and persistence of lobbyists makes it difficult to prevent new expansive definitions creeping into official documentation. An interesting example of this can be observed is the College of Policing’s Operational Guidance on Hate Crimes.
Attempts to defame critics of Israel
The Lobby often makes life hard for people who dare stand up for the Palestinians and, to use a footballing analogy, it often “tackles the player rather than the ball”.
Jeremy Corbyn is one such player. While we do not support many of his domestic policies, we admire his tireless work, over many years, on behalf of the Palestinians, and his opposition to the Iraq War, much vindicated by the Chilcot Report.
His pro-Palestinian work made him a target for a vigorous and sustained media attack that started with the Labour Party leadership elections in September 2015, peaked with the Mayoral and local elections of May 5th, where it was stated, or implied, that he was a secret anti-Semite, or that he associated with, or tolerated “notorious” anti-Semites. In the run-up to elections, it was repeatedly alleged through media outlets, notably the Jewish Chronicle, the Guardian and the BBC, that the Labour Party “had to address an anti-Semitism problem”. Significantly, a number of the accusers had links to Lobby organisations, the accusations were mainly based on flimsy evidence, and the media outlets signally failed to shine an investigative light on the accusers and on the Israeli organs responsible for putting out propaganda in the West.
The investigative journalist Asa Winstanley described the campaign in the following terms: “The Labour right, in close coordination with pro-Israel propaganda organizations like BICOM, has orchestrated this entire scandal out of thin air. This poisonous atmosphere of lies, dirty tricks, and fabrications in the media and political establishment is reminiscent of the worst days of 1950s McCarthyism in the US”. He went on to say that: “a recurring theme has been endless repetition by Israel’s apologists that anti-Zionism is simply anti-Semitism. Nothing could be further from the truth” .
Our only reservation about Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of this episode is that he was sometimes over-apologetic and too ready to suspend Party members on the basis of weakly supported allegations.
People in other political parties and walks of life also risk being targeted, as highlighted by the Conservative, Sir Alan Duncan, when he said that: “For far too long, those who have made a moral stand against Israeli misconduct and in favour of justice for Palestinians have been trashed, traduced and bullied. This, and the character assassination of critics, cannot be allowed to continue”.
Pro-Palestinian campaigners occasionally make statements that are obtuse or unnecessarily ruffle sensitivities, and are better left unsaid. Some LDFP members are, for example, quite critical of statements by Ken Livingstone and even fellow Liberal Democrats who have sought to speak up for the Palestinians. However, it is one thing to disagree with a statement and quite another to attribute underlying anti-Semitic motives to the person making it, as if one can see into his or her mind. This is the nub of the matter: faced with criticisms of Israel, many pro-Israeli campaigners fail to address the facts, but routinely impugn the motives of the critics. Such behaviour is disgraceful, since critics of Israel have a variety of praiseworthy motives that have nothing to do with “anti-Semitism”, such as:
- humanitarian and human-rights concerns
- to right a historical wrong inflicted by Britain and allies
- concern for the stability of the Middle-East
- concern for British relations with Muslims and Arabs, or
- concern about the influence of diverse lobbies on British democracy
Liberal Democrats need to stand up to this unethical and very unpleasant behaviour.
LDFP restates its commitment to the upholding of the principles and practice of human rights and international law. The root causes of the conflict are: (a) Israel’s failure to recognise the rights of the Palestinians, and; (b) the international community’s unwillingness to use its full clout in pressuring Israel to negotiate a just peace with the Palestinians.
Real anti-Semitism does exist and must be firmly opposed, but we know of no evidence that it is worse than prejudice towards other minorities, notably dark-skinned people, Muslims and Eastern Europeans. We see the Lobby’s current anti-Semitism campaign as a diversionary tactic to deflect and silence criticisms of Israel’s actions, and prevent rational analysis and debate about British policy towards Israel/Palestine.
 Peter Oborne: The Cowardice at the Heart of our Relationship with Israel, Daily Telegraph, 12 December, 2012. See also Oborne’s Channel 4 Dispatches documentary of 2009 called Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lby-BP5xVRI
 See David Cronin, Sarah Marusek and David Miller (2016) the Israel Lobby and the European Union, by (2016), report sponsored by Europal Forum and Spinwatch, p68 http://europalforum.org.uk/en/uploads/upload_center/kH1JNtI1qm1q.pdf
 Lerman is a British writer who specialises in the study of antisemitism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, multiculturalism, and the place of religion in society. See https://antonylerman.com/2012/11/29/another-faulty-pseudo-academic-antisemitism-initiative/
 Source: David Graham & Jonathan Boyd (2010) Committed, concerned and conciliatory: The attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel. Institute for Jewish Policy Research. http://www.jpr.org.uk/documents/Committed,%20concerned%20and%20conciliatory:%20The%20attitudes%20of%20Jews%20in%20Britain%20towards%20Israel.pdf
 See David Cronin, Sarah Marusek and David Miller (2016) op cit., Chapter 5.
 See Cronin, Marusek and Miller, op. cit.
 See Ben White’s article on Shifty Antisemitism Wars, 22 April 2016: https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/ben-white/shifty-antisemitism-wars
 This campaign has been described in numerous articles that readers may wish to consult, for example: Asa Winstanley in https://electronicintifada.net/content/how-israel-lobby-manufactured-uk-labour-partys-anti-semitism-crisis/16481; Kerry-Anne Mendoza in http://www.thecanary.co/2016/04/28/how-the-establishment-is-trying-to-silence-corbyn-and-the-left-with-cries-of-anti-semitism/; Miko Peled in http://ahtribune.com/human-rights/872-anti-semitism-is-everywhere.html; Avi Schlaim and Glyn Daniels in https://www.opendemocracy.net/avi-shlaim-gwyn-daniel/labour-party-israel-and-antisemitism