Britain's Israel lobby

What is it, who's in it and how does it work?

Does the UK have a pro-Israel lobby? And is it as powerful or as prominent as its (in)famous US counterpart? Tonight's Dispatches on Channel 4, fronted by the Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne, sets out to answer these questions and shine a light on this sensitive subject, one of the few remaining taboos in British politics and British political journalism.

The urge to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, and the company of neo-Nazi conspiracy theorists, has meant that the rather secretive agglomeration of individuals and groups which lobbies on behalf of Israel -- and often apologises for Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land -- tends to get very little coverage on television or in print.

Channel 4's decision to commission this film is, therefore, a bold if unpopular move. The pre-publicity for Dispatches mentions Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) , Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

There are, of course, many other influential organisations the film could and should touch on -- for example, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which describes itself as "Israel's leading humanitarian and environmental charity" and "entirely non-political", having been founded in 1901 to buy and develop land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. It now owns 13 per cent of the land in Israel. But as one of Israel's leading revisionist historians, Ilan Pappé, writes:

The true mission of the JNF has been to conceal these visible remnants of Palestine not only by the trees it has planted over them, but also by the narratives it has created to deny their existence. Whether on the JNF website or in the parks themselves, the most sophisticated audiovisual equipment displays the official Zionist story, contextualising any given location within the national meta-narrative of the Jewish people and Eretz Israel. This version continues to spout the familiar myths of the narrative -- Palestine as an "empty" and "arid" land before the arrival of Zionism -- that Zionism employs to supplant all history that contradicts its own invented Jewish past.

So what link is there between the JNF and domestic British politics, you might ask? Well, guess who happens to be a JNF patron? None other than our own "neutral" Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. As Mick Napier, chair of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, pointed out back in October 2007, soon after the Prime Minister first accepted the invitation to become patron of JNF-UK:

Gordon Brown may try to pretend that JNF-UK is somehow insulated from the guilt of the JNF's activities in Israel and the occupied territories, but around the world, and in particular in the Middle East, his willingness to support the JNF "brand" will be seen as evidence of the UK's support for Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.

In his comment piece in today's Guardian, Oborne lists influential backbenchers and ministers who happen to be members of CFI and LFI, but adds:

It is important to say what we did not find. There is no conspiracy, and nothing resembling a conspiracy.

Yet, as we demonstrate in Dispatches on Monday night, the financial arrangements of a number of the organisations that form part of the pro-Israel lobby are by no means widely known. The pro-Israel lobby, in common with other lobbies, has every right to operate and indeed to flourish in Britain. But it needs to be far more open about how it is funded and what it does. This is partly because the present obscurity surrounding it can, paradoxically, give rise to conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact. But it is mainly because politics in a democracy should never take place behind closed doors. It should be out in the open for all to see.

Who, I wonder, could disagree with any of that?

Disclaimer: I worked as an editor in the news and current affairs department at Channel 4 for two years before joining the New Statesman in June. However, before the more Islamophobic and conspiratorial among you start posting comments claiming a "Muslim hand" behind tonight's film, let me state on the record that I had nothing to do with the commissioning or production of this film -- both of which occurred after my departure from the channel.

 

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.