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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder