Light on the Lobby
LAST night's Channel Four Dispatches programme investigated what the makers described as " one of the most powerful and influential political lobbies in Britain" - the lobby working for the State of Israel. "Despite wielding great influence among the highest realms of British politics and media, little is known about the individuals and groups which collectively are known as the pro-Israel lobby, " said the blurb.
"Political commentator Peter Oborne sets out to establish who they are, how they are funded, how they work and what influence they have, from the key groups to the wealthy individuals who help bankroll the lobbying".
Time was, we knew that Israel had its supporters, often on the Left of the parliamentary Labour Party, where besides Jewish MPs like the late Ian Mikardo, they included people like Tony Benn, Richard Crossman and Aneurin Bevan, motivated by a mixture of sentiments - sympathy for what Jewish people had suffered in Europe, admiration for the pioneering achievements of the kibbutz, respect for Israeli Labour as fellow-social democrats, who seemed firmly in control of their economy and government for their first decades.
The Tories, on the other hand, despite a pro-Zionist tradition going back through Churchill and Balfour (not necessarily the same as liking Jews -as witness his Aliens Act), were seen as listening to Foreign Office Arabists and oil interests. Even when Eden took Britain to war at Suez, with France and Israel as allies, he pretended the Israeli aggression was nothing to do with Britain.
The Six Day War of 1967, followed as it has been by 42 years of occupation, showed Israel acting as a colonial power, losing much of the support it had held when its very existence seemed threatened, but beginning to gain the support of different allies, the kind not previously known for over-fondness for Jews, but grudgingly conceding admiration for a state that can knock around Arabs.
Meanwhile the Zionists had formalised their support in the Labour Party by setting up Labour Friends of Israel, to supplement the work of Poale Zion (now calling itself the Jewish Labour Movement); and a group of businessmen had come together, orchestrated by property developer Eric Miller of Poale Zion and banker Arieh Handler (who had links with Israel's right-wing National Religious Party) to channel funding directly to Harold Wilson. The spooks at MI5 who fed information to Private Eye about Wilson made out the foreign power links that worried them were with the Soviet Union.
Last night's TV programme by Peter Oborne and James Jones focussed on overt lobbying, and particularly the Conservative Friends of Israel, founded in 1974, which because it is not registered as a charity or incorporated association does not have to publish details of its membership or funding; and the British Israel Research and Communication Centre, or BICOM, which is fronted by former Labour MP Lorna Fitzsimons, but bankrolled by Poju Zabludowicz, a former arms dealer and now a Finnish citizen. Apparently few people that Peter Osbore spoke to had heard of Poju Zabludowicz, but this generous Finn contributed £15,000 to David Cameron's campaign to become leader of the Tory party. To avoid any difficulties with British electoral law this money was channeled through a British subsidiary, Tamares Real Estate Improvements. Zabludowicz is a major investor in Ma'aleh Adumim, the town built on occupied land to help split the West Bank, so he is unlikely to favour returning the territory to the Palestinians in any real 'peace process'.
Labour Friends of Israel has sent more MPs on trips to Israel, which has had more MPs overseas visits than anywhere. Conservative Friends has more members, including more than half the shadow cabinet. Those standing against MPs regarded as pro-Palestinian get campaign subsidies from CFI member's businesses.
Those of us who have paid our own way to Israel/Palestine on fact-finding or olive-picking trips, or have lobbied our MPs armed with nothing but facts and arguments, and folders full of leaflets, know we are up against professional lobbyists, and loads of money. All the same, it is an eye-opener for us, not to mention the general public, to see what we are up against, how much is involved, where it comes from, and how it works. But does it work? As Peter Oborne - incidentally a columnist for the usually pro-Israel Daily Mail - admits, it is hard to prove a connection between the money and policy positions. Donations usually come via individuals and the companies they own, rather than the lobbying organisation (or the embassy). Would the donors support a different party, or recipients a different policy? Hard to prove the money makes such a difference, but I guess it helps.
When William Hague became shadow foreign secretary, tens of thousands of pounds flowed his way. But within months he was in trouble with CFI for calling Israel's onslaught on Lebanon "disproportionate".
Lord Kalms (of Dixons and Curry's), a former Tory party treasurer, called Hague an "ignorant armchair critic", and threatened to withdraw funding. More recently it seems CFI can take credit for Cameron and Hague taking a firm line of rejecting the UN resolution based on the Goldstone Report.
I was glad the programme interviewed some witnesses who object to the lobbyists' claim to speak for Jewish people, among them the respected Rabbi David Goldberg, from St.John's Wood Liberal Synagogue, and Anthony Lerman, former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, who told how the Zionist lobby deliberately confuses opposition with "antisemitism" to silence critics. Though he did not mention it, Tony Lerman has more than once had his own career threatened for stepping out of line with the lobbyists, and a couple of years ago it was Stanley Kalms who called for his dismissal, urging withdrawal of funds if he was not removed from his job.
Last night's programme also looked at the pressures on the BBC, reminding us of its shameful refusal to broadcast the humanitarian appeal for Gaza, and the campaigns against individual journalists like Orla Guerin and Jeremy Bowen. When Ariel Sharon came to London the BBC was not even allowed into his press conference! Since the corporation does not depend on advertising it is not susceptible to obvious financial inducements, but it does come under sustained pressures from Zionists, both here and in the United States, accusing it of "bias", even when many of us think it is leaning the other way.
Effective lobbying depends not just on resources but on a semblance of public support. The charge of "antisemitism" has been used not just to smear and intimidate critics but to keep the Jewish community in line, using the Board of Deputies, its supposedly representative voice, to make complaints and when necessary, round up the troops. That's why the Zionists are angry with anyone raising dissent in the ranks.
But many Jewish people, without even considering themselves "anti-Zionist" or unsympathetic to Israel, will not feel happy about the professional lobbyists, particularly from abroad, purporting to speak in their name when purchasing influence, or bullying journalists and dissidents.
There is another side to this too, which the programme brought out when it showed what the lobbyists and some Jewish leaders deliver to politicians, apart from money. We saw a gentleman from the Conservative Friends getting very undiplomatic as he shooed away cameras from an affair where Polish politician Michal Kaminski was guest. Kaminski, former member of a far-Right "National Renewal" movement, has been criticised for refusing to apologise for a wartime massacre of Jews, and for his reactionary views on gay rights and other issues. But today Kaminski leads the Conservative group in the European Parliament, and the Tory-Zionist alliance has been set to work telling everyone that the Polish politician can't possibly be described as an antisemite, because he is a big supporter of Israel. The BNP's Holocaust-denier Nick Griffin may be too optimistic if he thinks his declared support for Israel will bring similar absolution. But for those of us aware of Polish Jewish history, the Kaminski case evokes some unpleasant memories. There is a price to be paid for this kind of leadership.
For this insight, as well as its exposure of the lobby, we owe some gratitude to this programme, whatever shortcomings others may find in it.
If you did not see the programme, or want to watch it again, it is online:
There is also a pamphlet available:
For a glimpse of the 2007 row involving Lord Kalms versus Tony Lerman: