Israel lobby in the United Kingdom
The Israel lobby in the United Kingdom (also called the Zionist lobby) is the diverse coalition of those who, as individuals and as groups, seek to influence the foreign policy of the United Kingdom to strengthen bilateral ties with Israel, or in support of Zionism, Israel, or the specific policies of its government. The term Israel lobby itself has been subject to debate and criticism, over its clarity and exact definition.
Such lobbying in the United Kingdom is far less formalised than in the United States, where lobbying groups or associations may constitute formal entities, and where lobbying in the US with regard to support for Israel is far greater.
What came to be known as “Christian Zionism” emerged in England in the early 19th century when Restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and futuristic interpretation of apocalyptic texts merged. In 1839 the evangelical Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury called Westminster Parliament to support creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. During the 1840s Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston supported a “Jewish entity” allied to the Ottoman Empire as a counterweight to Egypt.
British Journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes that perhaps the “first lobbyist on behalf of the land of Israel” was Theodor Herzl who, after publishing his book The Jewish State in 1896, and organizing the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, met in person British Cabinet ministers and other European officials. Russian Zionist Chaim Weizmann began the process of convincing Arthur James Balfour, a British Lord, that Palestine should be the Jewish national home and the “British Zionist movement began actively lobbying the British government.” The British Palestine Committee in Manchester also “lobbied for the mandate and Jewish rights in Palestine.”
Some groups like the influential Board of Deputies of British Jews and Anglo-Jewish Association were the “institutional stronghold of the anti-Zionist camp” and formed a lobby committee to oppose the efforts of Weizmann and his allies. In 1917 Weizmann and a small group of Zionists "in a brilliant exercise of sustained persuasion, lobbying, and influence" persuaded the British government to create the “Balfour Declaration” which supported "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." (Weizmann later became the first President of the State of Israel.) However, leaders of Board of Deputies of British Jews and of the Anglo-Jewish Association (who at the time were non-Zionist) considered the Balfour Declaration a “veritable calamity” that would stamp "the Jews as strangers in their native lands."
According to the author Ritchie Ovendale, Britain, which held the British Mandate of Palestine ratified by the League of Nations after World War I, abandoned its Zionist sympathies "which had been secured by the Zionist lobby” because of fears of coming war with Nazi Germany. In 1939 Britain limited Jewish immigration to Palestine, thereby becoming to Zionists "the principal enemy." In 1942 Zionists shifted their focus to influencing the United States through use of the "Zionist vote."
Various contemporary organizations in the United Kingdom seek to influence British government policy towards Israel.
Party political groups
The major British political parties include "Friends of Israel" groups which support the State of Israel.
Founded in 1957 Labour Friends of Israel is a group within the Labour Party which in 2003 described itself as a “lobby group working within the Labour Party to promote the State of Israel." On its present website it describes itself as seeking "to promote a strong bilateral relationship between Britain and Israel." It organizes visits British politicians to visit Israel and meet with Israeli politicians and advocates on Israel's behalf among Labour Party members. Both Labour Party Prime Ministers Tony Blair (1997–2007) and Gordon Brown (2007 - ) have been members of Labour Friends of Israel.
Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) is affiliated with the Conservative Party and states on its website that it is “one of the fastest growing political lobby groups.” It lists its objectives as supporting Israel, promoting conservatism, fighting terrorism, combating antisemitism and peaceful co-existence in the Middle East. Iain Dale and Brian Brivati in The Daily Telegraph have described it as “a highly effective lobby group,” writing that its Director, Stuart Polak, has “done more than most to promote Israel’s case to the right of British politics.”
Registered Parliamentary Groups
All-Party Groups are defined by the House of Commons as "relatively informal" groups whose members include "backbench Members of the House of Commons and Lords" and sometimes ministers and non-parliamentarians. They are classified as subject or country groups. Being cross-party, All-Party Groups are more talking-shops than lobbies trying to influence government policies. They are registered only "to control the extent to which groups use the House's facilities and status"
The "All-Party Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group" is an All-Party Group registered with the UK Parliament. Its stated purpose is "To create a better understanding of Israel, and to foster and promote links between Britain and Israel". The current chair is Lord Janner of Braunstone of the House of Lords. Administrative support for the group is provided by the Office of Lord Janner.
The London-based Jewish Chronicle reported that Brian Kerner, former chair of Joint Israel Appeal argued that there was "the need for a body able to orchestrate British Jewry’s political and public relations" after the year 2000 outbreak of the Second Intifada. The day after it began, fifty Jewish leaders met with the Israeli ambassador and “raised an initial £250,000 fund for pro-Israel lobbying and public relations.” BICOM was founded as a consequence. The article also noted that "a debate goes on in the community’s upper echelons over whether BICOM should remain a mainly-behind-the-scenes player focussing on media or a more upfront pro-Israel lobby similar to the American Aipac...”
According to a 2002 article in The Guardian Bicom and the Board of Deputies of British Jews had "adopted aggressive media strategies to defend Israel and attack its critics in Britain." In 2002 leaders of the British Jewish community called in two high level American strategists "to conduct research into the extent of hostility to Israel in Britain with a view to the British Jewish community launching a big public relations drive." In particular, focus groups were "said to have found particular hostility among professional and academic groups." The American paper The Forward reported that in 2005 Steve J. Rosen, then American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy director, led an ambitious and “semisecret” effort to start similar pro-Israel lobbying organizations in the United Kingdom due to rising antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment. In early 2008, The Jewish Chronicle reported that a new, yet unnamed London-based organisation would examine whether Israel received fair media coverage, but that it would not compete with BICOM.
In the autumn of 2008 a senior Israeli government official shared his opinions on competition between BICOM, which he said wants to maintain its primary role in the UK, and the US-based Israel Project. He stated that BICOM charged that the Israel Project doesn't understand how to work with British journalists and said "We don't want to get into this. We work with both organisations." The Israel Project denied there was competition and BICOM declined to comment saying "We don't respond to speculation."
Christian Zionist groups
Christian Zionist groups in Britain continue the tradition of supporting Israel as part of the fulfillment of prophecy. Such groups often are criticized for their beliefs (per the Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Zechariah) that only those Jews who convert to Christianity will be spared a fiery death when Jesus returns. Christian Friends of Israel, UK explicitly rejects such a view in its “Foundation Principles.” Other such groups include the Church's Ministry Among Jewish People (The Israel Trust of the Anglican Church), Bridges for Peace, Christian Zionists for Israel UK and International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, UK.
Criticisms of the lobby
In a September 2001 column in The Observer about the September 11 attacks in the United States, Richard Ingrams noted “the reluctance throughout the media to contemplate the Israeli factor” and, commenting on Britain, cited “pressure from the Israeli lobby in this country that many, even normally outspoken journalists, are reluctant even to refer to such matters.” He also noted their reluctance to address issues he had mentioned in past columns related to Lord Levy, the Labour Party and to the “close business links with Israel” of press magnates Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black. Earlier in August, Times journalist, Sam Kiley, resigned from the newspaper as he claimed his work was severely censored by senior executives due to the Zionist sympathies of Rupert Murdoch.
In 2002 journalist John Pilger’s documentary “Palestine is Still the Issue” was shown on ITV. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, Conservative Friends of Israel and the Israeli Embassy expressed “outrage” and, according to Pilger, demanded a "pro-Israel" film. Pilger states the BBC would not have “dared to incur the wrath of one of the most influential lobbies in this country” by showing the film, citing comments written by Tim Llewellyn, the BBC's longtime Middle East correspondent, that the BBC continues to “duck” the issue. Pilger stated this was "one example of pressure exerted on British journalists from Zionists and the Israeli embassy."
In a December 2007 column, after the 2007 Labour party donation scandal (“Donorgate”) broke, Assaf Uni of Haaretz wrote that there was concern in the Jewish community about “conspiracy theories regarding a ‘Jewish plot’ in the United Kingdom, and the role of the pro-Israel lobby there.” In late 2007 it was revealed that David Abrahams, who was deputy chair of Labour Friends of Israel until 2002, had made secret and illegal donations through junior employees of 600,000 pounds sterling (approximately $1.2 million) to the Labour Party. Abrahams, “a Jewish millionaire,” admitted in The Jewish Chronicle that he concealed his activity because "I didn't want Jewish money and the Labour Party being put together." The Telegraph ran a photograph of Abrahams with Israeli former ambassador to Britain, Zvi Heifetz, and “insinuated that Israel was the source of the illegal campaign contributions.” According to an article in Haaretz, several in the media have maintained there was a connection between money donated by Zionist Jews and the pro-Israel policy of British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told The Forward "Clearly there is a potential for it to turn against us."
Writing about the scandal, journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asked in The Independent about the roles of the Labour and Conservative Friends of Israel groups, given that former Labour Friends leader David Abrahams involvement. She questioned the role in Labour victories of John Mendelsohn, noting that Mendelsohn is “a passionate Zionist and infamous lobbyist, described by the Jewish Chronicle as ‘one of the best-connected power brokers’.” She stated her assumption that Labour Friends of Israel plays a part in shaping British foreign policies in the Middle East. She also questioned the donations and “back-room influence” of Labour Friends of India and Muslim Friends of Labour.
In 2009 British investigative journalist Peter Oborne produced a documentary for Channel 4 Dispatches programme exposing the influence of the Israel Lobby within British politics and alongside James Jones wrote a pamphlet investigating which groups make up the pro-Israel lobby, how they operate, and how they exert influence.
David Rich, who denies there are UK “AIPAC-style” lobbies, criticised former Labour Member of Parliament (MP) Tam Dalyell who in 2003 stated that former prime minister and party leader Tony Blair was unduly influenced by a "cabal of Jewish advisers” in forming his Middle East policy towards Iraq, Syria and Iran. Dalyell initially named several influential British advisors of Jewish heritage, but later focused on Middle East envoy, Lord Levy and mostly Jewish advisors to US President George W. Bush. Eric Moonman, president of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland and a former Labour MP, said he was seeking advice on whether there was a case for referral of Dalyell to the Commons’ commission for racial equality.
The former Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, Baroness Jenny Tonge said in 2006: "The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they've probably got a grip on our party." An all-party group of Lords led by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said her "irresponsible and inappropriate" comments "evoked a classic anti-Jewish conspiracy theory." Defending her comments, Tonge said that Walt and Mearsheimer's article "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" that appeared in the March 23, 2006 issue of The London Review of Books provided extensive research supporting her assertion that the "'Israel lobby' had a disproportionate voice in Anglo-American foreign policy." Tonge was reprimanded by the Liberal Party leader Menzies Campbell, who commented "I defend absolutely your right to express your views on the Middle East, including legitimate criticism of the state of Israel. But I do not believe that the remarks you used fell within that category." He added that the remarks had "clear anti-Semitic connotations" Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was quoted as saying: "If someone makes comments that are so at odds with what the party feels, and hopefully at odds with common decency, then one would hope that they are no longer made welcome in the party itself."
In 2006 Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for the northwest of England wrote to a pro-Israel constituent that she "enjoyed wallowing in her own filth." In a later message to her he complained about Israel's "racist policies of apartheid" and stated “I shall tell them that I intend to speak out against this oppression at every opportunity, and I shall denounce the influence of the Jewish lobby that seems to have far too great a say over the political decision-making process in many countries.” As a consequence of the outcry raised by the attack on the constituent, Davies resigned soon after as leader of the Liberal Democrats group in the European Parliament.
Arabs and Muslims
In October 2007 all speakers withdrew in protest from another Oxford Union debate on the “One-state solution.” One of the speakers, Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian research fellow at the University of Exeter and vice-chair of CAABU (the Council for Arab-British Understanding), wrote on The Guardian's blog that "the newest and least attractive import from America, following on behind Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Friends, is the pro-Israel lobby.” She states the Oxford Union withdrew its invitation to speak to American Jewish scholar and Israel critic Norman Finkelstein, asserting it was “apparently intimidated by threats from various pro-Israel groups.” Another speaker, Avi Shlaim, a Professor of International Relations at St Antony's College, Oxford, wrote that the rest of the original speakers withdrew “as a protest against the shabby treatment of our academic colleague and the violation of the principle of free speech at the Oxford Union.”
Karmi wrote later in 2007 that legal and other threats against Britons who sought to boycott Israeli universities and against the Royal Society of Medicine for inviting psychiatrist Dr. Derek Summerfield to a conference. She stated the threats succeeded because "Britain is different, naively innocent in the face of US-style assaults on its scholars and institutions. No wonder that those who have been attacked give in so quickly, nervous of something they do not understand."
In October 2007 Amjad Barham, head of the Council of the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, wrote that the "Israel lobby in the UK" was behind the University and College Union (UCU)'s decision to cancel the UK speaking tour of some Palestinian academics. He asserted Palestinian academic unions could "detect the not-so-hidden hand of the lobby in this latest episode of stifling debate on issues pertaining to Israeli policies and the complicity of the Israeli academy in perpetuating them."
- Israel–United Kingdom relations
- Israel lobby in the United States
- Lobbying in the United Kingdom
- Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre
- Labour Friends of Israel
- Conservative Friends of Israel
- Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel
- British–Zionist conflict
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