The pro-Israel lobby and antisemitism

The pro-Israel lobby and antisemitism

Lobby correspondent: Peter Oborne, presenter of Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby, in Westminster, London. Photograph: Channel 4 Pictures

The serious charges levelled by critics at the Dispatches documentary investigating the UK pro-Israel lobby amount to accusations of gross irresponsibility, or worse. But who is being irresponsible here? Those who say the film will lead to increased antisemitism, displays “1930s style prejudice” and the return of antisemitic politics, and will reinforce Jews’ fear of antisemitism? Or the filmmakers whose principal conclusion is: “we have found a worrying lack of transparency“?

Is it the disseminators of scaremongering hyperbole or reasoned critique?

Sadly, acting director of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research Jonathan Boyd’s recounting of the contemptible attack he experienced falls into the category of irresponsible scaremongering. He uses a distorted version of Alan Rusbridger’s comments in the programme on press coverage of Israel as a stick to beat the media for rising levels of antisemitism – a classic case of blaming the messenger. Unfortunately, Israel’s actions and incidents of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict do provoke some incidents of antisemitism.

It is also irresponsible of critics to say that Peter Oborne either states or implies that “Jews have occult lobbying power”, that they “form a secret money-rich cabal”, a “hidden lobby”; that the programme “trots out the old antisemitic myth”, has “barely concealed antisemitic undertones”, and propagates the antisemitic “idea of a shady, morally repugnant ‘cabal’ of Jews seeking to control the world”. Neither the film nor the pamphlet, written by Oborne and assistant producer James Jones, contains a shred of evidence to substantiate these allegations.

So why this absurd overreaction? The pro-Israel lobby is inextricably linked to wealthy Jews, payment of large sums of money to politicians, power and influence. This is simply factual observation. Twisted, maliciously exaggerated and deployed by antisemites to prove Jews plot conspiratorially to control the world, these facts can be dangerous. And it’s this that, understandably, colours the response of the critics.

But does that mean you can never shine an objective, critical light on any Jewish activity for fear of giving succour to antisemites? You can stab someone with a sharp pencil. Does that mean you stop using pencils?

We live in a mature democracy, in a society where there is still great sensitivity to antisemitism, real or imagined – as the fuss about Dispatches shows. We need to grow up. The Jewish community is proud of its success. These same businessmen and entrepreneurs who support and drive the Israel lobby organisations are sought after to chair major Jewish charitable institutions. They’re not kept hidden in boxes. They’re lionised. We should have the guts and the confidence to allow the robust but fair discussion of their involvement in politics. Peter Oborne investigated Lord Ashcroft. Why shouldn’t he do the same with Lord Kalms?

So let’s ditch the antisemitism card and ask: was the programme fair? You may not care for the visual, audio and rhetorical techniques, but this is television for a mass audience. It’s not an academic lecture. Dramatisation aside, the objectives and the conclusions were sensible and low-key.

“How does the pro-Israel lobby work? Who runs it? How does it get its results?” asks Oborne at the start. It supports the interests of a foreign power, bankrolls politicians, seeks to influence politics at the highest levels, criticises a critical media. Critics pointed out that this is what lobbies do, as if Oborne was either unaware of it or trying to imply that it’s sinister. He did no such thing. The film takes it as given that the pro-Israel lobby operates legally, like any other lobby. In the pamphlet, Oborne speaks highly of the two key figures in Conservative Friends of Israel, Stuart Polack and Robert Halfon, and of “the sheer professionalism and hard work” of CFI.

Three vignettes were especially telling: Lord Kalms’s efforts to expunge “disproportionate” from Tory vocabulary about Israel; the chairman of the Britain Israel Communication and Research Centre’s financial interest in an illegal settlement in occupied territory; the way elements of the lobby vilify Jewish critics of Israel and intimidate the media. This was strong evidence that the Israel lobby maintains and pursues a view of Israel’s interests that is neither conducive to furthering the cause of a genuine Israel-Palestine peace nor helpful for British Jewry, in whose interests the lobby claims to operate.

It’s in the nature of practically all lobbies to work beneath the radar most of the time. So it was no surprise to learn that all but one of the lobby groups approached for interview declined, thereby gifting the filmmakers with the justified conclusion that they’re uncomfortable with public scrutiny. And that, in essence, is what the film kept returning to. In the current political climate, still dominated by the parliamentary expenses scandal, the programme’s concluding recommendation cannot be faulted: “[the pro-Israel lobby] needs to be far more open about how it’s funded and what it does.”