The pro-Israel lobby in Britain: Antony Lerman's foreword

Antony Lerman
13 November 2009

Lobbies, interest groups, policy think tanks and the like are an integral part of our political system and of practically all liberal democratic societies. And it is perfectly right that citizens should be free to organize themselves in these and any other ways to participate in and influence the democratic process as long as what they do is legal, does not contravene the accepted standards of public life and breaks no moral or ethical codes. But in exchange for this right, such groups have to fulfil certain obligations: to be transparent and open to scrutiny, to accept as entirely legitimate the public discussion of methods they use, to be accountable for their actions and to be ready and willing to participate in this oversight process by supplying information and engaging in discussion about what they do in the public arena.

Just as there is no reason why there should not be lobbies on any matter of political concern from the narrowest of domestic matters to the widest of international issues, so too there is no reason why those engaged in lobbying on Britain’s policies towards other countries should be exempt from the obligations I have already outlined. In a globalised and increasingly interdependent world, and with a multicultural and multiethnic population, Britain needs to engage more than ever in multilateral relationships with other countries. British citizens who have strong family, historical and cultural ties with those countries will naturally wish to ensure that the British government has a favourable relationship with them. This is simply a reflection of the fact that we live in an age when people are increasingly comfortable with multiple identities and transnational relationships, when being part of a diaspora does not mean sitting on bags waiting to return “home” but rather allows the individual to maintain their cultural heritage but integrate fully into British society. All of this should be a source of strength for the UK, not of weakness or fear.

However, where a particular newish state is in violent conflict with its neighbours or with elements of its indigenous population, where there are suspicions or evidence of serious human rights violations and where there was once a difficult relationship with the country that was involved in bringing the state into being, organized lobbying for that state is bound to bring challenges and be controversial. This is a scenario that applies to a number of countries, not just Israel. But because there are so many interlocking critical issues at stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict and in other conflicts affecting the entire Middle East—oil, terrorism, religious extremism, arms sales, nuclear weapons—it is not surprising that Channel 4’s Dispatches team should choose to examine the way the Israel lobby operates in the UK.

As someone who has worked professionally in the Jewish community for many years, and directed a policy think tank dealing with issues relating to the position of Jews in Britain and other European countries, I am convinced that it is best for any minority to be as open as possible to the wider society. Minority groups may think they have good reason—fear of persecution and discrimination for example—to keep themselves to themselves, and they should be free to do so if they wish, but this only perpetuates ignorance about them, plays into false perceptions that such groups are monolithic and presents a misleading picture of internal unity, which plays into the hands of community leaders, invariably men, with regressive and counterproductive agendas. Not being open to the wider society only makes minority groups more vulnerable.

It is therefore very much in the interests of the Jewish population of the UK that private organizations, like those which make up the Israel lobby here, and which claim to be doing things for the benefit of Jews, are open to scrutiny by public bodies, the media and Jewish groups and individuals who are concerned. Indeed, since we know only too well that the position of Jews in this country is directly affected by the violent twists and turns in the Middle East conflict, the impact that the Israel lobby has on government and opinion formers is of immediate and direct concern to Britain’s entire Jewish population, whether they consider themselves part of the organized community or not. So when I first learnt that Dispatches was planning to make a documentary film, which would examine the way the Israel lobby operates in the UK, I immediately saw it as a valuable exercise, though understandably one that may be seen as controversial and carried risks.

For some years I have been concerned about the role of the Israel lobby in maintaining and pursuing a view of Israel’s interests that in my opinion is neither conducive to furthering the cause of a genuine Israel-Palestine peace nor helpful for British Jewry. It is certainly true that for many Jews in this country, Israel has become a significant element of their Jewish identity, and this is perfectly understandable. It contributed greatly to a restoration of a sense of Jewish pride, self-confidence and security after the horrors of the Holocaust. And it has played an important role in a revival of Jewish educational, cultural and religious activity around the world. But there has always been a significant sector of the Jewish population for whom the state of Israel was either incompatible with their strictly held Jewish religious beliefs, with their rejection of nationalism and the concept of an ethno-religious state, or with their belief that assimilation was the best path for Jews to follow in order to become productive citizens of this country. In the last two decades, as Jews have become even more settled and comfortable in British society, there has been a weakening of the psychological, emotional and ideological ties with Israel which prevailed in the first few decades after the establishment of the state, a phenomenon particularly apparent among younger Jews. At the same time, a remarkable indigenous revival of Jewish culture has taken place, which contains Israeli influences but also reflects an increasingly critical mode of engagement with Israel on the part of growing numbers of British Jews.

Meanwhile, for many years now Israel has no longer relied on philanthropic support from Diaspora Jews and has developed a political system and culture which even strong supporters of the state regard with deep unease. But the key point is that this is the path chosen by what is a sovereign state, a state which, like any other, defines its own interests and pursues them. Whatever was the situation in the early years of the state, those interests do not automatically coincide with the interests of the Jewish population of the UK, or with any other Jewish community outside of Israel, even though successive Israeli governments always try to imply the opposite. The urgent and fundamental task of reaching a just resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians by withdrawing from occupied territory, dismantling settlements, solving the Palestinian refugee issue and fulfilling Palestinian national aspirations is made harder by the way Israel attempts to link its increasingly intransigent approach to peace to what it defines as the fate of the Jewish people as a whole. And the actions of the Israel lobby in the UK work to validate that view, to the profound detriment of the future of Jewish life in this country and of the independent and autonomous path Jews have forged for themselves, as an integral part of Britain’s multicultural society, over recent decades.

For those Jews who feel as I do, it should be possible in our liberal democracy, where free speech is the norm and change can come about through open discussion and dialogue, for us to question the role played by the Israel lobby and seek to counter its influence. This does not mean delegitimising Israel or undermining its national aspirations. It has achieved its national goals. These are a given. What it does mean is actually something more positive for Israel than that which is offered by the Israel lobby: ideas for a future in which Palestinian and Israeli human rights are protected and promoted, the national aspirations of the Palestinian people are fulfilled, Israel lives in peace with its neighbours and becomes fully integrated into the region. Arguing for these ideas as better alternatives to those offered by the Israel lobby is something which should be able to take place, on the one hand, without the demonising of Jewish critics of Israel or the levelling of accusations of antisemitism or Jewish self-hatred against them, and on the other hand, without unfounded allegations about the Israel lobby which feed entirely unacceptable antisemitic conspiracy theories. The Dispatches investigation is therefore to be welcomed and this valuable paper, which highlights some of the key problematic issues arising out of it, is an important additional contribution to a debate that must take place.

Examining how the Israel lobby operates is only one side of the issue. Equally important is the question of the impact, if any, the Israel lobby has on government policy and opinion. After all, it is the aim of all lobbies, interest groups and think tanks operating in the political arena to influence policy and opinion and the Israel lobby is no different. I know from past discussions in which I participated that the private donors to the lobby organizations want to see results and that they are not slow to express their dissatisfaction if they do not feel they are getting value for money. An attempt to answer this question, which is probably harder to do than to explain how the organizations operate, would further open up debate—and this would be in the best interests of the country, the political system, the integrity of lobbying organizations, the achievement of Israel-Palestine peace and the British Jewish community.

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