This is a guest post by Professor Geoffrey Alderman. Professor Alderman is the Michael Gross Professor of Politics & Contemporary History at the University of Buckingham
In 1876 Bulgarian Christians rebelled against their Ottoman oppressors. Tsar Alexander II determined to exploit this crisis to further Russian influence in south-east Europe. Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, determined to stop him. At a peacemaking congress held in Berlin in 1878 Disraeli sided with Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia, and made it clear that he would only agree to recognise the independence of Bulgaria, along with Rumania, Serbia and Montenegro, if the Christian (and pro-Russian) leaders of these countries agreed to recognise and respect the rights of minorities – in particular Jewish minorities.
The anger of Disraeli’s arch-rival, William Ewart Gladstone, knew no bounds. “I deeply deplore [he proclaimed] the manner in which what I may call Judaic sympathies … are now acting on the question of the East.” Because, of course, Disraeli, though then a Christian, had been born a Jew and had never ceased to advertise and be proud of his Jewish origins. Gladstone decided to make political mischief out of this fact. He – and a group of leading intellectuals and socialists – jumped eagerly upon an anti-Semitic bandwagon: Jewish interests, they alleged, were undermining British politics and subordinating British interests to international Jewry’s Jewish preoccupations.
I recalled these events as I watched Peter Oborne’s rather boring documentary Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby. And I recalled them again as I read Tony Lerman’s equally boring – and very lame – defence of it on the Guardian website. The documentary told us nothing that we did not already know. So there’s the Conservative Friends of Israel and the Labour Friends of Israel. So there’s the Conservative Friends of India and the Labour Friends of Iraq. So there’s the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM) and the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. So there’s the Lord’s Day Observance Society and the British Humanist Association. So what?
Many years ago (1984) I wrote a book examining Pressure Groups and Government in Great Britain. Two points that I made in that volume are worth repeating here. The first was that in a liberal democracy pressure groups – lobbies if you like – are the lubricants that oil the machinery of government. They are as necessary to democracy as is freedom of expression. The second was that more transparency was needed in respect of the manner in which such groups went about their work. Well, we have come a long way since I published that book, and we certainly have more transparency now than we did then.
I agree that there is still room for improvement. But the Dispatches documentary produced not a single skeleton in the cupboard. Instead we had a succession of moaners – including, I regret to say, academics (such as professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University) who should know better – bemoaning the fact that their opinions did not carry much weight within Britain’s Jewish communities. Newman’s assertion that groups such as BICOM “tend to close down” debate on Israeli policies vis-à-vis Judea and Samaria is – frankly – fatuous to the point of absurdity. As for Oborne, he himself was forced to admit, near the end of the programme, that although there were indeed “conspiracy theories” surrounding the influence of pro-Israel lobbies, such theories “have no basis in fact.” And in his dissection of political donations made by CFI board members Oborne was at pains to point out that such donations were “entirely legal.” Indeed, Oborne even documented cases where donations had been made to politicians who, nonetheless, had continued (would you believe?) to publicly voice sentiments critical of Israel. And Oborne certainly missed a trick when he failed to follow up instances of failure on the part of pro-Israeli lobbies – the UK’s recent refusal to condemn the Goldstone report being a case in point.
It’s in this light that I reject Tony Lerman’s defence of the programme. Just because anti-Semites might exploit the programme, says Lerman, that’s no reason not to make it, and not to air it. “Does that mean [he asks in his Guardian CiF blog] you can never shine an objective, critical light on any Jewish activity for fear of giving succour to antisemites?”
Tony, boychick, of course it doesn’t. Jewish lobbies are as fair game for the investigative journalist as are non-Jewish lobbies. But – by his own admission – Peter Oborne had no story to tell, did he? Nothing illegal. Nothing illicit. Nothing conspiratorial. Mind you, some of his logic was questionable: X funds Y; X funds Z; therefore Y controls Z. This type of reasoning defies common sense. But we’ll let that pass, for now. The point is – Tony – that Oborne had no story to tell.
Or did he? According to Mr. Lerman, Oborne produced “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.” Well, of course, that all depends on the opinions you hold on the wider issues.
So let’s return to William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Gladstone accused Disraeli of operating British foreign policy in the interests of international Jewry rather than in the interests of the United Kingdom. Disraeli demolished this mischievous thinking. It was – he and his supporters argued – in Britain’s interest to support the rights of oppressed minorities in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and resist Russian designs both on broad humanitarian grounds and because of Britain’s long-term strategic interests in what we would now call the Middle East.
Disraeli was right. And so are those contemporary politicians who, whilst they may be critical of individual actions of individual Israeli governments, support Israel’s right to a peaceful existence within defensible borders. Of course, when Lerman asserts that the activities of Britain’s Israel lobby are not “helpful for British Jewry” what he really means is that they’re not helpful for British Jews who think like him. Or – to put it another way – when push comes to shove all that Mr. Lerman can offer us in defence of Mr. Oborne is a large bunch of sour grapes.