Dispatches, the "pro-Israel lobby" and CST

12 Nov 2009 by CST

On Monday night, Channel 4’s Dispatches will broadcast a one-hour documentary, called Inside Britain's Israel Lobby and fronted by Daily Mail journalist Peter Oborne. The Dispatches website promises:

Dispatches investigates one of the most powerful and influential political lobbies in Britain, which is working in support of the interests of 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.

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.

He investigates how accountable, transparent and open to scrutiny the lobby is, particularly in regard to its funding and financial support of MPs.

The pro-Israel lobby aims to shape the debate about Britain's relationship with Israel and future foreign policies relating to it.

Oborne examines how the lobby operates from within parliament and the tactics it employs behind the scenes when engaging with print and broadcast media.

We do not know what will be in the programme, which has been made by Hardcash Productions of Undercover Mosque fame, but we do know that CST is one of the organisations that have been under investigation by Dispatches. We only know this because last week, Dispatches wrote to CST’s Chairman Gerald Ronson, to inform him that they “will be looking at a number of groups and leading individuals who collectively make up the pro-Israel lobby including the Community Security Trust” and to ask for an interview.

We found this letter very odd, for two reasons. Firstly, because CST’s function is to combat antisemitism and racism in Britain, not to lobby for Israel. We provide security to British Jews, record antisemitic hate crime data and analyse the activities of antisemitic extremist political movements, but we are not a “pro-Israel lobby” organisation. CST does get drawn into public debates about Israel, but we try hard to limit our involvement to explaining where there might be antisemitic impacts or resonances at the extreme ends of that debate. This does not make us a “pro-Israel lobby” organisation; any more than our work exposing and combating Holocaust Denial makes us a ‘Holocaust education’ organisation.

Secondly, this letter, received just two weeks ago, was the first we knew about Monday’s programme. There was no attempt any earlier by Dispatches to work with CST to understand how and why we do our work. This behaviour is bizarre, given that CST has a press office that works with the media every day, including, in the past, journalists from Dispatches. This alone raises a concern that the programme may be based on a set of hostile preconceptions about CST and our work, rather than the fair-minded, objective documentary that its makers promise.

Allegations of political power and influence wielded in support of Israel have to be made very carefully. It is a perfectly legitimate area for journalistic investigation, but it is also a minefield of antisemitic discourse through which responsible journalists must tread warily. The past is littered with failures to navigate this difficult terrain without lapsing into gross antisemitic parodies. The New Statesman cover of January 2002 is the best-known British example of this in recent years:

newstatesmankosherconspiracy 

We do not know what Monday’s programme will contain, or the language or imagery that it will use to make its points. However, the promotional wording on the Dispatches website contains some alarm bells:

 …one of the most powerful and influential political lobbies…

… wielding great influence…

… little is known about the individuals and groups which collectively are known as the pro-Israel lobby…

… the wealthy individuals who help bankroll the lobbying…

… the tactics it employs behind the scenes…

This is worrying, because while we would not expect Dispatches or Hardcash Productions to make an antisemitic programme, all the standard tropes of antisemitic conspiracy theory are present in this website text: inordinate power and influence, large amounts of money, manipulation of politicians and media, and all done in secret. Even the way that “the pro-Israel lobby” is referred to as a single actor, moving and acting as one, suggests a sophisticated conspiracy, in which different organisations and individuals are in fact simply arms of the same single machine. It may simply be that these aspects need to be emphasised to make the programme ‘sexy’, and to attract viewers. The problem is that it attracts viewers of the sort that Dispatches and Hardcash Productions would normally run a mile from. From the comments that people have posted on the Dispatches website even before transmission, it is clear that the idea of a group of ‘Zionists’ influencing British politics to support a foreign power has resonated very strongly with some people. Comments such as:

… The Zionist Lobby counts many British politicians in its ranks where they function as a fifth column in support of Israel's illegal actions. The powerful impact of the Zionist Lobby on British politics is more damaging to our country than that of the ghastly BNP…

… I hope the programme would expose how lobbyists for Israel trample over the UK democratic process. I expect Oborne to expose the destructive role of the Labour Friends of Israel in British politics, but I hope he won't stop there…

 … Thanks Channel 4 for having the courage to look into this subject that most other media dare not touch. We need to know how British politics is being shaped by this powerful yet secretive lobby group to serve the interests of Israel. I look forward to watching it…

 Lets expose the zionist lobby group for what they really represent, not the interests of the majority human being but the interests of a select few who seem to think they know best how to run most foreign policies and destroy any new soverign (sic) middle eastern states from rise! I hope that much is exposed and this program opens the mind of the peeps who are not aware!

Predictably, the programme has also attracted attention from some better known purveyors of this sort of conspiracy theory. Martin Webster, formerly a leading figure in the National Front, has promoted the programme on one far right internet message board; Lee Barnes, the legal office of the BNP, will be watching; meanwhile the anti-Zionist Redress website is advertising Dispatches alongside a link to a list titled Who’s who of Israel’s agents of Influence in Britain.

This should not be too much of a surprise. The allegation that Jews, or Zionists, conspire to secretly control politicians through their financial clout has always played a central role in the propaganda of openly antisemitic organisations. Look at this 1960s leaflet from Britain’s National Socialist Movement, for example, in which the three political parties bow down before the Jew, with his whip in the shape of a pound sign:

whip

CST has no issue with criticism of Israel; nor is it our function to rebut it, which we have explained to the programme makers. Whatever Dispatches intends to say about Israel and the people and organisations who promote it is up to them, and it is for other organisations to address that particular argument. But we do hope that the journalists at Dispatches, like all people involved in public debate about Israel and Zionism, understand the potential for antisemitic discourse to seep into the debate, and take care to avoid it.


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“Since 2003, CST has been a stalwart supporter of ODIHR in its efforts to effectively monitor antisemitic hate crime in the OSCE Region. With its rigorous methodology and innovative partnerships with the British police, it is viewed by many as representing the gold standard for NGO responses to all forms of hate crime. I wish CST all success in its exciting new phase of work.”

Michael Georg Link
OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights