Pandering to antisemitism

23 Nov 2009 by CST

Oliver Miles is a former British diplomat who, five years ago, wrote a letter protesting against then-Prime Minister Tony Blair's Middle Eastern foreign policy and organised for 51 other former diplomats to sign it before releasing it to the media. The specific act which so enraged Miles that he felt moved to do this, was Blair's support for a Middle East peace plan that had been put together by President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This act of public revolt against government policy by so many former diplomats was relatively unprecedented and became a major international news story.

Miles' latest intervention on Middle East policy is unlikely to cause similar controversy, but only because it represents the kind of negative discourse about Jews that so often passes without comment nowadays. In his column in yesterday's Independent on Sunday, commenting on the composition of the Iraq war inquiry panel which meets for the first time this week, Miles wrote:

The Prime Minister's choice of the members of the committee has been criticised. None is a military man, Sir John Chilcot was a member of the Hutton inquiry and has been closely involved with the security services, Baroness Prashar has no relevant experience, Sir Roderic Lyne was a serving ambassador at the time of the war, and so on.
Rather less attention has been paid to the curious appointment of two historians (which seems a lot, out of a total of five), both strong supporters of Tony Blair and/or the Iraq war. In December 2004 Sir Martin Gilbert, while pointing out that the "war on terror" was not a third world war, wrote that Bush and Blair "may well, with the passage of time and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill" – an eccentric opinion that would se em to rule him out as a member of the committee. Sir Lawrence Freedman is the reputed architect of the "Blair doctrine" of humanitarian intervention, which was invoked in Kosovo and Afghanistan as well as Iraq.
Both Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish, and Gilbert at least has a record of active support for Zionism. Such facts are not usually mentioned in the mainstream British and American media, but The Jewish Chronicle and the Israeli media have no such inhibitions, and the Arabic media both in London and in the region are usually not far behind.
All five members have outstanding reputations and records, but it is a pity that, if and when the inquiry is accused of a whitewash, such handy ammunition will be available. Membership should not only be balanced; it should be seen to be balanced.

The Prime Minister's choice of the members of the committee has been criticised. None is a military man, Sir John Chilcot was a member of the Hutton inquiry and has been closely involved with the security services, Baroness Prashar has no relevant experience, Sir Roderic Lyne was a serving ambassador at the time of the war, and so on.

Rather less attention has been paid to the curious appointment of two historians (which seems a lot, out of a total of five), both strong supporters of Tony Blair and/or the Iraq war. In December 2004 Sir Martin Gilbert, while pointing out that the "war on terror" was not a third world war, wrote that Bush and Blair "may well, with the passage of time and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill" – an eccentric opinion that would seem to rule him out as a member of the committee. Sir Lawrence Freedman is the reputed architect of the "Blair doctrine" of humanitarian intervention, which was invoked in Kosovo and Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

Both Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish, and Gilbert at least has a record of active support for Zionism. Such facts are not usually mentioned in the mainstream British and American media, but The Jewish Chronicle and the Israeli media have no such inhibitions, and the Arabic media both in London and in the region are usually not far behind.

It is astonishing that Miles thinks that the Jewishness of two of the panel members should count against them in this way. The implication is that they will think the same way, because they are Jewish; and that their Jewishness - or, much worse, "a record of active support for Zionism" - would automatically colour their opinion of how the British government prosecuted the Iraq war. The alternative, implied but not spelled out by Miles, is that Jews should have been ruled out of participation in the inquiry, because they are Jews. I do not accuse Miles of being an antisemite, but he has arrived at a clearly antisemitic  position, which should have caused him to review the thought process that brought him there.

Miles compares the willingness of the Jewish and Arabic media to mention whether somebody is Jewish with the reticence of the British and American media to do so. There are obvious if contrasting reasons why the Jewish and Arabic media are quick to do this, as Normblog has pointed out. However, Miles does not have to look far to find examples within the British press: he shares the Independent stable with Richard Ingrams, who has already noticed the "Jewish historians" on the panel. That Ingrams and Miles both think that the Jewishness of Gilbert and Freedman is relevant to an inquiry about Iraq, not about Israel, begs a whole other set of questions.

Perhaps the most  craven part of Miles' article comes in the next paragraph:

All five members have outstanding reputations and records, but it is a pity that, if and when the inquiry is accused of a whitewash, such handy ammunition will be available. Membership should not only be balanced; it should be seen to be balanced.

Miles has spent many years  in the Middle East, both as a diplomat and, since retirement, as a businessman. Conspiracy theories about Jews are common enough in that part of the world, and Miles is probably right when he warns that they may be used to undermine the findings of the inquiry. I do not accuse Miles of sharing those conspiracy theories: they appear to be absent from his writings on Middle East politics for the Guardian's Comment Is Free, for example, and there is evidence that he is sensitive to the existence of antisemitism even within the Foreign Office. But it should be the job of Britain's diplomats abroad to challenge such prejudices when they encounter them, not to advise that British policy should bend over to accommodate them.


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