28 June 2024

Peter Oborne’s review in the Middle East Eye of Ilan Pappe’s valuable new book, Lobbying for Zionism on Both Sides of the Atlantic, deserves careful reading, not least because, as Oborne observes, the mainstream media seem determined to pass over the book in silence.

Why Ilan Pappe’s new book on the Israel lobby is a must-read

Few are better qualified to challenge the official orthodoxy that stifles any discussion of this topic
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) is welcomed by Aipac President Michael Tuchin at the committee’s policy summit in Washington on 5 June 2023 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) is welcomed by Aipac President Michael Tuchin at the committee’s policy summit in Washington on 5 June 2023 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Faiza Shaheen was dropped like a stone last month as Labour candidate for the London seat of Chingford and Woodford Green. “There have been complaints, allegedly, about her ‘liking’ a tweet that referred to the ‘Israel lobby’ – widely considered an anti-Semitic trope,” reported the New Statesman’s associate political editor, Rachel Cunliffe.

On a now-infamous Newsnight appearance following her defenestration, a tearful Shaheen apologised for liking the tweet and accepted it was a “trope”.

She didn’t have much choice. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the statutory regulator, agrees. In 2020, it cited a claim that the “Israel lobby” was behind antisemitism complaints as evidence supporting a finding of unlawful antisemitic harassment.

Pappe has entered perilous territory. Few are better qualified to challenge the official orthodoxy that discussion of the Israel lobby is out of bounds. None are more battle-hardened.

One of the most eminent of the “new historians” who retold Israel’s foundation story, Pappe was denounced in the Knesset after publication in 2006 of his controversial book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Israel’s education minister called on the University of Haifa to sack him, and one of Israel’s best-selling newspapers pictured him at the centre of a target, next to which a columnist had written: “I’m not telling you to kill this person, but I shouldn’t be surprised if someone did.”

After a slew of death threats, he left Israel, and was lucky to be able to find a billet at the University of Exeter.

Targeting politicians and journalists

The famous French publisher Fayard recently halted distribution of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Last month, Pappe, who remains an Israeli citizen, was interrogated for two hours by federal agents upon arrival in the United States. He was eventually let in, but only after they copied the contents of his phone. This kind of harassment, Pappe later noted, is nothing compared to what Palestinians routinely face.

He has produced a work that needs to be read, and then re-read, by anyone who wishes to understand the international context of the war in Gaza. The book describes how the Israel lobby has targeted both politicians and journalists.

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Two British politicians lost out on foreign office jobs amid pressure from the lobby on account of pro-Palestinian sympathies: Alan Duncan in 2016 and Christopher Mayhew in 1964. George Brown, a former Labour foreign secretary, was also targeted in the 1960s.

Ilan Pappe book cover

The lobby has gone after journalists such as Jeremy Bowen, who was forced to endure a long BBC investigation; former Guardian Jerusalem correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg; former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger; and broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby.

The Israeli government repeatedly complained to the BBC that foreign correspondent Orla Guerin was “antisemitic” and showed “total identification with the goals and methods of Palestinian terror groups”, once even linking her reporting from the Middle East to the rise of antisemitism in Britain – allegations that were as grotesque as they were false.

There are other names on this long list.

In the US, William Fulbright, the longest-serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is the earliest and most devastating example. The appalling story of his destruction in 1974 is well told in this book: “Lobby money poured into the campaign coffers of his rival, Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers … From that time to this day, the road to the Capitol has been scattered with candidates, from the elite of American politics, whose careers have been similarly torpedoed,” Pappe writes.

Fulbright’s crime was to argue that “instead of rearming Israel, we could have peace in the Middle East at once if we just told Tel Aviv to withdraw behind its 1967 borders and guarantee them”.

‘Nothing to touch them’

This merciless treatment of individuals distinguishes the pro-Israel lobby from other lobbies, both foreign and corporate. Michael Mates, a former member of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, once told me (in a quote repeated in Pappe’s book) that “the pro-Israel lobby in our body politic is the most powerful political lobby. There’s nothing to touch them.”

Pappe goes far back into history to sketch the origins of the agitation for the return of the Jewish people to Palestine. This story begins with Christian evangelicals two centuries ago, which might explain Pappe’s employment of the term “Zionist lobby” rather than the standard “pro-Israel lobby”.

In the remote past as much as the present day, this type of support for Israel was animated by antisemitism. In the 1840s, religious scholar George Bush, a direct ancestor of two US presidents, called for a revived Jewish state in Palestine, expressing hope that Jewish people would be offered “the same carnal inducements to remove to Syria as now promote them to emigrate to this country”.

These early Christian supporters of a Jewish Palestine, like later Christian Zionists, were oblivious to the Palestinian presence in what they saw as the Holy Land. For them, Palestine was unchanged since the time of Jesus. In the words of Pappe, “later it was imagined as being organically part of medieval Europe: its people donning medieval dress, roaming a European countryside”.

In Britain, Edwin Montagu, one of the earliest practising Jews to serve in a British cabinet, described Zionism as a “mischievous political creed” – a phrase that would have had him thrown out of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party and pilloried in the media.

He viewed the Balfour Declaration as antisemitic, while warning that “when the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants”.

Safeguarding Israel’s legitimacy

After the establishment of Israel, the lobby’s main job became to safeguard the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Pappe shows that the Labour Party was a stronger and more reliable supporter than the Conservatives. He stresses the role of Poale Zion, antecedent to today’s Jewish Labour Movement, which originally sought to reconcile Marxism and Zionism. It convinced the trade unions and Labour that Israel was a socialist project.

Pappe writes that Poale Zion became “part of a lobby meant to arrest any potential anti-Israel orientations in the Labour Party in Britain and strengthen the relationship between the Labour Party and its pro-Israel Jewish constituencies”.

According to Pappe, former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who led Labour from 1963 to 1976, was “pro-Israel to the bone”. Pappe speculates that Wilson’s admiration for Israel, like David Lloyd George’s in a previous generation, was a product of a nonconformist Christian education. The late politician Roy Jenkins noted that Wilson’s book, The Chariot of Israel, was “one of the most strongly Zionist tracts ever written by a non-Jew”.

This timely book from one of the finest historians of contemporary Israel deserves to become the subject of urgent contemporary debate. So far, it has been ignored

Alec Douglas-Home, foreign secretary in the Edward Heath government that succeeded Wilson’s administration after the 1970 general election, was more friendly to Palestinians. An Old Etonian aristocrat, Douglas-Home is today dismissed as a hopeless old fogey and aberration in postwar Britain.

Today, his views would bring a nod of approbation from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. According to Pappe, “he was the only British foreign secretary to openly discuss the right of return of the Palestinian refugees that were expelled by Israel in 1948”, and, still more remarkable, “the only British foreign secretary to challenge the dishonest brokery of the Americans”.

In the wake of the 1967 war, Douglas-Home insisted, with Heath’s support, that Britain could no longer ignore the “political aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs”. In government, he infuriated Israel by allowing the Palestine Liberation Organization to set up a London office.

Pappe says that Douglas-Home was the only senior British politician, with the important exception of the hard-drinking George Brown, to interpret UN Resolution 242 as a demand for unconditional Israeli withdrawal to the borders of 5 June 1967. During the 1973 war, the Heath government refused to deliver arms to Israel – though, as Pappe notes, this was mostly due to a fear of the Arab oil embargo.

The Corbyn years

Pappe’s historical perspective enables him to see the Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party in a new light. “Corbyn’s views on Palestine were virtually identical to those expressed by most British diplomats and senior politicians ever since 1967; like them he supported a two-state solution and recognised the Palestinian Authority,” Pappe writes. This made him more mainstream than the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which supported a one-state solution.

In light of this, Pappe reasonably asks: “Why did the lobby see him as such a threat”? He answers: “They suspected, correctly, that he sincerely believed in a just two-state solution and wouldn’t swallow Israel’s excuses for obstructing it.”

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In a thought-provoking passage, he adds: “Christopher Mayhew, George Brown and Jeremy Corbyn had much in common. They were in positions of power that could affect British policy towards Israel. They were all totally loyal to the official British policy supporting a two-state solution to the ‘conflict’. None of them denied the right of Israel to exist, none of them had made any anti-Semitic remark in their lifetime and they were not anti-Semitic in any sense of the word.”

Pappe also has harsh words for the EHRC inquiry into Labour antisemitism. “In a more reasonable world, or maybe years from now,” he writes, “if people were asked about what a leading institution for human rights would investigate in relation to Israel and Palestine, they would give the abuse of Palestinians’ human rights as the answer … [in this report], there was no serious discussion of what constitutes anti-Semitism, nor did it make any attempt to differentiate between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel.”

In a short conclusion written after the horrors of 7 October, Pappe writes: “Many people in the twenty-first century cannot continue to accept a colonisation project requiring military occupation and discriminatory laws to sustain itself. There is a point at which the lobby cannot endorse this brutal reality and continue to be seen as moral in the eyes of the rest of the world. I believe and hope this point will be reached within our lifetimes.”

This timely book from one of the finest historians of contemporary Israel deserves to become the subject of urgent contemporary debate. So far, it has been ignored in a media and political environment that, as the recent case of Shaheen illustrates, has imposed a system of omerta around any discussion of the Israel lobby.

Lobbing for Zionism on Both Sides of the Atlantic is published by Oneworld.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.