The idea that Jews use their financial clout to influence politics and the media for nefarious purposes lies at the heart of modern anti-Semitism. Often, the terms ‘Jewish’ and ‘Zionist’ are interchangeable in these storied fantasies. Put the phrase “Zionist influence” into Google and your computer screen fills up with the paranoid fantasies of conspiracy theorists - and anti-Semitic cranks.
- Uncovered: U.K. intel encouraged Arab armies to invade Israel in 1948
- Is David Cameron the most pro-Israel British PM ever?
- Britain is fighting ISIS and for relevance
But the conflation of the two terms, and the assumption of the malign influence of both, has not always been confined to the fringes. During the early 1970s, it made an appearance in the heart of British foreign policy making when the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) embarked on a secret research project under the title of “Zionism and its influence in USA and Western Europe.”
This was not an analysis of Israeli diplomatic outreach or relations between Israel and its allies. Rather, it was an attempt to identify and evaluate Zionist activity and influence within the United States and Western Europe. Working without a clear definition of the term ‘Zionist’, much of the research for this project was little more than a survey of Jewish political activity and demography. And while the project reached no firm conclusions, the content of its files, held in the U.K. National Archives and revealed here for the first time, says much about the FCO’s attitudes towards Zionism and Diaspora Jewry during that period – and the consistent confusion between the two.
At times, the language and thinking of some of the civil servants involved in the project even echoed anti-Semitic notions of Jewish financial power, dual loyalty and undue political influence. Fairly or not, the project will confirm the suspicions of those who believe that the FCO’s traditional ‘Arabist’ orientation was evidence of latent anti-Semitism within its walls.
Tilting away from Israel
Historically the FCO acquired a reputation of favouring Arab over Israeli interests in its balancing of Middle East policy. Various explanations have been given for this. Some suspect a lingering resentment over the circumstances of Israel’s independence and the last bloody months of the British Mandate. Others see it as a numbers game: with 22 Arab countries and only one Jewish state, it was inevitable that more British diplomats would develop an understanding of, and affinity with, Arab perspectives than Israeli ones. Or perhaps British interests have genuinely been more aligned to Arab ones at certain times, and Israel had to face the consequences.
In truth, British Middle East policy has always had to balance competing interests and at different times has been more or less favorable to Israel. In the early 1970s senior figures in the FCO were pushing for British policy to be more openly sympathetic to Arab concerns, and it is likely that they wanted an insight into how Israel’s supporters would react to a change in policy.
A ‘sensitive’ request
Late in 1971 the British embassies in Washington D.C., Paris, Bonn, The Hague, Rome and Brussels received a request from Whitehall, to provide information about the activities of Zionist organizations in their respective countries. The embassy in Tel Aviv was also asked for its view and diplomats in Whitehall gave their own opinion of British Zionist lobbying.
FCO officials were well aware of “the sensitive nature of the paper”, as Richard Evans, head of the Near East Department, put it, and were keen that Israel should not find out.
British diplomats in Paris, Rome, Bonn and the other West European capitals were baffled by the project. The reality of Jewish life in post-Holocaust Europe seems not to have reached the mandarins of Whitehall. “There is really no Jewish life as such in the Federal Republic, and nor do the Jews form any kind of unified pressure group”, the Bonn embassy wrote poignantly when asked for an assessment of Zionist influence in West Germany.
At the heart of the FCO’s research project was a fascination with the power and influence of American Jewry. One Washington-based diplomat wrote of the “enormous influence (which can scarcely be exaggerated) of the Jewish intellectuals It follows that much of the intellectual thought and discussion, certainly on the East Coast, is dominated by Jewish savants.” No evidence is offered of these intellectuals’ Zionist inclinations or writings, which was taken as read.
'Why has the American Jewish community become so rich and powerful?'
The D.C. embassy’s 19 page response was written by Ramsay Melhuish, a future U.K. ambassador to Kuwait and Thailand. Despite offering a definition of Zionism as “active support for Israel and her policies”, it included two pages of demographic statistics about American Jews, including population size and distribution, birth rate, education, occupation, income and religious observance. Melhuish segued easily to comment on Zionist influence on Congress (Political); Zionist influence on Congress (Financial); Influence on the Election; Influence on the President; and Fund Raising Activity.
The confluence of Zionist activity with basic Jewish demography highlights how easily an investigation into Zionist influence – however that is defined – slipped into a more general suspicion of Jewish communal life and politics.
The impression given was of a well-organized, well-financed lobbying machine. It may have lacked the power to force any President to act against what he considered to be American national interests, Melhuish cautioned, but given the “universal appeal” of support for Israel this rarely mattered: Zionism in America was “quite distinct from the lobbying efforts of other ethnic minorities.”
The political use of “Jewish money” was of particular interest. One FCO official asked if “we might try and explain why the American Jewish Community has become so rich and powerful.” Melhuish wrote a second paper about “the battle for the Jewish vote and Jewish money” between Democratic Presidential nominees in 1972. The British embassy in Tel Aviv suggested examining “the alleged link between the financial contributions of American Jews to Israel and the profits of crime syndicates.”
The financial contributions of British Jews were the subject of a remarkable account in late 1972 by Sir Bernard Ledwidge, the British ambassador to Israel, of a fundraising dinner for 200 visiting British Jews at which Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was guest of honor. Donations were pledged in an atmosphere that Ledwidge compared to “a revivalist meeting when the confessions start to fly.” “After such an evening,” Ledwidge wrote to British Foreign Secretary Sir Alex Douglas-Home, “a professional diplomat is apt to feel that he understands less about life than he thought. To a functionary who has worked for a salary all his life, it is an eye-opener to discover that so much money is still in so few hands in our society.” Sadly, the response of the aristocratic Foreign Secretary to this particular observation is not recorded.
The 'inhibiting effect' of the Zionist lobby
Frustratingly, all the actual drafts of the research paper itself are missing from the relevant files in the U.K. National Archives, even though the paper clearly went through several drafts. The first draft suggested that Zionist lobbying had “a negligible effect” in Western Europe, and that, “while an important factor in U.S. politics, it could be over-ridden by the Administration if the American national interest demanded it.”
David Gore-Booth, a future U.K. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, felt that this underestimated Zionist influence in the U.S. and the U.K. For the former, he argued that neither party in the U.S. could run a Presidential campaign without “Jewish money”. And for the latter, while he acknowledged that Zionist influence in the U.K. was “less great” than in the U.S., he felt it was still able to have an “inhibiting effect” on policy.
His view of the ruling U.K. Labour Party was that “65 MPs in one party is a substantial body of men” that would place a Labour government under considerable pressure. This was probably an estimate of the Parliamentary membership of Labour Friends of Israel, as there were not 65 Jewish Labour MPs at that time. “Although the Jewish Lobby in the Tory party is much smaller,” he went on, “it can still not be ignored and Ministers are very sensitive to it.”
Gore-Booth’s candid fear that neither Labour nor Conservative governments could withstand “the Jewish Lobby” was shared by Ted Orchard, the FCO’s Director of Research. “I do not think it can be denied that under a Labour Government the pressures to adopt a less evenhanded approach to the Middle East are considerable”, Orchard wrote, adding that the “Jewish lobby” in the Conservative Party could also apply pressure to ministers.
The 'PLO office affair'
The diplomats’ fears had been heightened in 1972 during what Gore-Booth called “the PLO office affair." This involved a request from the Arab League for the PLO to be able to open an office in London, which put the British government in a quandary. There were no legal grounds for the request to be either made or rejected – “Anyone is free to put up a plate outside his door saying Friends of Timbuktoo," as the FCO’s James Craig put it – but there was no possibility of any such office getting diplomatic recognition.
A wave of protest broke over the government when the PLO’s request was reported in The Times. As might be expected, complaints came from the Israeli government and from Anglo-Jewry’s main representative body, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, as well as from Jewish and Zionist organizations overseas. Even the British Air Line Pilots Association wrote to the Foreign Secretary to express its alarm, given the PLO’s association in the public mind with airline hijackings.
The most significant protest, though, came from Parliament. Dozens of MPs received angry letters from constituents, many not Jewish, that they then passed on to government ministries for reply, while MPs repeatedly pressed ministers on the subject in Parliament.
All of this was bound to confirm the worst prejudices within the FCO. Those officials tasked with responding to the complaints appear to have had little sympathy for what they evidently viewed as a tiresome and orchestrated over-reaction.
When Michael Fidler, a Conservative MP and also President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, contacted the government in his capacity as an MP, Gore-Booth circulated an internal note that the affair “had brought a predictable response from Mr. Michael Fidler MP, who is one of the most persistent lobbyists for the Israelis in the House of Commons.” He also told colleagues that Gerald Kaufman MP, “who is well known for his Zionist sympathies, has been bombarding us with questions." (Kaufman has since become an incorrigible critic of Israel). James Craig, perhaps the FCO’s greatest Arabist and a future ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, speculated that Parliamentary Questions on the affair were probably “inspired” by the Israelis.
The idea that these MPs were acting on behalf of Israel rather than their constituents, echoed the old anti-Semitic allegation that British Jews were somehow not really ‘British’, and that their interests and loyalties lay elsewhere. This was compounded by the simple fact that at the same time, the FCO’s research project on Zionist influence appeared to treat the people and organizations involved in British Zionism not as British citizens exercising their democratic rights, but as agents of foreign pressure on the government.
At the height of the PLO office affair, Gore-Booth asked the Permanent Under-Secretary’s Department (PUSD), which provided FCO liaison with British intelligence, for a list of comparable organizations to the PLO that maintained offices in the U.K. “Are there not several Jewish organizations in this country?” he asked. PUSD replied that any such Jewish organizations would be made up of British Jews, and therefore would fall into a different category than the PLO.
Jewish interests ‘against’ national interests
It is important to stress that much has changed in the modern FCO, as it has in modern Britain as a whole, since the events described here took place.
However, the assumptions about American Jewish power, wealth and influence that appear to have been commonplace in the FCO of the 1970s ought to make for uncomfortable reading. The expectation that this could have been replicated in Western Europe in the 1970s suggests a profound ignorance about Jewish life in post-Holocaust Europe.
Worst of all, the equation of organized Jewish communal life with Zionist foreign lobbying, combined with the sense that any Zionist influence was a negative one, seems to have reflected a belief that Diaspora Jewish interests were separate from, and even inimical to, those of the countries in which they lived. And that, certainly, was anti-Semitic.
Dr Dave Rich is Deputy Director of Communications for the Community Security Trust and an Associate at the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. HI doctorate thesis was on ‘Zionists and anti-Zionists: Political Protest and Student Activism in Britain, 1968-1986’.
Follow him on Twitter: @daverich1