By Hil Aked
Review by Tim Llewellyn
Israel’s usually deep well of public approval in the British Isles began in 2000 quickly to empty. It was being seriously depleted by the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the failure of the US-Israel-PLO summit at Camp David to resurrect it. The Second–and lethal–Intifada was under way, and was being widely viewed on British tv screens. Here in the UK, Israel responded with a massive campaign to use British pro-Zionist groups at many levels of civil society to press Israel’s case and to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that had been mounted by the Palestinians in the occupied territories and taken up enthusiastically by their British supporters.
In fact, Israel feared that Britain was the most receptive European country for nurturing BDS. It emphasised the threat of the “delegitimisation” of the state of Israel, implying the attempt, through the boycott, to deny the right of Israel to exist, and thus the Jewish people to have their own state, and, thus, antisemitism. As Hil Aked writes in this densely argued, brilliantly researched account, the Israeli state took to heart the advice of its first Prime Minister and a founding father, David Ben Gurion. It decided to deploy “Zionist agents operating in civil society” to burnish Israel’s image.
Given the British Government’s (and official Opposition’s) acquiescence in Israel’s international law-breaking and its denial by force of Palestinian rights and freedom, and a complacent British media presenting the story as one of equal and opposing forces, it is British civil society, ordinary people across these islands who are collectively the richest source of support for the Palestinian case, that is Israel’s target. This book lists the many ways in which Israel’s effort has been successful, in government, in suppressing campus and other public debate, in encouraging anti-boycott legislation, in spreading the fear of accusations of antisemitism, in persuading newspapers and broadcasters that Israel’s “security” takes precedence over the rights of the Palestinians.
But, argues Hil Aked, while this massive effort, deploying myriad groups at grassroots level, has been successful at official level, civil society remains unconvinced, public opinion remains solidly pro-Palestinian and if fear of being labelled “antisemitic” has stifled discussion and intimidated certain groups, the grass-roots support remains.
We must hope so, for the phalanx of pro-Israel groups operating in the UK, backed in many cases by millionaires, at least one billionaire, scions of big business, the highest and wealthiest levels of the Tory Party and not a few wealthy Labourites, all working in close conjunction with the Israel Embassy, is formidable. Here are just a few: The Board of Deputies of British Jews; the British Israel Communications and Research Centre; UK Lawyers for Israel ( a real and often lethal pest when it comes to no-platforming operations); the Conservative Friends of Israel (the single biggest parliamentary lobby, extraordinarily well funded); the Union of Jewish Students (again active in suppressing university debate and getting rid of awkward pro-Palestinian faculty members); the Jewish Labour Movement (closely linked to the Israel Embassy, nurtured by Keir Starmer’s Labour Party and instrumental in mounting and perpetuating the “antisemite” smears that helped undermine Jeremy Corbyn and so many of his allies in the pre-2019 Labour Party); the Campaign Against Antisemitism; the Community Security Trust; Christian Friends of Israel…and on and on.
It looks formidable, and in many ways it is. As this book spells out, the Government’s decision (followed by many British institutions including the Church of England and the Labour Party) to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism, with its associated examples blurring the lines between criticism of Israel and attacks on Jews per se, or the “Jewish People” ( as exemplified in the Jewish state), has played a significant role in killing debate and scaring off many who might publicly support the Palestinians.
But one example (of many) this book spells out questions whether Israel’s grass-roots warriors are winning the battle for British Hearts and Minds.
In 2014, at a time when Israel was carrying out another savage attack on Gaza, the Tricycle Theatre, in Kilburn, in North West London, was for the eighth year host to the Jewish Film Festival. Protests outside the theatre against the Israel Embassy’s part-sponsorship of the festival persuaded the theatre management to withdraw the Israel Embassy logo from its promotional materials. In response, a campaign began against the theatre’s decision, led by the Campaign Against Antisemitism. Inevitably the cry of “antisemitism” and “cultural boycott” went up, and the bulk of the media, including the BBC, joined the fray, accusing the theatre of trying to ban the festival and citing antisemitic motives. It looked very much as if pro-Israel civic pressure had worked. The theatre withdrew its objections to the Israel state involvement but the Jewish film festival moved elsewhere anyway: a clear victory for popular, grass-roots British Zionism. Or so it seemed.
Hil Aked points out that the real reason for the theatre’s surrender was much more sinister and from the highest political level. The Campaign Against Antisemitism lobbied senior MPs from Conservative Friends of Israel and also the then Home Secretary, Teresa May. The CAA had deployed its wealthy members and influential officials with access to the stratosphere of Westminster. Ultimately, the Israel-supportive Sajid Javid, then Minister of Culture, had intervened, threatening the Tricycle’s funding if it did not reverse its decision. In the end, reckons the author, it was a “state” intervention rather than a grass-roots one that was decisive. Maybe, but in my view it was a telling fusion of the two.
Another lethal weapon for the supporters of Israel is ‘lawfare’. This entails Israel’s supporters using legal threats and the courts to try to outlaw the boycott, divestment and sanction campaign. UK Lawyers for Israel is a prime mover in this, also using its influence, in the form of phone calls and letters on official notepaper, to frighten organisations such as universities, charities or civil rights societies into cancelling pro-Palestinian debates, meetings or conferences on the (usually dubious) grounds that one or other speakers has a record of antisemitism. A major concern for the Israel lobby at all its levels has been the moves by local authorities to make their investments and allocate their contracts on an ethical basis, which for many means not allowing funds to be spent or invested in Israel, especially in ventures connected with the Jewish settlement programme in the occupied Palestinian territory.
In some cases, the pro-Israel legal attempts failed in the courts but worked in general, frightening off institutions that had considered divesting from Israeli concerns. UK Lawyers for Israel and other allies in the cause have also been successful in persuading the British Government to intervene in this area, threatening to make it illegal for local government to deploy funds on the grounds of political choice and ethics.
One vivid example of how this can work both ways, argues the author, was the North London Waste Authority, whose members include the Borough of Hackney, and its plan to give a handsome contract to the waste disposal company Veolia, which did work in Jewish settlements. UK Lawyers and a group called We Believe in Israel, working with the intensely pro-Zionist Hackney Councillor Luke Akehurst, now a member of the Labour Party National Executive, managed to stop the council hearing vocal appeals against the contract award. But Veolia pulled out anyway, and later on abandoned its projects in the occupied territories. The adverse publicity was enough.
I disagree with the author here. Not with the superb research, but about some of the conclusions : that in certain cases Israel’s civic society efforts backfire, or are really only delivered via access to British institutions at the highest level. It seems to me that what the book shows is that Israel and its friends, at whatever level, from the Israel Embassy, Government-to-Government, commercial, industrial, military, and among the grassroot efforts in civil society, have a massive and menacing machine at their disposal to make life difficult, often impossible, for anyone from Cabinet level to parish council who wishes to organise effective opposition to or protest against the criminal aggressions of the Zionist state against the Palestinians they rule over.
Hil Aked’s message, rightly, is that our civic society is right now our best and only channel for changing minds at the top about how Britain should tackle the Israel-Palestine question. We have a long and uphill task. The Palestinians have an unimaginably more dangerous and arduous one.
Tim Llewellyn is an Executive Committee member of the Balfour Project and a former BBC Middle East Correspondent.