The Zionist lobby’s war on telling the truth about Palestine

On both sides of the Atlantic

By Ilan Pappe
ISBN 978-0-86154-402-8
£30, $40 US

Review By Peter Oborne, 20 June, 2024

(First published by Middle East Eye)

No review has yet been published of Professor Ilan Pappe’s magnificent and passionate new book on the Zionist lobby. The silence is no surprise. Even a passing reference is liable to lead to charges of antisemitism and can lead to career destruction.

Faiza Shaheen was dropped like a stone as Labour candidate for Chingford, in north east London. “There have been complaints”, reported New Statesman political editor Rachel Cunliffe, “allegedly about her “liking” a tweet that referred to the “Israel lobby”.

This, noted Cunliffe sternly, is “widely considered an anti-Semitic trope.”

On the now infamous BBC Newsnight appearance which followed her defenestration, a tearful Shaheen herself apologised for liking the tweet and accepted it was a ‘trope’.

She did not have much choice. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, the statutory regulator, agrees. In 2020, the EHRC cited reference to the “Israel lobby” as evidence supporting a finding of unlawful antisemitic harassment.

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

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

After death threats he left Israel, and was lucky to be able to find a billet at Exeter University. The famous French publisher Fayard recently halted distribution of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.  Last month Professor Pappe, who remains an Israeli citizen,  was interrogated for two hours by federal agents upon arrival in the United States. Pappe 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 which 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.

Two British politicians lost out on Foreign Office jobs following pressure from the lobby on account of Palestinian sympathies, Sir Alan Duncan in 2016 and Christopher Mayhew in 1964. Labour foreign secretary, George Brown, was also targeted in the 1960s. Journalists include Jeremy Bowen, forced to endure a long BBC investigation, former Guardian Jerusalem correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and the BBC Radio 4 Any Questions presenter 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.” On one occasion they linked her reporting from the Middle East to the rise of antisemitic incidents in Britain – allegations that were as grotesque as they were false. There are other names on a long list.

In the United States, 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 by AIPAC in 1974 is well told in this book. “Lobby money poured into the campaign coffers of his rival, Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers,” records Pappe. “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.”  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.”

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

Early British and Christian support for the return of the Jews to Palestine

Professor 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 hundred years ago, which may explain Pappe’s employment of the term ‘Zionist lobby’ rather than the more usual ‘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 the religious scholar Professor George Bush, direct ancestor of two US Presidents, called for a revived Jewish State in Palestine, expressing the hope that the Jews 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 of 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 Professor Pappe, “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 which 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.”

After the establishment of Israel the lobby’s main job became safeguarding 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 of 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 by the 1950s Poale Zion had “become 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, Harold Wilson, who led Labour from 1964 to 1976, was “pro-Israel to the bone.” Pappe speculates that Wilson’s admiration for Israel, like Lloyd George’s in a previous generation, was a product of a non-conformist Christian education. Roy Jenkins wrote that Wilson’s book,The Chariot of Israel,was “one of the most strongly Zionist tracts ever written by a non-Jew.”

Corbyn’s views matched those of most British politicians and diplomats since 1967

Sir Alex Douglas-Home, Foreign Secretary in the Edward Heath government which succeeded Harold Wilson’s administration after the 1970 general election, was more friendly to Palestinians. Sir Alex, an Old Etonian aristocrat, is today often dismissed as a hopeless old fogey and aberration in post-war Britain. Now, his views would bring a nod of approbation from the Palestinian 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 Edward Heath’s support, that Britain could no longer ignore the “political aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs.” In government he infuriated Israel by allowing the PLO 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 Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown, to interpret UN Resolution 242 as a demand for unconditional Israeli withdrawal to the 5 June 1967 borders. During the 1973 war the Heath government refused to deliver arms to Israel though, as Pappe notes, this was mostly because of fear of the Arab oil embargo.

Pappe’s historical perspective enables him to see the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party in a new light. `’Corbyn’s views on Palestine,” writes Pappe, “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.” This made him far mainstream than the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which supported the one-state solution.

In the light of this Pappe reasonably asks “why did the lobby see him as such a threat.” He answers that “they suspected, correctly, that he sincerely believed in a just two-state and wouldn’t accept Israel’s excuse for obstructing it.” 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 antisemitic remark in their lifetime and they were not antisemitic in any sense of the word.”

Professor Pappe has harsh words for the Equality and Human Rights Commission 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…these reasonable people would be bewildered to learn that this respectable body saw their main job as analysing emails, Facebook posts and tweets to see if Labour members who were known supporters of Palestinian rights should be expelled from the party…there was no serious discussion of what constitutes antisemitism, not did it make any attempt to differentiate between antisemitism and anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel.”

In a short conclusion written after the horror of 7 Oct, 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 which, as the recent case of Faiza Shaheen illustrates, has imposed a system of omerta around any discussion of the Israel lobby.

In the words of the Jewish American comedian, Jon Stewart, whose “Israel lobby” tweet was the proximate cause of Shaheen’s downfall:  “what the actual f**k!”

Peter Oborne is a leading political author and columnist who writes regularly for Middle East Eye, where this review first appeared, was formerly chief political commentator for The Daily Telegraph, from which he resigned in 2015, and is author of, inter alia, The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong About Islam, published by Simon and Schuster UK.


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