Apr 2010 Journal
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An unexpected spin-off from the Chilcot Inquiry into the invasion of Iraq was the dispute provoked when the suitability of two of the Committee members, Sir Martin Gilbert and Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, was called into question on the grounds that they were Jews. The initial cause of the controversy was an article by a former British ambassador to Libya, Sir Oliver Miles, in The Independent on Sunday, saying that both these eminent historians were Jewish and that Gilbert had a record of active support for Zionism. Miles seems to have been voicing the typical concerns of a Foreign Office Arabist, concerned at the impact on Arab opinion of the presence of two Jews on a committee of five charged with passing judgment on a Middle Eastern issue.
The attack on the two Jewish academics was then taken up in an article in The Independent by Richard Ingrams, who broadened it out to cast doubt on the impartiality and reliability of Jews in political matters generally, by implying that Jews have an overriding loyalty to Israel, if often covert. Ingrams stated as a fact that the attack on Saddam Hussein was initiated by a group of American neo-conservatives (all those named being Jews), mostly ‘ardent Zionists’ who were ‘more concerned with preserving the security of Israel than that of the US’.
The argument that members of the Republican right would sacrifice the security of the USA for that of another nation is, putting it mildly, highly contentious, but Ingrams blithely stated it as fact. Presumably because it is for him a ‘fact’ that Jews have some inherent and inalienable loyalty to Israel, to which national loyalties will ineluctably be subordinated. ‘Given that undeniable fact,’ Ingrams continued, ‘the pro-Israel bias of Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman … is a perfectly respectable point to raise.’ By adding Freedman to the list of active pro-Zionists (without evidence), Ingrams gave a collective dimension to his ‘anti-Zionist’ tirade.
The logic of Ingrams’s remarks, such as it is, derives at least indirectly from the familiar conspiracy theories used to denigrate and defame Jews ever since the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russia in 1903. According to such fantasy constructs, all Jews worldwide were secretly united in a conspiracy to bring power and influence under their (malignant) control, since they owed allegiance, apparently by genetic predisposition, to some central organisation so shrouded in mystery that it could only be identified by the workings of its hidden hand.
The Jews, it was alleged, used their positions of power in the world of finance and banking to achieve their sinister ends by manipulation. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 gave these ideas a new slant. Ideologues of the far right who hated both Jews and Marxists linked the supposed Jewish hold over the USSR to the efforts of the Communist International to subvert the social and political order in the West, thus holding Jews responsible for fomenting revolution in Western countries. From this emerged Hitler’s notion of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’, a key concept in the ideological underpinning of his war of extermination against the Jews.
Ingrams’s brand of conspiracy theory does not go to anything like such murderous lengths. It offers a watered-down version, where the state of Israel takes the place of the secret Zionist organisation posited by the Protocols, and where the efforts of Jews are assumed to be concentrated solely, though often covertly, on the furthering of Israel’s interests and power. As Israel actually exists, the conspiracy has a real object on which to focus; but that object also provides a reality check against which the extravaganzas of the theory can be checked and its absurdities exposed.
For example, it is plainly absurd to deny the loyalty of all British Jews to the country in which they live, by implying that they have some deeper loyalty to Israel. Many Jews have a deep-felt emotional commitment to the Jewish state, but as British citizens still retain an overriding loyalty to Britain. Other Jews, as the pages of this journal show only too clearly, are often sharply critical of Israel and its policies and can hardly be accused of an unwavering promotion of Israeli interests. Therein lies the error of those like Ingrams who seek to deduce people’s politics from their racial or national origins.
To argue that a Jew cannot be impartial on questions involving the Middle East is about as sensible as to argue that a minister or civil servant of Irish origin cannot be trusted to be impartial on matters relating to Northern Ireland, as he or she would be predisposed to favour the Catholic camp over the Protestant, the Republican over the Unionist. Even in the darkest days of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, nobody was silly enough to launch a witch-hunt on such grounds. It is also worth pointing out that Israel was not the instigator of the attack on Saddam Hussein. The Israeli government, while no friend of Saddam, recognised that Iran represented the greater threat to its security; by destroying Iraq as a bulwark against Iranian expansion, the Americans unwittingly acted to boost Iran’s position of power in the region, against Israeli interests.
Sir Oliver Miles’s remarks triggered an energetic response from pro-Jewish commentators. Predictably, some of them tended to locate him in the context of a long and enduring tradition of British hostility to Jews in particular and immigrants and minorities in general. Readers who themselves arrived in Britain in the 1930s as refugees from Nazi persecution will have their own memories of the anti-Semitic attitudes that pervaded sections of British society and of the stereotype image of Jews purveyed by parts of the press. But in the case of the Jewish refugees from Hitler such prejudices hardly ever involved physical violence; and many refugees, when interviewed, say that, though aware of anti-Semitism in British society, they experienced little or none themselves.
Writing in The Guardian, Professor David Cesarani pilloried ‘Britain’s affair with anti-Semitism’, but on the strength of surprisingly thin evidence. He claimed that the British ruling elites have long been suspicious of Jews exercising influence over British policy, because Jewish loyalties supposedly lie outside Britain. Cesarani cited Gladstone’s attack in 1876 on Disraeli’s policy towards the massacres of Christians committed in Bulgaria by the ruling Ottoman Turks; Gladstone, his liberal (and Liberal) conscience inflamed by the Bulgarian atrocities, claimed that Disraeli, his Conservative opponent and a baptised Jew, prioritised ‘Judaic’ over British interests by favouring the Turks, because they treated their Jewish subjects better than did the emerging Christian states in the Balkans.
The problem with this is that in 1876 Disraeli was two years into his second term as prime minister. That hardly indicates a widespread sense among the electorate (then composed of precisely the upper- and middle-class men generally assumed to be the bearers of anti-Semitic prejudice) that he was not to be trusted with the national interest - rather the contrary. Gladstone’s celebrated pamphlet on the ‘Bulgarian horrors’ formed part of the political knockabout common at times of heightened political confrontation even a century and a third ago, not an out-and-out attack on Jewish loyalty in the manner of the Dreyfus affair. By arguing that Disraeli favoured the Ottomans because of the tolerance they displayed towards their Jewish subjects, Gladstone might even be said to be paying a backhanded compliment to Disraeli’s feeling for humane attitudes, even among Turks. All in all, this incident hardly has the makings of a rabid display of anti-Jewish feeling.
Cesarani’s second point was that Jews were excluded from the British security services until well after the Second World War. This will come as a surprise to the many readers of Sarah Helm’s engrossing book A Life in Secrets (2005), which details the career of Vera Atkins, née Rosenberg, a Romanian-born Jew who came to Britain in the 1930s and became the key figure in the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). As France was the SOE’s principal area of operations, Atkins was one of the most important figures anywhere in the British wartime secret services.
Writing in AJR Information of August 1957, the journal’s editor, Werner Rosenstock, felt able to laugh off the idea that the Jewish refugees from Hitler were ineradicably differentiated by national allegiance from the British. In an article entitled ‘Passport to Swiss Cottage’, he recalled how, travelling home from west London ten years earlier on a number 31 bus, he and his fellow travellers had had their journey enlivened by the conductor, who called out ‘Swiss Cottage. Have your passports ready, please.’ Rosenstock, who had just acquired British nationality, alighted from the bus ‘in a paroxysm of laughter’. This anecdote comes from the repertoire of jokes that refugees often told about their relations with the British. With its nod to the popular Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, the joke shows that most refugees were confident enough of being accepted into British society to be able to take comments like the bus conductor’s little sally for the harmless expressions of humour that they were.
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