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A kosher conspiracy?

By Dennis Sewell

New Statesman, 14 January 2002


Dennis Sewell investigates the Zionist lobby and finds that, despite a sometimes virulent tone, it owes more to Woody Allen than to Alastair Campbell

In his plutocratic prime, Shlomo Zabludowicz could easily have stepped out of one novel by Graham Greene and straight into another by Ian Fleming. The freebooting Scandinavian arms billionaire could count among his cronies the Shah of Iran, Indira Gandhi and the mysterious Dr Goh, then Singapore's defence minister. Mortars were Shlomo's stock-in-trade. He sold them all around the world: to the Malaysians, the Indonesians, the Iranians, the Americans and oddly (for he was a Holocaust survivor) even to the Germans.

After his release from Auschwitz at the age of 30, Shlomo settled first in Sweden and later in Finland, going on to found the weapons conglomerate Soltam, one of the pillars of Tel Aviv's military-industrial complex. But for Zabludowicz's Finnish passport and his knack for skirting arms embargoes, the Israeli army would probably never have developed into the unbeatable fighting force it became by Yom Kippur in 1973.

But eventually, as the cold war waned, and perhaps anticipating a quieter life for his beloved Israel, Zabludowicz began to diversify, if not into ploughshares exactly, then at least into saucepans. By the time of his death in 1994, he was one of Scandinavia's premier exporters of cooking utensils. He had also built up a worldwide portfolio of real estate to keep him in his retirement. Land for peace, you might say.

Today, the family fortune is managed by Shlomo's son Poju, who has kept a finger in the arms pie through the munitions manufacturer Pocal. Like his father before him, Poju remains wired into the US national-security apparatus. At one time, the Zabludowiczes even had Richard Perle, the former US assistant secretary of defence, on their payroll.

Poju's main interest, however, lies in his London-based business, Ivory Gate. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to call a property investment company by that name. Either that, or a tin ear for classical allusions. Maybe its founder was misled by Rudyard Kipling's description of the Taj Mahal as "the Ivory Gate through which all good dreams come . . . the embodiment of all things pure". Unfortunately, the old imperialist got it wrong. According to Plato and Virgil, true dreams enter via the Gate of Horn, while the Ivory Gate ushers in only lies and delusions. The irony becomes all the more delicious when one learns that the boss of Ivory Gate is also the Mr Moneybags behind Bicom (the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre), the semi-public face of Britain's Zionist lobby, charged with spinning Israel's case to the media.

That there is a Zionist lobby and that it is rich, potent and effective goes largely unquestioned on the left. Big Jewry, like big tobacco, is seen as one of life's givens. According to this view, Israel has the British media pretty well sewn up. Wealthy Jewish business leaders, acting in concert with establishment types and co-ordinated by the Israeli embassy, have supposedly nobbled newspaper editors and proprietors, and ensured that the pro-Palestinian position is marginalised both in news reporting and on the comment pages. As one well-known foreign affairs specialist puts it: "The sheer scale of the activity is awesome. It operates at every level. By comparison, the disparate, underfunded and shambolic pro-Palestinian organisations don't stand a chance." He insists that these words remain unattributable because, he claims, "the fact is that journalists put their careers in jeopardy by speaking up for the Palestinians. That's ultimately the Zionist lobby's most powerful weapon."

Nevertheless, many journalists have spoken out against the Zionist lobby over the past 12 months. Last spring, there was a spat in the Spectator between Lord Black of Crossharbour, the magazine's proprietor, and three well-known contributors to his newspapers. William Dalrymple, A N Wilson and Piers Paul Read wrote a letter complaining that "under Black's proprietorship, serious, critical reporting of Israel is no longer tolerated in the Telegraph Group". Conrad Black (who also owns the Jerusalem Post and is married to Barbara Amiel, the enthusiastic Zionist columnist) promptly returned fire. The troublesome trio, he alleged, illustrated "the depths of the problem of anti-Semitism in the British media".

A few months later, Sam Kiley, a foreign correspondent for the Times, resigned after a row with his editors. Kiley had succeeded in tracking down and interviewing the Israeli soldiers who had shot dead Mohammed al-Durrah, the 12-year-old boy who had become, posthumously, an icon of the intifada. Middle managers at Wapping, Kiley claims, know that Rupert Murdoch has business interests in Israel and would "fly into hysterical terror every time a pro-Israel lobbying group wrote in with a quibble". The instruction Kiley received to file his piece "without mentioning the dead kid" was the last straw.

Just before Christmas, Deborah Orr, who writes a column for the Independent, complained that she was "fed up with being called an anti-Semite". A tendency to equate anti-Zionism - indeed, any criticism of Israel - with anti-Semitism is a persistent vice of Zionist campaigners. Time was when the worst a commentator could expect if he or she had written critically about Israel was a telephone call from the publisher Lord Weidenfeld, registering his anguish and disappointment. Weidenfeld, at one time chef de cabinet to Israel's founding president, Chaim Weizmann, was and remains a serious operator at the level of government, editors and media proprietors. His name figures in ministerial diaries published by the Foreign Office (breakfast 8am with Peter Hain and so on), but his media interventions have always been discreet. Today, however, critics of Israeli policy are guaranteed to receive thousands of vituperative letters and e-mails. These correspondents take their cue from organisations such as the Zionist Federation's Media Response Unit, run by the former Labour MP for Basildon Eric Moonman; or from the web-based, set up by two students at the University of London who felt that Israel was getting a bum deal in the press.

Robert Fisk, Orr's colleague at the Independent, complains that he has been the victim of an anonymous smear campaign seeking to link him with the notoriously anti-Semitic historian David Irving. Another frequent target is Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian, who was named Journalist of the Year at Granada's What the Papers Say Awards last month for her "dedication to truthful reporting". She has been bombarded with insulting mail, some of it denouncing her as a "self-hating Jew".

But however vile these letter-writing campaigns may be for the journalists concerned, is there the slightest evidence that they affect what appears in the press? When one looks at the array of pro-Israel organisations in Britain, one is struck not by their cohesion so much as their fragmentation. Few (including Bicom) are much more than a two-men-and-a-dog operation located above a shop, or out in cyberspace. The only Jewish stereotype they reinforce is the one portrayed in Woody Allen films, where a dozen members of a family sit around the dinner table, all shouting different things at the same time. Some clearly believe that Ariel Sharon can do no wrong, others that he can do no good. In this, they reflect the pluralist cast of Israel's polity. And that Israel is the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East is something they constantly invite the rest of us to remember.

Bicom deals directly with the press, arranging visits and "interview opportunities". It does not, it says, directly pressurise individual journalists even when it believes they write untruths. Recently, the organisation tried to hire Tim Luckhurst, a former editor of the Scotsman, to sharpen its techniques. Luckhurst, a non-Jew who is broadly sympathetic to Israel's dilemmas, was tempted, but eventually turned the organisation down, preferring to continue the struggle under his own byline.

The task of making formal complaints about supposed media misrepresentations increasingly falls to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a solemn, rather bureaucratic organisation. Its remonstrations are hardly strong-arm stuff, their register always more in sorrow than in anger. The board has turned to another non-Jew to put its case, the Scottish National Party activist Fiona Macaulay, recruited in July from the Scottish Parliament.

A steelier edge to perception management is provided by the Israeli embassy in the form of its press attache, David "DJ" Schneeweiss. The pro-Palestinian camp credits DJ, an Australian who emigrated to Israel 15 years ago, with almost supernatural powers. Allegedly, he can be on the phone to every news editor at once, while simultaneously schmoozing their proprietors. His opponents accuse him of peddling the "big lies" of Israeli propaganda, such as the line that the Palestinians deliberately put their children up front to draw Israeli sniper fire, hoping a few infant deaths will help the cause. But most journalists who have been fed that line source it from Jerusalem. DJ is more of a close textual analyst, pointing out that when Hamas uses the phrase "end the occupation" in a communique, it does not mean, as the PLO does, the occupation of parts of the West Bank and Gaza; it means the end of the existence of Israel.

The campaign against Goldenberg nicely illustrates the perils of crude lobbying. Last June, after months of being pestered by Zionist organisations, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, travelled to Israel and the occupied territories to judge the situation for himself. Shortly afterwards, he sent his foreign editor on a similar fact-finding mission. The result has been that Israeli policies have been brought into sharper critical focus in the Guardian than ever before. Hardly the outcome the Zionist lobby desired. Nor has Simon Kelner, the editor of the Independent, muzzled Robert Fisk, despite an attempt by the Israeli embassy to persuade him to do so. In fact, given that Black and Murdoch need no nobbling, it is hard to find an instance where any senior figure in the media has been successfully nobbled in recent years.

Read the liberal press almost any day of the week, and you will find that Israel comes off worst. Many younger correspondents appear to have forgotten that the UN was instrumental in bringing Israel into existence; that the Israelis have had to fight off three invasions from neighbouring Arab states; and that UN Resolution 242 is a more nuanced document than the reflexive attachment of the epithet "illegal" to the occupation of the West Bank suggests. Palestinian acceptance of Israel's right to exist behind secure borders is often reported uncritically, sometimes implying that this position is shared by Hamas. And a creeping cultural and moral relativism holds Israel to account for every action and reaction, while excusing Palestinian excesses on the grounds of poverty and a general victim status.

I could go on, but only at the risk of being thought to have been nobbled myself. The truth is that the "Zionist lobby" does exist, but is a clueless bunch. After all, how media-savvy can such lobbyists really be if they allow their operations to be greased by the profits made from Shlomo Zabludowicz's mortars and bombs? Could any funding arrangement be better contrived to confirm left-liberal prejudices about Israel?

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