The Israel Lobby Is Real. This Is How It Works | Aaron Bastani Meets Ilan Pappé | Transcript

If you mention the Israel lobby in the mainstream media then, more often than not, you’ll face accusations of antisemitism.
The Israel Lobby Is Real. This Is How It Works | Aaron Bastani Meets Ilan Pappé

Premiered June 16, 2024, on Novara Media YouTube Channel

If you mention the Israel lobby in the mainstream media then, more often than not, you’ll face accusations of antisemitism. There are of course people who talk about the Israel lobby in antisemitic terms, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that it exists, and has existed for well over a century.

This week’s guest is Israeli historian and author Ilan Pappé. His new book details the origins of zionism and the struggles against it throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. He joins Aaron to discuss Harold Wilson, Nye Bevan, AIPAC, Labour Friends of Israel and the Christian roots of Zionism.

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AARON: I’ve been working in the media now for more than 10 years, and there are some things that if you mention them, people start to get a little bit hot under the collar. One of them is the existence of an Israel lobby, a Zionist lobby. If you say those words, some people immediately accuse you of anti-Semitism. I know because it’s happened to me. But there is, without a doubt, beyond any dispute whatsoever, an Israel lobby. It’s real and, what’s more, it’s very old, and it certainly exists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Author Ilan Pappé is, without doubt, one of the best historians on Israel-Palestine out there. In his new book, he looks at the lobby in both the UK and the US over the last century and a half. It’s an extraordinary book, and I think some of the details will shock you.

Ilan Pappé, welcome to Downstream.

ILAN: Thank you. Nice to be here. Thank you.

AARON: It’s great to have you on. I’ve been a huge fan of your work for a very long time.

ILAN: Thank you.

AARON: Hugely impressive and influential historian. Today, we’re talking about your new book, Lobbying for Zionism. I just spoke a moment ago before the camera started rolling about how there are coffee stains on it.

ILAN: That’s fine. It’s a good sign. It’s a good sign. The book has been read, at least the cover was.

AARON: Yeah, exactly. I enjoyed it immensely. I mean, it’s more than 500 pages.

ILAN: Yeah, I do apologize for that.

AARON: But it’s very readable.

ILAN: Yeah, but there was no other way of doing it.

AARON: Yeah, we could have done a series, frankly, on the content in here. Lobbying for Zionism on both sides of the Atlantic. So, you’re talking about obviously the Israel lobby, the Zionist lobby prior to the formation of Israel, but in two countries over more than 100 years.

ILAN: That’s right.

AARON: So, it’s almost a miracle in a way.

ILAN: Exactly. It’s a concise version.

AARON: What made you want to write this book, and why now?

ILAN: Well, there was a conundrum that really bothered me for many years, but only recently has become more important to me than I think with everything else. I was busy with writing the history of Palestine and Israel, and there was the fact that I realized that Israel is probably the only country that still advocates for its legitimacy. So, there was one side of the coin: why does a state that is supposed to be a high-tech state with the strongest army in the Middle East, part of the Western world, part of the OECD, this very prestigious club of very developed economies, still argue for its legitimacy? That was one side of the coin.

The other side of the coin was trying to understand, after 100 years, why the Palestinian cause, that for so many of us is simple and just and understandable, is still denied by so many people, especially people with power, and especially in places where governments and administrations have been involved for so many years with the question, and yet they seem to still deny the Palestinians even 100 years later on. So, it was these kinds of two things: how does denialism, if we can call it that, how can a state of denial really last in the 20th and 21st centuries, which are not centuries that are easy to deny compared to earlier times in history, and yet with this great success of Zionism and Israel to deny the Palestinians. They feel unsafe and want to convince you and me, and especially whoever is in power, that they are legitimate. So, that’s a conundrum. I thought that the best way to do this was to go back to the origin and slowly build up the story until today so that I can have a fuller picture.

AARON: Yeah, and it is remarkable, particularly in those earlier chapters about lobbying for Zionism and not Israel prior to the formation of the state of Israel. Particularly the stuff in Britain, I found really fascinating. Before we go on, obviously, you’re an academic on this subject. You were born in Israel?

ILAN: Yes, I was.

AARON: And you talk about the lobby and very controversial things. Have you yourself, as an academic, faced censorship, attempted cancellations, people trying to remove a platform from you simply for chronicling these things as a historian?

ILAN: Oh yes. It started probably at the beginning of this century when I began to write more critically about Zionism and Israel. First of all, I was still teaching at the beginning of the century in Haifa, at Haifa University. My writing led to strong pressure from the University on me to censor myself. Since I refused, I eventually was expelled from the University of Haifa in 2007. I’m also barred from entering Israeli high schools to talk about these issues. I’m still an Israeli citizen, so I can go to Israel as a state. I’m not denied entry to the country, but I’m denied working as an academic in the country.

AARON: On what grounds? What’s the basis? National security or…

ILAN: No, they were very clear. There was an indictment that was 10 pages long against me, and it had all kinds of clauses. One of them was that I’m defaming the state, which is not something you usually allege against academics, but in Israel, you can. Disloyalty, lack of patriotism, less collegiality to my colleagues because I was supporting an academic boycott on Israel. All in all, supporting research on 1948 as an ethnic cleansing, which the academia and the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education said amounted to treason. So, the allegation was very openly that my views disqualified me from being a member of the Israeli academia, which is quite surprising for an academia that thinks it’s part of the Western world and part of a system which is supposed to honor freedom of expression and scientific inquiry.

Since then, since I moved to England, I must say the University of Exeter has treated me very well since I arrived there about 17 years ago. So, I don’t feel at all censored in Exeter. But every now and then, I go to places, and I’m invited and disinvited, especially in places like Germany, Italy, and France. Recently in the United States, I was stopped in the airport. These things do happen. But all in all, I have so many invitations, so the vast majority of the time I’m able to share my views with audiences, definitely in writing but not only in writing.

As you may know, and maybe that’s the last point we can mention in this respect, one of my books in French had its distribution and publication stopped because a new owner bought one of the most prestigious French publishing houses called Fayard. Fayard used to publish my book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine in French.

AARON: An amazing book, by the way, hugely impactful.

ILAN: A billionaire, a pro-Zionist billionaire, bought the Fard publishing house, and the first thing he did was to decide not to publish the book anymore under the Fard trademark. We found another publisher, so it was not a big deal, but it’s an interesting way of censoring.

AARON: Do you have a constitutional right as an Israeli citizen to free speech? So, the things that you were talking about, are they meant to be enshrined in law?

ILAN: Yes, but Israel has an ambiguous legal system. On the one hand, it’s a very liberal system that definitely upholds the right to freedom of expression. On the other hand, it’s all conditioned by the security services’ approval or the army’s approval or any of the security apparatuses that run national security. Your freedom of expression can be safeguarded, but if someone in the Secret Service says it is undermining Israel’s international standing, it helps the enemies, your right is immediately rescinded. It’s a very conditional set of rights. We have 20% of Israelis who are Palestinian citizens, and they have never had proper defense from anyone on their right to self-expression, especially after the 7th of October. They are being arrested left and right, suspended students and lecturers, because just showing human solidarity with the suffering of Gaza is enough to get you out of your job or into prison.

But even before that, let’s put it this way, maybe this will illustrate what I’m saying: if a Palestinian historian, an Israeli citizen, would have said what I said, he or she would probably be treated far worse than I was treated. I’m totally convinced about it. Not to mention, of course, the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank who have no basic rights of any kind. So, whatever is written in letter is not that important. What matters is in practice, and in practice, people’s freedom of expression in Israel is very conditioned, limited, and censored.

AARON: I hope you’re enjoying this interview, and I hope you agree that it’s a really vital conversation. That’s the thing with Navara Media. We get to have the conversations, and we get to platform individuals and books to a very large audience, which simply isn’t happening elsewhere. We’re having the conversations that legacy media doesn’t want to have, can’t have, or simply doesn’t like. If you think we need a people-powered media, if we need new media for different politics, and that we’re doing good work here at Navara Media, then why not support what we do? The link is in the description below. That’s It can be as little as you want a month. We all have our direct debits going out every month—the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ChildLine, the Labour Party, the Green Party. I don’t know. I have a few, including the National Trust. But if you think changing the media is a precursor to changing politics in the UK, I think it’s really important to support our work here at Navara Media. We are halfway through a general election campaign, and I think we’re covering this campaign—the policies, the politics, the politicians—like nobody else. If you agree, like I say, you can support our work. That link is in the description below.

AARON: That’s hugely interesting because obviously nobody thinks that people in Gaza are free or the West Bank are free or Israeli Arabs are free. But the fact that even those constraints exist on Jewish Israelis is quite extraordinary. We could do a whole other conversation about that book you mentioned a moment ago, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which was just a huge eye-opener for me. I recommend that very much to people watching or listening. If you come back in the future, we can discuss it.

ILAN: I hope so.

AARON: But today we’re talking about the Israel lobby, the Zionist lobby. How did Zionism as a political orthodoxy begin?

ILAN: It began, and many people are surprised when they hear it, as a Christian idea, not a Jewish idea. It was part of the dogma of the emerging evangelical Christianity as a result of the division between Catholics and Protestants. Later on, all kinds of theological streams developed out of Protestant Christianity. One of them, which was very strong, was evangelical Christianity, and a special group of people there called the Restorationists. Probably somewhere in the 17th century, definitely towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, we’re talking about individuals, and that’s why it’s not that easy to locate it chronologically. But let’s say quite a few years before Zionism appeared as a Jewish idea.

For them, Zionism was a religious imperative to try and convince the Jews, especially in Britain and the United States, to go to Palestine as part of a divine scheme that in their eyes would ignite a process that would bring us closer to the end of times. First, the Jews return to Palestine, then the Messiah comes back, then there’s the resurrection of the dead, the Jews are converted to Christianity, and in various versions, a thousand years of Christ begin. With various degrees of conviction, people felt about the next stages, but they were all united about the first stage—that the Jews, as they would call it, had to return to Palestine.

Now, these people at first were just theologians and scholars, so that didn’t mean much. But very early on, they succeeded in persuading laymen who were important politicians that this was a worthy project, not just because it might or might not bring back Christ, but because it opened the way for strategic thinking of seeding from the Ottoman Empire that was controlling Palestine since the 16th century and bringing back the Holy Land, as they would call it, but also the areas around it back to the rule of the Western world and Christianity. So, you had these beginnings—this alliance between pious evangelical Christians and more imperialist-thinking laymen, I could say, politicians. I think in America, it was more religious because America didn’t have, at that time, any imperial ambitions about the Middle East. But for Britain, it was much more than religion. For the British, it was rethinking an old imperial idea.

The old imperial idea in Britain that held on, I suppose, until the beginning of the 19th century was that you don’t disintegrate the Ottoman Empire. If you disintegrate the Ottoman Empire, there will be a fight for the spoils, and everybody would fight everyone, which is how the First World War actually unfolded eventually. So, they were trying to keep what they used to call the sick man on the Bosporus. They knew that the empire was declining, but they would try to hold it together to prevent this scramble for provinces that used to be ruled by the Ottomans. However, when it came to Palestine, a strong lobby began to emerge saying that Palestine should be part of the Western world.

The moment their ideas began to impress Jewish intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe, there began to be an alliance between evangelical Christians, imperialist British policymakers, and leading Jewish intellectuals. They had their own reasons to want to cause the return of the Jews, as they would call it, as well. For them, it was an answer to anti-Semitism. It was the best way to modernize the Jewish people, and it was a despair from the fact that Europe probably would never properly integrate the Jews. So, everybody had their own discrete interests, but it was a powerful alliance already in the mid-19th century, definitely towards the end of the 19th century.

This is why Zionism became… and it’s interesting, with this, I would end. The Jewish people or the Jewish leaders that led Zionism were made of Western European Jews who did not at all think that their place was in Palestine. They were part of British aristocracy, Anglo-Jewish aristocracy. They actually shared sentiments like those expressed by Lord Balfour in 1905 when he was the Prime Minister of Britain. Indeed, there is anti-Semitism in Central and Eastern Europe that has to be resolved, but God forbid if the result would be an influx of Eastern European Jews into Britain. They wanted to stop it. Both the Anglo-Jewish aristocrats and Balfour wanted to stop the influx of Jews. After 1905, they began to think they were all Bolsheviks as well and so on. It was trying to make sure into which direction the flight from Russia and Poland and Romania was going, and that would be so. This is the formative period of Zionism where Christianity, imperialism, and Jewish fresh ideas of Jewish nationalism create together this project that says, “Let’s colonize Palestine and create not just a British state there, but also a Jewish British state.”

AARON: I find this idea as well of Anglo-Jewry, people with political influence, some of them serving in senior government positions in the First World War and whatnot, there were politicians, by the way, who were also anti-Zionist. But I find it extraordinary that there’s almost this version of what we would today call pulling up the ladder. They say, “Look, well, we’ve arrived. We don’t want the rest of them to come.” And that’s obviously a leitmotif you see throughout history. You might say somebody like Saul Berman in the 2020s. It’s the same, and it’s interesting to see that same thing recur previously. Quickly, before we talk about Theodore Herzl and this idea of Zionism as I think most people would understand it as a form of 19th-century European-style nationalism.  Who’s the Earl of Shaftesbury? Because I think most people know about Shaftesbury in terms of, if they know him at all, child labor laws, etc. But what’s his relationship to Zionism?

ILAN: Shaftesbury, apart from being a philanthropist and someone who took the cause of the poor people, especially in the London area, very seriously, was also a very devout evangelical Christian. He saw the very dramatic developments that were happening in Palestine in the years 1830 to 1840. These were 10 years when an Egyptian ruler, Muhammad Ali, occupied Palestine, seceded Palestine from the Ottoman Empire, and everybody in Europe thought that he wouldn’t stop there—that he might be able to go as far as Istanbul and depose the Sultan. Shaftesbury saw it as a devout evangelical Christian. He said, “Oh, this is a sign of the end of times.” Millennialism, right. Exactly. This is about to happen, and Britain, as an empire, should take advantage of that. He had family connections with Palmerston, the Prime Minister, and he began to push seriously for deep British involvement first in Palestine and then for pushing the British to occupy Palestine, which he did not succeed in at the time in the 1840s.

What he did succeed in, which is very important, is to convince the British government to have a consul in Jerusalem. That consul, James Finn, was very much involved in encouraging Jewish settlers and immigrants to come to Palestine. He was Islamophobic, quite racist towards the local Palestinians, and therefore Shaftesbury laid the foundation for the idea that if strategically the British Empire thinks that Palestine is important, it’s best served by being a Jewish Palestine. Because there were voices in Britain who would say, “Alright, we might have the allegiance of Egyptians or people in Damascus or Beirut and Palestine. These are all Arabs.” Later on, as you know, Lawrence of Arabia would say the best allies Britain could have are Arabs, not Jews. And to contradict this kind of idea that Britain actually, which Britain usually did as a colonialist empire, it looked for the local elites and collaborative elites. That’s how it ruled the empire. So, it made sense for Britain to go to the local Palestinian elite, and they would, by the way, have gone along with this and say, “Rule for us Palestine.” And Shaftesbury said, “No, this has to be an exceptional case where we are both solving the Jewish problem of Europe and getting the Holy Land in a much better position both as Christians and as British.”

AARON: It’s funny you say this about local elites and the approach of the British Empire because my wife is Maltese. Both her parents are Maltese, and of course, Maltese is the only Semitic language in the European Union. It’s very similar to Arabic—basically Arabic with a European alphabet and a dash of Italian. I only found this out recently, but the British actually effectively campaigned to conserve the Maltese language as a bulwark against Italian influence. You think, “Wow, these people are so clever. That’s how you do it.” People think, “Isn’t it amazing that there’s still this language?” It’s held on because of British interest. Fascinating.

This is the exception. Theodore Herzl—who was he and why is he so important in terms of Zionism?

ILAN: Theodore Herzl was a Viennese Jew who actually wanted, in the early beginning of his life, to be accepted into these prestigious clubs of German romantic nationalism. He really loved the idea of romantic nationalism, especially the Germanic one. He was a playwright and a journalist, and he was not accepted because they didn’t accept Jews. That pushed him into thinking that if he cannot advocate German romantic nationalism, he can advocate Jewish romantic nationalism. He became very much infatuated with this idea that the Jews could emulate the German romantic nationalist idea, but obviously not in Europe. So, it had to be somewhere else. He was never totally hooked on Palestine because he would suggest later on in his career that anywhere the British could help a Jewish national homeland to be built was fine. When the British were seriously thinking about Uganda, he was not against it, although most of the Zionist leaders were.

He’s important because he is the first one who took the early steps to build the organization, the World Zionist Organization, to convene its first conference in Basel in 1897. He was also important because he understood that, unlike most of his colleagues in the early Zionist leadership, it would not be enough to colonize Palestine, namely to go over, buy land, and build Jewish colonies. You will need an international umbrella to support this project. He did not succeed that much in getting the international umbrella. He died in 1904, so he didn’t see that his efforts were successful in the Balfour Declaration. But he was not responsible for this, but he is considered, I think rightly so, the founding father and the early prophet of Zionism.

What I found fascinating is the Anglo-Zionist aristocracy, which we talked about before. In every conversation he had with a leader or ruler in Europe, he kept explaining that this is not for the Western European Jews; it’s all for the Eastern European Jews. It will prevent them from entering Western Europe and Britain and so on. So, it was quite an incredible beginning of Zionism. I think he planted this idea that if Europe doesn’t want you, you can recreate Europe somewhere else. He knew that there was a problem there because there were other people there, but he said for the sake of creating a new Europe, you can get rid of the other people. This was very important for the next generation of Zionist leaders to accept as a moral imperative.

AARON: As somebody who’s British—I like to think of myself as English but, you know, British—the chapters you talk about with regards to Herzl’s trips to the UK, his influence in the UK, and how he’s received by British Jews in the late 19th century is fascinating. You effectively have domestic Anglo-Jewry, the Jewish aristocracy, not really having much time for the man, but he’s very well received by the working-class Jews of the East End who were otherwise tempted by socialism and anarchism. But there’s this political constituency that can really go one way or another: Zionism and the occupation of Palestine or socialism. Meanwhile, the upper echelons of Anglo-Jewry, that’s very much not the case. I didn’t know this. I really had no idea about this. But obviously today, you have the Jewish Chronicle, which is a pro-Zionist newspaper. There were anti-Zionist Jewish newspapers with very large readerships.

ILAN: Absolutely. There were several of them, and they came from two different angles. One was a more liberal conservative Jewish fear of Bolshevism, thinking that Zionism, because Zionism was very much connected to socialism in its early stages, would bring revolutionary ideas into Britain and complicate life for Jews who would be equated with revolutionary ideas. So, there was one angle where sometimes members of aristocratic families that supported Zionism were confronted by other members of the same family who were very much against Zionism. Then there was the more devout socialist and communist who understood that socialism and even Marxism could not be implemented through colonialism, and that their role was really to create in Britain a just society, not somewhere else. They believed that anti-Semitism would be uprooted in a more egalitarian, socialist, or even Marxist society, along with other forms of racism.

Yes, the Jewish Chronicle was actually the exception that proved the rule. A lot of Jews were still very religious as well, and for the religious Jews, this was tampering with God’s will, this whole idea of building a nation-state in Palestine. It was a minority view until the Holocaust.

AARON: You talk about it as early anti-Zionist aristocratic feuds about Zionism in the book, and again, that’s fascinating for me. Some of the portraits of the individuals you really go over are gripping. There’s one called Edwin Samuel Montagu, a very senior politician in this country, and he was an anti-Zionist. That’s what we would call him today anyway. There are some things he says here which are just extraordinary. I’m going to read this. He refers to Zionism as a mischievous political creed. If a politician did this today, they’d be over the end. This gentleman was a British Jew operating at the very highest levels of politics, and he wrote a memorandum saying, “The Turks and other Mahomedans or Muslims in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine.” He goes on to say, “The sympathy which the President of the Local Government Board suggests is widespread and deep-rooted in the Protestant world with the idea of restoring the Hebrew people to the land which was to be their inheritance is, I fear, very often a thinly cloaked desire to get rid of the Jewish ingredient in Protestant populations.” Finally, and this is extraordinary, “I assert that there is no Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or lesser degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation.” Wow. This is 100 years ago. Utterly extraordinary.

ILAN: Extraordinary and so relevant. When I wrote this particular passage, it was before the 7th of October, and since the 7th of October, a lot of young Jews, especially in the United States, began to dissociate themselves more clearly from Zionism and sort of redefine Judaism. It’s like closing of a circle—they go back to his basic idea that for them, Judaism is a religion and not a nationalism. Yes, he was very prophetic. Zionism turned the Palestinians into aliens in their own lands, and in many places when Zionism claimed the Jews are not the nation of the home country but a different nation, they alienate them—they turn them into aliens. In some places, it was very disastrous, like in North Africa when Zionism convinced enough Jews in Morocco that they are aliens although they lived there longer than most Moroccans. But they told them, “No, no, you’re not Moroccans. You are a different nation.” This is the time when Morocco fights for decolonization and self-determination. Zionism victimized the Palestinians more than anyone else, but it was bad news for the Jews. There are some places where the Zionist idea ruined the life of Jewish communities, especially in Iraq, the Arab world, and North Africa, but not only. It was an ideology that really intoxicated the relationship between the Jews and the rest of the community around them.

AARON: As somebody who’s not British by blood, I have considered criticisms of Zionism precisely because if you’re a British Jew and you’re saying your homeland is Israel, what does that mean for me as somebody whose ancestors aren’t from here? Going back to Mr. Montagu, he writes, “If Palestine will be the national home of the Jews, all the voters in my constituency will tell me to go home.” Extraordinary. There’s this final detail according to Mr. Vimon, writing about this after the Balfour Declaration. He says, “There was nothing new in what he had to say, but the vehemence with which he urged his views, the implacability of his opposition astonished the cabinet. I understand the man almost wept.” Wow. This should be a Netflix series. Really extraordinary. But it’s a history we’ve completely lost in this country.

ILAN: Totally. Most people are not aware of this because the power of the Zionist narrative is that it has a simple version that so many people were educated on, and it was never done with high resolution. People did not look at the nuances and the details. That’s why a lot of important details that I think explain much better what Zionism is are being lost in this kind of very simplistic, reductionist version that most people have on Zionism. The only way of unpacking it is by having a good, detailed history of this because otherwise, you can’t do it with soundbites, that’s for sure.

AARON: To fast forward, maybe we’ll go back to the Balfour Declaration in a moment. It’s obviously an important moment in this story. To talk about the Israel lobby in this country, that’s only the Israel lobby after the foundation of the state of Israel. Labour Friends of Israel, which I want to talk about at length, when are they founded, and who are the driving forces domestically behind the formation of Labour Friends of Israel?

ILAN: Labour Friends of Israel were founded in the early 1950s by very important people on the left wing of the Labour Party, surprisingly. Ian Mikardo is one of them, but also Aneurin Bevan, the one who founded the NHS. It’s interesting that they bought into two mythologies which were incorrect. One was that in Israel, socialism had really been implemented in the best way possible, given all the disappointments from the Soviet Union and other places. They thought that the kibbutzim, in which 1% of Israelis lived, represented Israel as a whole. So, it was the socialist dream come true, and they felt they needed to make sure that this was supported.

Secondly, people probably don’t remember this, but the Labour Party, already in the Attlee government between 1945 and 1951, before the Conservatives came back to power, was quite hawkish in the Cold War politics. Its discourse on the Soviet Union was not different from the Conservative one. They didn’t hesitate to support Franco as a bulwark against communism. They supported all the reactionary rulers in the Arab and Asian world and African world just to maintain British influence. So, Israel was both ironically the socialist dream but also part of the Western world in the Cold War. I think that was how they created it. They were not the initiators of this idea; the Zionist lobby before the creation of the state of Israel already had long experience of how to deal with British politics.

Much like their counterparts in America, who at the very same time founded AIPAC, the famous pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, they had this idea that you need to understand the political system you work in and influence politicians from their very early days in their careers. They already knew this in the 1900s when they started trying to influence British Members of Parliament to support Zionism long before the Balfour Declaration. So, the machinery was already there and very effective. Under the Zionist agencies that were still working despite the creation of the state of Israel, Israel did not dismantle the Zionist organizations. The pre-state Zionist organizations continued to operate. Now, of course, they were not advocating for the creation of a Jewish state anymore, but they were advocating support for the Jewish state. The Jewish National Fund, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency—all pre-state Israeli institutions—were transformed into the pro-Israeli lobby and worked very closely with Members of Parliament.

It’s interesting that they themselves probably thought of Israel as more akin to a socialist democratic country, and that’s why most of their connections were with the Labour Party, not with the Conservative Party. Even after the Conservatives came to power, they still thought Labour was their safe bet. It’s difficult to think about it today, maybe, or maybe not, thinking about Keir Starmer—again, a circle closed. Labour was a safe bet as someone who would present the Israeli case both in Parliament and, should they return to power, also in the government. Of course, the TUC was very important for them, the Trade Union Congress was very important for them as well.

AARON: And they had a very close relationship to the Israeli equivalent of the TUC…

ILAN: The Histadrut.

AARON: Which never seems to talk very much about workers’ rights.

ILAN: No, not at all. Workers’ rights in the sense that Israeli Jewish workers’ rights were definitely advanced by the Histadrut, but they totally ignored the rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. In Britain, they were not arguing for workers’ rights; they were arguing for Israel and its policies.

And I think later on some members of the TUC found out this is what is going on and I think the TUC unlike the labor party became a bit more critical of Israel than the party itself, as the years went by.

AARON: I think a lot of this would shock people who are listening or watching. We’ve talked about Samuel Montagu, and now you’re saying that chap was an anti-Zionist. But now there are some of the great names of 20th-century British socialism: Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson—Harold Wilson was a social democrat, but much more left-wing than the people that came after him as a Labour prime minister. These were big supporters of the state of Israel. I do find it interesting, that world of the early 1960s, because I’ve read about how Harold Wilson referred to Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singaporean Zionism, as a social democrat. For us in the 2020s, it’s so strange that British socialists were saying that Lee Kuan Yew and Israel were socialist states.

ILAN: Yes, very odd indeed. Wilson, on the other hand, was a strong critic of apartheid South Africa. Everybody who worked with him remembers that he said he had red lines when it came to apartheid South Africa and would not allow the party at all to show any sympathy to apartheid South Africa. With the same commitment, he talked about Israel. He said, “I won’t allow anyone to criticize Israel or show lack of support.” He kind of equated the ANC, or what was not yet the ANC, whatever was the liberation movement in South Africa, with Zionism. This is at the time when people in his own party, like Christopher Mayhew, were there on the ground and telling him what they saw with their own eyes, how Palestinians were being treated before ’67 and Wilson, as we know, after ’67. It somehow did not at all register with him that the Palestinians were victims as well of something that deserved British sympathy and so on.

If I compare, for instance—this is very difficult for me because I hated Margaret Thatcher—but if I compare Margaret Thatcher’s comments on the Palestinians with Harold Wilson’s comments on the Palestinians, you will give Margaret Thatcher the Nobel Peace Prize on this one. She talked compassionately about Palestinian suffering. She was aware of what was going on. Don’t misunderstand me—people would think that I’m a Thatcherite. I’m not at all, but she had this basic awareness of what was going on in Palestine. Wilson was there; it’s not that he didn’t see. For example, he was honored with planting a forest on the ruins of about three or four Palestinian villages, the Britannia Forest. People were trying to approach him, saying, “You know, this is not a recreational park. This is an erasure of massacres and ethnic cleansing.” Nothing moved him on this. Very interesting and intriguing.

AARON: Why was that? You’ve talked about the role of these lobbying organizations from the early 20th century. Was it because of that, or was it because of the Holocaust and a sense of wider European collective guilt that hadn’t been avoided?

ILAN: It goes together. He was groomed from the very beginning by the pro-Israeli lobby, by the Labour Friends of Israel. They knew how to bestow honors and more than that, influence on him. But there must have been something ripe there, a kind of ripe soil for this kind of influence—namely his, and he talks about it in his book Chariots of Israel. He talks about the religious upbringing that he had, a kind of Sunday school thing about Palestine. Again, this kind of evangelical—doesn’t have to be evangelical—but the kind of Christianity that sees the Jews as the lost sons or children that have to return and so on. He also had that. It didn’t mean that everyone who was like that immediately became so pro-Israeli. It doesn’t mean that at all.

It’s just that the Israeli, the pro-Israeli lobby probably identified correctly that he was destined to be a powerful person. They usually did not invest much energy if they thought someone would not get very far in the party. APAC perfected this system much better, but it’s more difficult in the British system because we have the constituency system here. So, it’s not that easy. You’re not just a member of a party; you’re also a member of a constituency. That’s a bit more difficult to strategize how to influence you. In America, it’s easier because you are part of a party. But even here, they did quite a good job in creating enough influence on enough number of influential people, and one of them was Wilson.

AARON: You mentioned Conservative Friends of Israel. There are estimates out there today that about 80% of Tory MPs are members of Conservative Friends of Israel. When did they start?

ILAN: They started a bit later, in the 1960s, and they were very marginal compared to the Labour Friends of Israel. I think that for many years, they were not very influential because as long as the Labour Party in Israel was in power until 1977, there was maybe reluctance to be in touch with the Conservative Friends of Israel. Margaret Thatcher was a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, but even she was not very strongly connected. She used them for being elected in her Finchley constituency, but she had very little contact with them during her reign in power. So, I would say that we suddenly are exposed to their power during David Cameron’s time. It’s really a very recent phenomenon that the Conservative Friends of Israel exert so much influence. We owe it to some very brave journalists who exposed that, like Peter Oborne. It’s quite amazing because this whole infrastructure that was built by the Conservative Friends of Israel with a lot of money to make sure that liberal values that Conservative parties may adhere to would not come in the way. Because we’re talking about the end of the 20th century, almost everyone knew what was going on in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. So, it was much more difficult to persuade people to totally accept not only an Israeli point of view but an Israeli right-wing point of view as something that should be endorsed by Britain.

AARON: Something you’ll hear on the left in the UK is that obviously what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank is bad, obviously there’s a right-wing Israeli government, and they’re bad. But the British left should work with the Israeli left in order to underpin a two-state solution or whatever you think is the preferred political outcome. That’s something you often hear, and it’s something you hear from the pro-Israel left inside the Labour Party, like the Jewish Labour Movement. We’ll talk about them more in a moment. Labour Friends of Israel will say these are the avenues through which, if you want to help Palestinians, you should work with these guys and commit yourself to this politics. What you’re saying, though, is that actually since the 1950s, these precise interests have underpinned apartheid and the impossibility of Palestinian liberation.

ILAN: Absolutely. In many ways, as so many Palestinian friends of mine would say, they find it easier to deal with Israel that is ruled by a right-wing government because what you see is what you get. It’s transparent. They talk openly about their views. It’s not complicated. You can easily show the racism, the lack of willingness to compromise, and so on. It’s much more difficult with the Zionist left because supposedly there are universal values here.

What is interesting about Labour Zionism in Israel, and later on we would call it liberal Zionism, is that there is no connection between the language that they use and the actions that they perform on the ground. There is a deception here that is very sophisticated and for many years worked very well. They talk about, unlike the right-wing in Israel, the wish for peace, for reconciliation, and yet they build more Jewish settlements in the West Bank than the right-wing governments. But they talk much nicer about the future, and it takes time to cut through this deception.

This provided the shield of immunity for Israel as long as it seemed like liberal or left Zionist parties were at the realm. But it was really a kind of thing that mesmerized people and blinded them to what was going on on the ground. Therefore, I think that’s why this whole idea that there was a genuine peace camp in Israel that unfortunately was waiting in vain for the emergence of a similar equivalent peace camp on the Palestinian side was never true. What people called the peace camp in Israel was a willingness, a tactical willingness, to rule the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in a more indirect way. There is no real peace camp in Israel. There never was. There are small anti-Zionist individuals and groups like Matzpen at the time, a compass, and there are members of the Israeli Communist Party who genuinely believe in peace, which is reconciliation, which is admitting what Israel did in the past and looking for rectification of injustices and building a future on the basis of equality.

What is usually called the peace camp in Israel does not think in equal terms. It thinks about ideas that would allow Israel to be more indirectly involved in the life of the Palestinians, very much like South Africans were thinking about the bantustans at the time. You can allow them autonomy, and that would mean that you’re not occupying them directly. It took some time for Palestinians who believed in it to wake up and understand that actually this is worse. The best way of describing it is to talk to people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and they will tell you that life after the Oslo process in 1993 was far worse than life before. Life after the peace agreement between Israel and the PLO became far worse for the vast majority of Palestinians. A peace process usually should mean an improvement in your life, the way you live, and in every aspect of life. Life became much worse for Palestinians after the Oslo peace process. This is a reflection of what the peace camp in Israel is because the peace camp in Israel determined the conditions and terms of the Oslo Accord.

Going back to the Jewish Labour Movement for a moment, they were originally called Poale Zion, the Workers of Zion. Today, they still exist as the Jewish Labour Movement. Many Labour Party members and Labour MPs are affiliated with them. If you say that the Jewish Labour Movement is a pro-Israel organization, part of the Israel lobby, you’ll generally be called an anti-Semite. However, it is presumably part of the pro-Israel lobby.

Absolutely. It is meant to talk to workers or unions on the need to include unconditional support for Israel as part of their socialist worldview. So, they act as an embassy for Israel or ambassadors for Israel. That doesn’t mean that they’re not acting also for the universal rights of labourers or workers in Britain. It’s not mutually exclusive. But definitely, the reason they were created was to colonize Palestine, then to support the colonization, and then to sustain the state of Israel. That’s still part of what they’re doing. To call it anti-Semitism is ridiculous because this is not born out of hatred of Jews. This is usually mentioned because it’s part of this powerful alliance that allows the suffering of the Palestinians to continue. I think anyone who supports justice for the Palestinians is an anti-racist person, not a racist person. But of course, we know that anti-Semitism is being weaponized in order to silence any criticism of Israel and its policies.

Do you sometimes feel like—this must be a silly question in a way because you’ve been in this academic field for decades—but do you sometimes feel like you’re going crazy when someone says that criticism of JLM, saying that JLM, you just called it an embassy of Israel, is anti-Semitic? Do you sometimes feel like this is so obvious and straightforward, how can someone say that with a straight face?

I think because I’m an academic, I understand where these positions come from, so I’m not rattled by them. I’m used to them. I try to unpack them and explain to people. I can understand how intimidating they can be, and they can paralyze people and stop them from making criticisms. But for me personally, I expect them. I preempt them. I know that they’re coming. Maybe at the beginning of my career as an academic, it could have rattled me, but not today, of course.

We’ve talked about the UK a hell of a lot, which inevitably we will, we’re in the UK. But AIPAC is far more influential, far better resourced than any lobbying organization in this country. Who are AIPAC? When did they start, and what is the extent of their influence at the high point for them in American politics?

AIPAC began actually as a propaganda wing or department in an earlier pro-Zionist organization called the American Zionist Emergency Committee (AZEC). It was an emergency committee because it was founded during the Holocaust, but it was working less for the rights of Jews during the Holocaust and much more for the rights of the Jews in the colonization of Palestine. After the creation of the state of Israel, the PR department of AZEC became AIPAC. It was an initiative by the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Abba Eban, and some members of that previous Zionist organization. So, in the early 1950s, it was created.

AIPAC already had the methodology from the earlier organization, so they didn’t invent the wheel; they continued a very effective work by the previous PR organization. People think that AIPAC invented everything. It didn’t; it perfected an already American idea of how to lobby. That involves targeting politicians from an early stage of their career, flooding the newspaper with letters at the time, buying time on radio and later on television, creating scholarships for students and academics to make sure that they will be pro-Zionist, and making sure that in every walk of life they have a presence where there is even a modicum of potential to influence American policy towards Israel. Because we’re talking about a nation of 300 million today, but already then it was a mega-organization. Undoubtedly, its app was really under Bush. I should say Bush Jr.

Exactly. They made a strategic decision that their future relies on the conservative side of the Republican Party. In a way, the Obama years were not prophesized correctly by them. They didn’t expect the Democrats to come to power, and yet, I hope they are wrong, but they may be right. They thought that the exception of the rule of American politics is a democratic administration and that America’s near future is a Republican, far-right Republican administration. They might be wrong as well. We can see if you look from 2000 until today, you cannot say that any of the parties dominated the whole 24 years. They understood that this is where power lies as far as Israel is concerned and relied on the fact that the Democratic Party has this inertia, as we saw with Biden in it, not to deviate too much even if AIPAC is less effective there than in the Republican Party.

What’s quite extraordinary is that there is a huge pushback against Zionism now among young progressive Jewish Americans and younger Americans and younger progressives. But there’s also increasingly a strand of thought on the US radical right which is, “We don’t want to send money to Ukraine. We don’t want to send money to Israel.” It’s kind of half-formed, but you can see where it’s going to end up, which is America First. “Okay, we like Netanyahu, we prefer the Israelis to the Palestinians, but frankly, we’re not going to give you $4 billion.” That seems almost like a glitch in the matrix when it comes to AIPAC. How has that happened, and how are they responding to it?

This is one of their failures—to understand that Israel can be either a moral asset or an ideological asset in the eyes of people, or a material asset, a strategic asset. They always thought that if one doesn’t work, the other would work. Maybe with the Democrats, it should be moral; maybe with the Republicans, or the other way around, it doesn’t matter. Then they failed to see the development in the area as a whole. The arms industry in America does not have to see Israel anymore as its preferred target. There are enough people in the Arabian Peninsula to buy weapons and probably pay even more for them. They failed to understand the connection between the isolationist tendency that you’re talking about and its possible impact on Israel. They probably were blinded by this weird combination you have today in the Republican Party between Christian Zionists, who are still very powerful in the Tea Party wing of the party, and the isolationist extreme right-wing, who would probably, in the future, not want American support for Israel to be on the same level that it is today. They missed that, and I don’t see how they can adapt to this new reality.

Talking about the impact of AIPAC on U.S. foreign policy now, one might think it only really applies to Israel, but again, one of the really illuminating parts of this book is showing the role of AIPAC in lobbying for the war in Iraq. Now, I’m not saying that Israel pushed the war on Iraq—it’s primarily pushed by neoconservatives, people around George W. Bush—but there is clearly a very strong lobby, former Israeli leaders or serving Israeli politicians, newspaper columns, and AIPAC itself. They are promoting this idea of war with Iraq very heavily. Why? Because these organizations, AIPAC is an organization that exists to promote the interests of Israel, but it’s interfering in the politics of another country to invade a third country.

I think it’s a quid pro quo between the neoconservative lobby in America, which is not pro-Israeli by essence but is pro-supporting very hawkish American policies in the Middle East—an Islamophobic kind of conservative think tank. They understood that if they can describe their wish for deeper American involvement in the Middle East as a project that defends Israel, it will have more allies on Capitol Hill to support this aggressive policy. That’s why you have this kind of connection. I think AIPAC by nature was not interested that much in an American assault on Iraq, but it owed it in a way to the neoconservatives. Many of these major thinkers on the extreme right or the Neo-right, as we call it, neoconservatives, were both serving in pro-Israeli think tanks and new conservative think tanks. Usually, you can find them in both, so the two programs went together.

Israel was never able, although it wanted, through AIPAC, to play an active role. If you remember, Bush Senior did not allow Israel to be involved in the first war against Iraq. Bush Junior did not allow them to be involved in the second war in Iraq. They wanted very much to be involved. It was the neoconservatives who didn’t want the Israeli army there. They wanted AIPAC. It was more important to them to have AIPAC supporting aggressive American policies in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003 and later on.

It’s quite extraordinary. You’ve said you’re an academic, so you have a sort of dispassionate approach with this stuff, but if you say that actually the Israel lobby promoted war in Iraq, again people say that’s anti-Semitic. How dare you say that? But it’s there in black and white, and again, that’s the power of being a historian. For instance, you talk about Benjamin Netanyahu. He wrote about this in an op-ed for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal where he wrote, “The Case for Toppling Saddam,” and stated, “Nothing less than dismantling his regime will do.” He says the same about, obviously, Hamas today and Gaza. He even spoke to the American Senate in 2002, saying, “The urgent need to topple Saddam is paramount.” You’ve got Israel’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, saying, “Saddam Hussein is as dangerous as Bin Laden.” And then last but not least, Ehud Barak, again a former prime minister, who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying the Bush administration should first of all focus on Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein. This is the quintessential failure of U.S. foreign policy so far this century. It’s black and white, and it’s being cheered to the rafters by those politicians, also AIPAC.

Then this is really extraordinary: you’ve got this from Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The Jewish Week, saying, “Washington’s imminent war on Saddam Hussein is an opportunity to rid the world of a dangerous tyrant who presents a particularly horrific threat to Israel.” He went on to say, “The Torah instructs that when your enemy seeks to kill you, kill him first.” You think this is almost play-for-play the exact same thing we’re now seeing in Gaza and the West Bank, particularly Gaza right now. Play-for-play, from the politicians to the columns. And yet, the American political class seems to be falling for it all over again.

Yes, because the longevity of a lobby ensures that it’s almost part of the DNA of the politician not to question these things and by inertia repeat the same arguments, whether they are relevant to the reality or whether they are fanatical or messianic—it doesn’t matter.

Aren’t there politicians who say, “Hold on, these are the guys—people around Biden, for instance—who would say, ‘Look, these are the guys who said Iraq was a smart idea 20 years ago, let’s just—'”

There are some of them. One of them just retired from his cabinet. I think some of them are seeing this, but a certain generation, the Biden generation, it’s part of their DNA. I mean, Bernie Sanders is an exception, doesn’t prove the rule in the Democratic Party. But it’s the younger—we have to look at these younger Democrats and see how far they will go. I think they would find it very difficult to repeat these kinds of slogans or justifications.

We’ve talked about Christian Zionists a few times. What’s their role been in promoting effectively a permanent war on West Asia in the last 20 years? Something we’ve not really covered in this interview so far is the hypothesis that Israel wants the United States in West Asia permanently. It’s constantly looking to start wars in the region, presently with Iran, so that America is stuck there, which actually serves Israeli interests, whereas really America wants to go to the Pacific, deal with China, to a lesser extent deal with Russia. So, you’ve got the foreign policy interest—actually, the U.S. is saying we don’t really want to be in West Asia, but then you have the ideology of the Christian Zionists saying, “No, we absolutely want to be here.” How has their power ebbed and flowed over the last 20 years? Clearly, it’s at a high point with George W. Bush. They must be doing something right because the U.S. has never been more active in that part of the world.

Yes, but it’s not only Christian Zionism; it’s also petroleum and oil. Don’t underestimate the importance of oil and gas and fossil energy. America is definitely not leading the world towards diversification and alternative energy sources. It’s still a very important resource for the American economy and energy market. It would be interesting if petrol and gas were not there, whether these thinly theological justifications would have been upheld. I don’t think so. I think it’s a combination of this theology in a country—America is a country with a large number of very religious people who can easily be galvanized into ideas like that, but it’s also the mecca of capitalism, and it needs to go together. The natural resources in the Middle East, on the one hand, and the role of Christian Zionism, on the other, are the reason that Israel can persuade America to be in West Asia.

So, I wouldn’t say it was just Israeli success. There are other interests there. And you know, we cannot deny the fact that certain ideologies of the regimes in the area are playing into the role of the Americans. Like the Iranian regime—we also know why these political Islamic movements have arisen, because America did not allow the left, the secular left, to be a power to reckon with in that area, so you got the political Islamic movements. It’s a bit more complex than that. But definitely, I think the most important bottom line is, if you take Israel out of the equation of American politics in West Asia, America would be either very isolationist and stop doing harm there, or would be progressive and stop doing harm. Israel does not allow it to go either way fully.

But it might happen. I’m not taking a theological determinist view of American policy. I think it can change.

I presume you’ve heard of somebody called Luke Akehurst. Who hasn’t? He’s all over social media. He’s now a prospective parliamentary candidate. He’ll probably be an MP. He was, I think, without doubt, the most powerful figure in the Labour Party, and he still is. He was also a lobbyist, presumably he doesn’t do that now, for We Believe in Israel, which is connected to BICOM and is again part of this big pro-Israel lobby apparatus. Is there a precedent in British politics—you’ve talked about 150 years of this stuff—is there a precedent in British politics of somebody so deeply ensconced within the lobby, not being lobbied, but part of the lobby, also being such a senior figure within the Labour Party?

Yes, I mean, in other parts, I can think about Herbert Samuel as being someone like this, but he was in the Liberal Party, not the Labour Party. I’m not sure that Harold Wilson should be exempted from our historical assessment as someone who was both the lobbyist and the Prime Minister of Britain. Never saw any contradiction in those two capacities. So, I think probably you have it in him. Other than that, no, I don’t think so. Tony Blair, I write about it, owed a lot to the Israeli lobby for his success in the fight for the candidacy in the Labour Party—not for the Prime Minister, not for the national elections; he won them without the Israeli lobby, I don’t want to rewrite history here. But definitely, to be elevated to be a candidate, he needed the Israeli lobby. But he didn’t act as a lobbyist for Israel. He had his own problems, so to speak. So yes, it’s quite unique.

You say Wilson, who of course was very pro-Israel, but I’m trying to think of someone whose job was to be a lobbyist for a foreign country. You mentioned Herbert Samuel; this is the exact same thing, although he was Jewish. That makes the aura all the stranger. But this idea of someone going from Poale Zion or LFI or whatever these organizations have lasted for so long, senior members of staff whose job is to represent the interests of Israel becoming effectively some of the most powerful people in the Labour Party. Is there something similar in the Conservative Party looking at your long archive of these people?

No, probably not to that extent. It was always a bit more vague, the kind of parallelism between your job in the lobby and your job in the government. That’s quite unique. When you’re in lobbying, you’re not meant to be the story, right?

Exactly. You said Blair a moment ago. Could Tony Blair and the Israel lobby have… or would it have been harder for him to become the leader of the Labour Party without the Israel lobby? What do you mean by that?

As I say in the book, there was an issue of funding to get the nomination in the internal elections. He was helped by certain rich pro-Zionist Jews to get a special fund because he had a complicated relationship with the TU that usually gives you the resources if you are fighting for the nomination. Yes, it is a democratic process that eventually the party members are… but as we know, this is a modern world. You need also PR. So that part of it was very much connected to the pro-Israeli lobby. I think that they would say it was worth it. Tony Blair’s policies were definitely pro-Israeli.

That might sound like a conspiracy theory to some.

No, that’s what I mean. He didn’t sign a document that said because of that. He might have been pro-Israeli anyway, given his… he became kind of a newborn Christian through the process of being a prime minister. So it might have happened anyway. I’m just saying that it’s interesting that the lobby identified correctly who should be the next prime minister, if you want.

He joins Labour Friends of Israel as soon as becoming an MP in 1983.

That’s right.

So that’s, like you say, he could have done that anyway. But what’s really fascinating is that he’s introduced to a man called Michael Levy, who is the superstar fundraiser for New Labour over the years that follow. He raises £15 million for New Labour. That’s a lot of money today; it was a hell of a lot more money 30 years ago.

Yes, my God, yes.

So how is he introduced to Michael Levy before he becomes leader of the Labour Party?

That’s what’s interesting. It’s in a dinner in the Israeli ambassador’s house. So you can see the connection with the embassy, Labour Friends of Israel, a promising candidate for prime minister there. I think it speaks for itself. I called it the “little dinner,” you know, based on Hardy’s famous tale of such a dinner, and in the same house where the Israeli Embassy is today. That’s why I thought it was quite curious. Yes, definitely, it is the introduction of Tony Blair to the power of the lobby, both in terms of how influential it is in Israel itself and how rich it is in British politics in terms of resources and so on.

Some of the names have reemerged in recent years. One is Trevor Chinn, who was a very large funder towards Keir Starmer and his campaign. There are real parallels. But this is really remarkable, just to repeat what you’ve said here. The superstar fundraiser for New Labour meets Tony Blair before he’s even the Labour Party leader in the home or residence of the Israeli ambassador.


They’re introduced there. Levy then goes to work for Blair and provides the financial wherewithal for Blair to become the Labour leader, and they send Blair to visit Israel, probably at the expense of Levy. That’s extraordinary.

It is extraordinary. We have to differentiate between how Blair probably saw it and how Israelis saw it. Israelis saw it as a bonanza—they have really influenced this. It’s possible that Blair said, “It’s one of the many issues that would be on the table. I’m okay with this.” We have to be careful here that Blair’s 365 days a year dealt with Israel and thought about Israel. He had other fish to fry, so to speak. But I’m interested in the lobby. The lobby says, “We’re so powerful, we can define the nature of… we will decide who is the next prime minister of Britain or we will influence the next prime minister of Britain.” And we look at the policies. The dividends are there. Although, as I say in the book, I’m very clear about this book, Blair or Thatcher or Wilson did not deviate from British policy towards Israel since 1948 probably. So it’s not that they brought what the lobby succeeded in doing, and people should understand it, is that Britain should not change its attitude towards Israel.

Now, why is this important? Because so much was happening on the ground that so many people in Britain became aware of that they started to question this unconditional support for Israel. And it became much more difficult to justify the continuation of the same policy. So Blair does not initiate a new policy towards Israel. He continues the policy despite what’s going on on the ground. And I think that’s the success of the lobby. But that’s also the seeds of its future failure because Gaza has shown us that if you thought 2000 was a bad year, think again. So it’s getting worse all the time. It’s not getting better. And when it gets worse, this continued unconditional support for Israel is far more difficult to sustain, far more difficult to sustain. And whoever will be the next prime minister of Britain, whichever party, will have a very difficult time justifying it as the Israelis are now actively involved in trying to finish what they started in ’48—getting rid of the Palestinians. And in this age of smartphones and TV and so on, you cannot hide it, and you have to justify it.

You often hear the claim, “Well, look, every country has a lobby. Every country has interest representation.” Although you’re right to say that Israel is unique in so much as this lobby is there to defend its very existence, and they would say, “Yes, we do because we’re treated very uniquely.” But I can’t think of many countries whose national lobby has a story like that with Michael Levy, Tony Blair, £15 million of funds raised for New Labour. I think that’s really, really, really extraordinary. Now, there’s a part two here, which is of course with Keir Starmer. We’ve seen millions of pounds go towards both his campaign and the Labour Party now more recently. There’s the Autoglass magnate, Gary Lubner. Trevor Chinn is back. And what I find super interesting, and maybe you have some insights on this, is you have Labour Together who raise huge amounts of money, which this organization Think Tank fails to declare properly. They say, “Well, the reason we didn’t declare it is because some of the people involved are Jewish, and we don’t want to generate an anti-Semitic response.”

It just all looks very strange.

It looks very strange, and it defeats the purpose because it’s so mysterious it increases anti-Semitism. It increases the horrible things that people were saying about Jewish money and Jewish financial connections. So instead of fighting the horrific and unfounded allegations about Judaism and finance and money, they are fueling the anti-Semitic idea because of the way that they are refusing to acknowledge the fact that nowadays, in order to support Israel, you have to probably bribe people. Whereas in the past, you probably could have convinced them morally that what they’re doing is right. Things are so bad now that you need money, influence, and intimidation.

Yes, the intimidation thing is interesting because you’ve clearly seen a turn over the last 10 years in Western politics, maybe longer, you’d say, maybe it starts with Ed Miliband, and then with Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. It’s getting really, really bad now. I think it’s beginning to undermine actually some pretty core democratic features of politics in both countries. But that’s an interesting take. I hadn’t thought of this idea that actually the Israel lobby is moving towards intimidation because the old moral power no longer works.

Exactly. If you can’t convince them, force them to accept you.

It’s a failure of the lobby. If they need to destroy Corbyn, it means that they don’t have a moral way of doing it. Yes, they succeed with Corbyn, but will they succeed with a younger politician who would learn from that case? Will it work again? I’m not sure. I’m not totally sure about that.

Final question. You’ve been kind enough to give us your time today, talking to a media outlet, Novara Media. How does the lobby target media outlets in the UK and the US? Again, reading the book, some of the most storied names in British politics and political journalism, like Jonathan Dimbleby and Jeremy Bowen, have been at the receiving end of the lobby’s fury. How does this work, and what are they trying to achieve?

They try to control the narrative, and they really believe that weaponizing anti-Semitism would even convince or deter very well-known journalists from using certain language or exposing certain crimes that Israel commits. Somehow, in the mainstream media, there is a certain hierarchy that begins with the editor-in-chief and so on, which has a lot to do with the financial resources of the newspaper and so on. Probably, in many cases, they are right about it. They understand well the structure, and the journalist is not the most important person in the neo-capitalist media infrastructure we have in Britain. The journalists are not the ones who make the decisions.

Therefore, they feel powerful. The big question for them now is that there is such a crisis of confidence in mainstream media, and people are moving to alternative media and believing it much more than they believe the mainstream media. With all the dangers that alternative media can have—some cranky people as well, it’s true—but people are assertive enough to say, “We will find out.” The pro-Israel lobby has no idea how to deal with it. That’s probably the next chapter if I had time to write it. They are now using AI, artificial intelligence, thousands of students who are willing to be pro-Israeli, in order to try and stop the flood. Unsuccessfully, totally unsuccessfully.

There’s a big scandal in Israel today. It turned out that the Prime Minister’s office paid a company to create, through AI, artificial accounts that defame people who criticize Israel and increase Israel’s popularity. Even the current Israeli press thought it was too much. They claimed that they closed it because of internal criticism; they don’t care about external criticism. But internal criticism caused them to close it. I think they will renew it. What was so interesting is the explanation—they said, “We cannot win the moral argument, so we need to use all the methods that are at our disposal to defend Israel.”

Is this stuff a threat to democracy and democratic values? We see it with the definition of anti-Semitism. If you don’t accept it as a university now, you’re anti-Semitic, even though nobody had heard of it until five years ago. It feels to me, and I wonder where that stops. Clearly, pro-Israel voices, the Israel lobby, is engaged in what would be called an information war against people they disagree with. I do wonder where that stops. Does it just stop with soft power and culture, or would they actually try and intervene in political processes a bit like was accused against Russia in 2016? I think that’s overblown, but you do wonder where the red line is with all of this.

I think there’s no red line to the effort. The question is, will it be effective? And I doubt it. I don’t know exactly when they would find out that there is a limit to their power, but they still believe that there isn’t a limit to what they can do. So, it stops when they’re crossing a red line that you and I cannot imagine. We don’t know what it will be, but we can predict quite safely that there will be such a red line because they have no inhibition in the way that they’re working.

Ilan Pappé, I have learned so much in this hour. The book is phenomenal. It’s been a real pleasure speaking to you. Your work over recent decades is invaluable, and I think it’s going to have real consequences politically for a very long time. Again, thank you for joining us.

Thank you very much. Thank you.


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