British Attitudes toward Israel and the Jews
An Interview with Zvi Shtauber
"When Prime Minister Ehud Barak told me that I was going to be appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, I felt he had given me a very challenging job. I have many good things to say about the UK and hold fond memories from there. It was a pleasure to work with Downing Street, the Foreign Office, Parliament, and even the media. Despite some difficulties I encountered, I very much enjoyed my stay in London and hope that I contributed to a better understanding of Israel in the UK."
Before he became ambassador to the Court of St. James, Dr. Zvi Shtauber, an IDF brigadier general, was principal adviser on foreign policy to Prime Minister Barak. He says: "When I arrived in London, I was not fully prepared for the anti-Israeli hatred existing in Europe. My meetings with the British Left were a rude awakening. During my ambassadorship a number of major anti-Semitic events occurred, both inside and outside Great Britain, that cumulatively served as repeated warning signs.
"To name only a few: the first major anti-Semitic manifestation, the echoes of which were also felt in the UK, was the United Nations Anti-Racism Conference in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001. I was stunned that this important conference was hijacked by extreme Muslim groups and that its main focus became Israel. One official UN preparatory conference for this outburst of hatred even took place in Tehran. The British press left much to be desired in its coverage of the negative aspects of the Durban Conference."
"There were several other anti-Semitic occurrences. A typical case was when the noted senior Labour MP Tom Dallyel attacked what he called the Jewish 'cabal' at the White House and around Prime Minister Blair. He mentioned as its members in the UK the prime minister's adviser Lord Levy, Peter Mandelson, a former minister, and Foreign Minister Jack Straw. Dallyel's statements were an illustration of how prime racist taboos have been broken. There was a time when these types of remarks were not 'in.' Nowadays nobody would say such a thing about other minorities and I am troubled by the fact that the remarks concerning Jews are not criticized.
"Another parliamentarian, Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge, a physician, justified Palestinian suicide bombings. I asked her in a television discussion whether she only supported terrorist attacks when the victims were Jews, or also when they occurred in Saudi Arabia against Arabs, or elsewhere against British subjects. In this case Tonge's party took action against her. She was dismissed from her position as spokesperson on children's issues. Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy distanced himself and the party from her statements.
"Bias also manifests itself in several other ways. Sir Menzies Campbell, the party's foreign spokesman, apparently received in the past some money from an organization supporting the Arab cause. This was entirely legal. Nobody in his party or on the Left, however, will ever use the term 'Arab lobby,' even though traditionally it is very strong in the UK. The country has longstanding, well-formed ties with the Arab world.
"In the UK many references are made, however, to the Zionist lobby. The expression 'lobby' has a very negative connotation. It suggests that you operate on someone's behalf against the natural interests of your country."
Fear of the Arabs
"Islamic and Arab influence in the UK is on the rise. It is a matter of numbers. These groups are better organized than in the past and operate very effectively. As Israelis and Jews we should raise our voice against Islamophobia. We have a clear interest not to portray European politics in the Middle East in terms of religion. At the same time we need to find a way to balance the influence of our adversaries, which pervades universities and portrays Israel as the new South Africa.
"There were many anti-Israeli placards in the mass demonstration against the planned Iraq war. More than a million people took part. The Left and Islamic fundamentalists marched together, also against Israel. These two groups, seemingly so opposed, found a common denominator: anti-Israelism.
"There was another example abroad of a major anti-Semitic event during my ambassadorship - the remarks about the Jewish people by Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir of Malaysia at the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in October 2003. Very few non-Jewish journalists in Great Britain spoke out against his racist reflections. The only exceptions were a young writer in the Independent and John Simpson, the foreign editor of the BBC."
Mixed Attitudes toward Jews
Shtauber mentions that all these events strengthened his Jewish awareness. "The British society on the whole is tolerant, open, and not anti-Semitic. The best proof is the great achievements of the Jews in the UK in many fields. These are sometimes a source of envy and misinterpretation. The Queen and Royal Family make it a point to maintain good relations with the Jewish community. Yet there are some lesser members of the Royal Family who are reputed to be less enthusiastic toward the Jews.
"The British government's attitude toward Israel is, broadly speaking, very positive, based on a common denominator of values and understanding for Israel's security problems. Prime Minister Tony Blair and other key ministers are at the very least sympathetic to Israel. They cannot, however, entirely ignore the overall mood of the Labour Party nor that one and a half million Muslims live in the country. Many ministers have visited Israel. Others consider that the Arab world is dictatorial and presents a large web of lies.
"A very important consideration in the positions politicians take is their interest in the Jewish community. Sometimes they may not care about what happens to Israel but they pay attention to what British Jewry cares about. For that reason alone, it is important that the Israeli ambassador maintains good relations with the community.
"One also meets people with the most absurd ideas about the number of Jews in Great Britain. Some British non-Jews I spoke with thought there were five million whereas the number is about 300,000. A lady from one of the University Teachers' Unions told me that 80% of the university teachers in the UK are Jews.
"In the media, a number of papers take a pro-Israeli position or can be defined as 'not anti-Israeli.' The Sun once wrote that one 'needs a coach like Sharon.' The Daily Telegraph and The Times take generally fair positions toward Israel and so does the weekly Economist. They do not publish anti-Israeli articles like those in the Israeli daily Haaretz.
"Opinion polls in the UK usually indicate that 17%-19% of the population support Israel. At the time of Camp David, 10% were in favor of the Palestinians. Later it went up to 31% and then came down to about match the percentage of pro-Israelis."
"However, there are also many strong opponents of Israel. The fact that Israel is ruled by a right-wing government is problematic for Labour, which is a socialist party. Jack Straw said this explicitly to me. He also told me that there are many Muslim voters in his constituency.
"The politicians are more pro-Israeli than the bureaucracy. Some of the latter are caught by Arab charm, or by egoistic calculation. British diplomats have many more career opportunities in the Arab-Islamic world than in Israel.
"Among the British Left there are many vicious opponents of Israel. Large parts of it have been looking for an enemy. In that vacuum they have inserted Israel as the target of their hate. Left-wing anti-Semitism is concentrated in a number of circles, which feed each other with hatred. I was also surprised to find some of the classical Jew-hating stereotypes of the Right among the British Left. A common denominator is emerging.
"Substantial parts of the classical Labour adherents are anti-Israeli. So are trade unions, which have no specific interaction with Israel. Typical examples are the nurses' and firemen's unions. Intellectuals, both non-Jews and Jews on the Left, are often strongly against the current government in Israel."
Irreversibly Biased Media
"The left-wing anti-Israeli bias is almost irreversible. I asked an editor of The Guardian: 'Did you support Israel during the Camp David negotiations?' He said: 'Oh no.' I went on and queried: 'Why do you always quote extremists in Israel, settlers or left-wingers, rather than spokesmen of the mainstream?' To defend himself, he answered: 'Many of our writers are Jews.' It shows that he does not know much about the British Jewish community and also believes the stereotype that every Jew is pro-Israeli. Writing against Israel advances one's career. Suzanne Goldenberg, who was The Guardian's correspondent in Israel, received several awards.
"Simon Kelner, the editor of The Independent, is Jewish. His paper published an extreme anti-Semitic cartoon by Dave Brown depicting Sharon as a child-eater. I protested to the Press Complaints Commission. I asked Kelner whether The Independent had ever published a similar caricature of a public figure. He had to go back eighteen years to find a similar one. Tim Benson, the president of the Political Cartoon Society, which chose Brown's cartoon as the best for the year 2003, saw nothing wrong in the award-winning racist design. In that year The Independent was again chosen as the 'UK's Newspaper of the Year.'
"The New Statesman is the flagship of the mainstream Left. In early 2002, it published a cover story about the Zionist lobby's power in England. It carried a golden Star of David stabbing the British flag and the article was titled 'A Kosher Conspiracy.' I entered the paper's website and thought for a moment that it belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. It featured a list of all the Jewish heads of major companies and Members of Parliament. It also mentioned the Jewish Peers and their original names. There was furthermore a list of ten pages of text supposedly from Jewish sources advocating the hatred and killing of non-Jews.
"The language employed with regard to Israel in several British media would not be employed in reference to any other minority in the UK. This reinforces the trends of anti-Semitic behavior seen recently. It leads one to reflect that if supposedly respectable Europeans defame Israel, why should the Arabs make peace with Israel? The more so if the Europeans read lies on Arab websites that Israelis are poisoning water and spreading AIDS."
The BBC, a Problem in Itself
"The BBC is a problem in itself. Over the years I had endless conversations with them. Any viewer who for a consistent period looks at the BBC information on Israel gets a distorted picture. It does not result from a single broadcast here or there. It derives from the BBC's method of broadcasting. When reporting from Israel it usually shows in the background the mosque on the Temple Mount, which gives viewers the impression that Jerusalem is predominantly Muslim.
"When Sharon was elected prime minister, it struck me that the BBC spoke about him as the 'military strongman.' Initially I thought this expression would be mentioned only once. They continued using it for several months. I contacted them and asked whether they called Pakistan's President Musharraf a 'military strongman' as he had come to power through a military coup. They did not. I then asked about whom else they used this terminology and they could not name anybody.
"It was almost a daily task reacting to the BBC's distortions on Israel. They always made it a point to call Saddam Hussein 'President.' I checked that. Instead of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, however, they said 'Sharon.'
"Several key positions in the BBC are held by extreme leftists. The BBC publishes its personnel advertisements in The Guardian, thus recruiting journalists from a particular background. The left-wing public buys The Guardian. For many of these people, as an Israeli you are born guilty.
"In the media there is no limit to the idiocies one is confronted with. Many young journalists do not listen to what they are told. The reports they prepare are often unprofessional. But it is not only a question of inexperienced people. Shortly after I arrived in London, the board of an association of journalists came to visit me. One of the five respectable visitors, a very important journalist, asked me: 'We want your assurance, Mr. Ambassador, that it is not the official policy of the government of Israel to shoot journalists.' I looked at him and hardly knew what to say."
The Jewish Community
"The great majority of the British Jewish community is very supportive of Israel irrespective of what government is in power. It finds it problematic to protest strongly against the attacks on Israel. Jews occupy senior positions in politics and the business sectors, which is an indication of their social integration. They want to be respected and accepted in society at large.
"The Jewish community received me very well and I admire their support for Israel. They do it, without making waves, in a subtle way. There is no doubt that since the second intifada, Jews, even of the highest social status, encounter unpleasant moments. The Jewish community sees Israel as the big brother and would like to be proud of it. Reality does not always provide the opportunity to do so.
"A major incident occurred when the French ambassador in London, Daniel Bernard, referred to Israel as a 'shitty little country' over the dinner table at the home of Lord Black. Black's wife published it in the Daily Telegraph without revealing which country's ambassador had made the remark. However, it soon became known. Bernard subsequently became France's ambassador to Algeria. After the incident he came to the Israeli embassy to apologize to me, though publicly he denied that he would offer his apologies.
"There is significant anti-Semitism in Great Britain, even though it is less than in many other European countries. There is also substantial Christian anti-Semitism though it is very subtle. The leadership of the Anglican Church is fighting it. The followers of Christianity in the Holy Land are, however, Arabs and the Church has to take note of this constituency. Christian NGOs that are active among Palestinians are often anti-Israeli. Two of our diplomats once had a dialogue with Christians, one of whom said: 'As long as the Jews exist and have a state, you affect one of the basic principles of Christianity.'
"Once we were alerted that a Christian website featured a story that Sharon had told the Israeli army to rape Palestinian women. Afterward we saw that the same item appeared on the website of two left-wing Members of Parliament. I had the greatest difficulty in convincing them to remove this lie."
Investing in Opinion Leaders
"I know no Israeli who thinks that whatever Israel does is right. We make mistakes like all other democracies. People are entitled to criticize Israel. The problem of Israel's image abroad, however, is not one of marketing alone.
"This was clear when I was Barak's adviser. He was a fervent letter-writer. He liked to put things on the record. I once prepared a letter for him to a head of state regarding some actions the Israeli government had taken. He remarked: 'It's too long' and wanted to omit some paragraphs. I observed that there was a need for explanation. He refused, saying: 'I cannot imagine that somebody with a basic knowledge of what is happening in Israel, and a minimally fair mind, would not see immediately that we are right. I don't have to convince them of that when I'm writing.'"
Shtauber concludes: "Britain has - with the exception of Germany - been the most pro-Israeli country in Europe. We are also their number one trade partner in the Middle East.
"Israel is a small country and we don't have many resources. Yet we must invest heavily in expanding the dialogue with Europe. We must spend more time on contacts with various groups including opinion leaders and students. We must consider Europe almost in the same category as the United States.
"With the Americans, Israel maintains various frameworks where one can talk freely outside the official system. That gives both parties a chance to better understand each other's problems. It is particularly important to establish similar relations with the UK, which, I believe, can play a more independent role in the Middle East and not only within the EU framework."
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Dr. Zvi Shtauber was a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Service. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the Fletcher School of Diplomacy. Shtauber was an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and served as Israeli ambassador in London during 2001-2004.
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.