Labour Friends of Israel
Labour Friends of Israel is “a Westminster based lobby group working within the British Labour Party to promote the State of Israel”.
- Chair John Woodcock (since 2011)
- Deputy Chair: Mike Gapes
- Vice Chair: Ivor Caplin
- Vice Chair: Jim Murphy
- Vice Chair: Ivan Lewis
- Jennifer Gerber director (she replaced Luciana Berger)
- Stephen Byers (chairman (2004) of the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism)
- James Purnell
- Stephen Twigg former Chair
- David Mencer – former director 
- Alice Wood - former deputy director
Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) is a Westminister based pro-Israel lobby group working within the British Labour party. It is considered one of the most prestigious groupings in the party and is seen as a stepping stone to ministerial ranks by Labour MPs. LFI boasts some of the wealthiest supporters of the party, and some of its most generous donors, such as Lord Sainsbury of Turville, Michael Levy, Sir Trevor Chinn and Emmanuel Kaye. The committee wields considerable influence in Westminster and is also consulted routinely by the Foreign Office and Downing Street on matters relating to the Middle East. Tony Blair is known to consult its members over Middle East policy. The body also has Tory and Liberal Democrat sister organizations. The late Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the Commons transport select committee, was the life president of LFI, while David Mencer,a former volunteer for the Israeli army, is its first director. A small time player during the Thatcher years, LFI first made it into the news when one of its erstwhile guests, Erwin Van Haarlem, a Czechoslovakian art dealer turned out to be a spy for the Czech intelligence services. The 1987 gathering, to which Van Haarlem was invited because of his “apparent support for Jewish causes”, was also attended by members of the House of Lords, leading trade unionists, industrialists, and the former chief of staff of the Israeli army.
While Labour originally carried a reputation for having more voices sympathetic to the Palestinians – especially during the Thatcher years – the New Labour government of Tony Blair has reversed this orientation. Although one of Tony Blair’s first acts after becoming an MP in 1983 was joining LFI, the relationship truly developed in the early 90s, when as shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair met Michael Levy at a private meeting at the latter’s house. Michael Abraham Levy is a former chairman of the Jewish Care Community Foundation, a member of the Jewish Agency World Board of Governors, and a trustee of the Holocaust Educational Trust.  According to Andrew Porter of The Business, Levy expressed his willingness “to raise large sums of money for the party” which led to a “tacit understanding that Labour would never again, while Blair was leader, be anti-Israel” .
The partnership proceeded as Levy started inviting potential donors for tennis at his palatial home where Tony Blair would join them for a set or two. Levy would then proceed to ask the guests for donations after Blair had left. The genius of Levy’s fundraising strategy ensured that most of Labour's election funds came from private sources, rather than its traditional source – the trade unions, thereby weakening their say over policy. Levy’s investment eventually paid off, with Blair’s accession to power. The reward was not long in coming as Levy was ennobled and subsequently retained as a “special envoy” to the Middle-East, leading predictably to the development of a strong pro-Israel line. Given the fact that Levy has both a business and a house in Israel and his son Daniel used to work for Yossi Beilin – the former Justice Minister of Israel – speaks of a serious conflict of interest, especially when he is the man assigned by Blair to negotiate impartially with Palestinians and Israelis The fact that Levy acted as a fundraiser for former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak casts further doubt on his capacity for impartiality. According to Neil Sammonds of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in 2002, Four of the previous five ministers with Responsibility for the Middle East had been active members of LFI.
Membership and Funding
LFI currently has a burgeoning membership in the Commons and it is seen as a certain ladder for success by aspiring politicians. Receptions hosted by the lobby usually boast a huge turnout, with such powerful guests as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the Israeli ambassador and the Israeli Deputy Minister of Defence. LFI has found staunch allies in the current Labour government in the shape of Blair, Brown and Straw. The influence of this committee is quite evident in Blair’s frequent comments in support of Israel, particularly at a time, when its actions have been widely condemned. Addressing a meeting of the body, Blair urged the British public not to forget the suicide attacks to which Israel has been subjected when criticizing Israeli aggression towards the Palestinians. That is indeed a remarkable observation given that - as is well known - the Israeli Human Rights Centre, B’Tselem, reports that the overwhelming majority of the victims, even in the current phase of the conflict, have been Palestinian civilians. In 1997, prominent members of LFI contributed generously to the coffers of Labour, including Lord Sainsbury, who donated £1 million – the biggest single donation ever – Michael Levy, who raised 7 million pounds, Sir Trevor Chinn, who was reported to have donated a six figure sum, and Emmanuel Kaye, who donated a sizable sum to Blair’s blind trust. According to one party official, by 2001, Levy had raised up to 15 million pounds for the party. David Goldman – the Chairman of an Israeli telecommunications equipment company BATM Advanced Communications – is also reported to have made several 5-figure donations. The amount of influence such money could buy in today’s politics cannot be discounted, and from Britain’s unconditional support for Israel’s brutal policies, it seems like the government is keen to deliver.
Trips to Israel
LFI sponsors trips of parliamentarians to Israel, purportedly to educate them on issues central to the conflict. One recent trip included a “tour of Jerusalem and the route of the separation fence, plus meetings with Labour MKs, senior Foreign and Defence Ministry officials”. These trips are invaluable in cultivating relationships with members of the British parliament who can then be counted on to support legislation favourable towards Israel. These loyalties usually transcend moral barriers, as David Cairns – the organizer of one such tour – exclaimed after professing his deep commitment to Israel, “No one ever said being a friend of Israel would be easy”, since his view of the “peace process” was at odds with Israel’s operative policy A Labour campaign advert in the Jewish Chronicle boasted:
- Since 1997 a record 57 Labour MPs have visited Israel, mostly with Labour Friends of Israel, swelling the number of MPS willing to ensure balance on the Middle East in the House of Commons. More Labour MPs have visited Israel than from any other party.
The advert also boasted that the new Terrorism Act of 2000 – for which LFI actively lobbied – “proscribes terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hizbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Predictably enough there was no mention of the multi-million pound military aid to Israel’s occupying forces. Some of the MPs, who had their trips to Israel sponsored by LFI in recent years include: .
In October 2011, LFI sent a seven Labour MP delegation to Israel. The MPs on this trip were: Anne McGuire, Rachel Reeves, Jonathan Reynolds, Dan Jarvis, Michael McCann and Pamela Nash. They were led by the new LFI chairman John Woodcock.
Taming the Media
LFI has used its influence to intimidate British media into adopting an openly pro-Israel position. A recent study by the Glasgow University Media Group revealed the systematic bias in BBC and ITV’s coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict which often reproduces the official Israeli narrative uncritically, whereas very little time or detail is devoted to the Palestinian side. Some, who dared to criticize the Israeli position have faced bans, as Faisal Bodi, of BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight did. According to Bodi, LFI members play a “crucial propaganda role, carrying the flag for Israel in parliament, and lobbying editors to toe the Israeli line”. Tim Llewellyn, a Veteran Middle East correspondent for the BBC, has gone to the extent of calling BBC’s reporting on the Israel-Palestine conflict downright “dishonest”. He has attributed it to the “unremitting and productive” efforts by “Israel's many influential and well organised friends” . However, this still did not preclude LFI’s Andrew Dismore from expressing “concern” about the BBC for being “anti-Israeli and biased towards the Palestinians.” This charge could not have been more frivolous given that BBC has referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘capital’ – a view otherwise shared outside of Israel by two out of the world’s nearly two hundred countries. A key association in LFI’s powerbase is [[Rupert Murdoch]’s News Corp. The strategic alliance between News Corp. and New Labour was formed just before the 1997 election when Murdoch’s The Sun and The Times switched sides to support Blair’s election bid against the Tories, who had been discredited by a series of scandals. Murdoch has been a regular visitor to Downing Street ever since. In a keynote address to an LFI meeting in London, the Northern Ireland Secretary and New Labour luminary Peter Mandelson praised Thatcher’s intolerance towards the siege of Murdoch’s union-busting Wapping plant by protesting printers. In the past Mandelson has appeared at pro-Israel rallies with the far-right former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Mandelson also happens to be a close friend of Elisabeth Murdoch – Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, and given Murdoch’s own investments in Israel and his close friendship with Ariel Sharon, the orientation of Murdoch’s newspapers is predictably pro-Israel. Journalists have complained of extremely narrow editorial parameters favouring Israel, and having to adopt official Israeli formulations like “targeted killing”, “crossfire” and “closures”. Another natural ally in this enterprise was Conrad Black, whose Daily Telegraph and The Spectator magazine are two of the most influential pro-Israel voices in Britain. He was Chairman of the Board of Directors of Hollinger Inc., which owns the right-wing Israeli Jerusalem Post which openly advocated the killing of Yasser Arafat in 2003. The leading Neo-con and pro-Israel hawk Richard Perle is also a top executive at Hollinger. Black’s wife Barbara Amiel is a notorious right-wing columnist.
Obstacles to Peace
Given the hard line position of its donors, LFI has grown increasingly tendentious in its approach towards any resolution of the Middle East conflict. In 1990, two principal donors withdrew their financial backing for holding a joint meeting with the pro-Arab Labour Middle East Council. While LFI has consistently excused Israeli atrocities in the occupied territories as “self defence”, it certainly can’t feign ignorance. One of its visiting members got a first-hand glimpse of IDF tactics when he got shot at in Rafah even though he arrived in a clearly marked UN vehicle. The three British MPs, surrounded by 20 children got shot at in the presence of UN officials, which led to a demand for investigation by the MPs into the IDF’s “outrageous behaviour” bordering on “lunatic”. One of the MPs, Crispin Blunt, concluded “If they are prepared to do this to people who come out of two clearly marked UN cars, what do they do when there is no one there?” He added “They are building up levels of hatred that will take decades, if not centuries, to erase.” Such insights into have not precluded Blair from making significant contributions towards the maintenance of the illegal Israeli occupation. According to the veteran Journalist John Pilger:
- Under Blair, British support for Israeli repression has accelerated. Last year alone, the government approved 91 arms export licences to Israel, in categories that included ammunition, bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, combat vessels, military electronic and imaging equipment and armoured vehicles.
While Foreign Office minister Ben Bradshaw – an active member of LFI – said there was “no evidence” that British arms and equipment had been used against the Palestinians, the Pilger article cited an Amnesty International report claiming abundant evidence that the Apache helicopters used to attack the Palestinians are kept flying with British components made by Smiths Industries. Merkava tanks are serviced with parts from Airtechnology Group; BAE provides parts for Israel’s F-16 fighter jets while converted British Centurion tanks are used as armoured personnel carriers. Land Rovers are an Israeli Army mainstay and British transponders are employed to coordinate helicopter attacks . Pilger provides further insight into how the Israeli occupation is kept liquid:
- The Blair government has also backed the Israeli military-industrial complex by buying bullets, bombs, grenades and anti-tank missiles. The Metropolitan Police and the South Wales police buy Israeli ammunition. An Israeli combat aircraft training system was bought by the RAF. In 1999, a joint UK-Israeli high-technology investment fund was established to pump funds into joint research and development.
The war on Iraq also received enthusiastic support from senior LFI members. An LFI gathering was reassured by Blair that “a stable Iraq will be good news for Israel.” Israel security needs were also cited as a rationale by the Neo-con dominated US administration in its decision to go to war. In an exclusive interview with Israel’s daily Yediot Aharonot Condoleezza Rice said “security of Israel is the key to security of the world.” The economic dividends for Israel from this venture were not discussed as openly – except in Israel’s own press. This led Tam Dalyell, the longest serving member of the House of Commons, to comment on the undue influence of the 'Sharon-Likudnik' agenda pushed by advisers such as Michael Levy (and the US neocons)– on Blair’s decision to go to war. He commented on the Neo-conservative “Cabal”, particularly the “Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs combined with neo-Christian fundamentalists” urging America on towards a “Likudnik” policy of attacking Syria.
The Politics of Anti-Semitism
A common refrain in the rhetoric of all pro-Israel groups is the ‘combating of anti-Semitism’. More often then not, this leads to voices critical of Israeli policies being labelled anti-Semitic. While more circumspect than its American counterparts, LFI – like most pro-Israel groups – has often tried to discredit criticism of Israel by conflating it with ‘anti-Semitism’. LFI has not shied away from describing general resentment against Israeli policies as being rooted in, or contributing towards anti-Semitism. Lord Greville Janner, former president of the Jewish Board of Deputies and an LFI vice-chair has commented on the surge of anti-Semitism among the “viciously and often notoriously anti-Israel” left liberal media. An alleged comment by the French ambassador to London, referring to Israel as that “shitty little country” immediately elicited a demand by LFI (in a letter from Chair Jim Murphy and president Gwyneth Dunwoody) for his sacking, and the charge of anti-Semitism by Barbara Amiel in the Daily Telegraph. The Ambassador denied making the remark. For good measure, Dunwoody also added “These comments are eerily familiar from the French.” Ironically enough, the alleged remark was made by the ambassador at a dinner hosted by Conrad Black. Black’s newspapers and magazines have regularly intimidated other media for their criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. Black’s The Spectator features articles by Melanie Phillips who is notorious for her extreme views, and has gone as far to suggest that Bishop Desmond Tutu’s criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. During the elections for the seat of the Mayor of London, LFI compiled a dossier of the alleged “anti-Zionist bias” of the candidate Ken Livingstone. The feud came to a head, with Livingstone’s comments to an invasive reporter, accusing him of acting like a ‘concentration camp guard’. Whereas LFI itself was more guarded in its statements, its pro-Israel allies in the press were far less inhibited as they cited various unnamed ‘critics’ and ‘protesters’ who found the comments ‘anti-Semitic’ as the reporter in question was Jewish.  Livingstone’s refusal to apologize and his subsequent publication of an op-ed openly critical of Israeli policies drew further ire from the lobby and its media surrogates. This tactic has been criticized, most notably, within the Jewish community. Rabbi David Goldberg has called the claims of a resurgent anti-Semitism “paranoid and exaggerated”, he added “it is far easier and safer to be a Jew than a Muslim, a black person or an east European asylum seeker”. James Purnell of LFI believes, however, that “anti-Semitism is a virus that once again has started to infect [British] body politic” while Stephen Byers added that anti-Israeli criticism should not be used as “a cloak of respectability” for racist views. He went on to warn against dangers of the development of an “intellectual argument” bolstering anti-Semitic feeling.
Resources and Contact
- Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, "Labour Friends of Israel in the House", Spinwatch, 21 March 2005.
- See also: Israel APPG
- Tom Mills, Hilary Aked, Tom Griffin, David Miller, "The UK’s Pro-Israel Lobby in Context", New Left Project, November 27, 2013.
- Marcus Dysch, Labour Friends go to Israel, Jewish Chronicle, 19 October 2011.
- Dysch, ibid.
- He was a volunteer for the Israeli army and former political assistant to Gwyneth Dunwoody
- Andrew Pierce, “Blair's chance to raise cash for Pounds 1m refund”,The Times, 18 Nov 1997
- David Cracknell, “Byers plots a comeback with pro-Israel pressure group”,Sunday Times, 4 August 2002
- “Art dealer on spying charge 'impressed Commons meeting'“, The Guardian, 1 March 1989
- Peter McKay, “How Tony has let us all down”, Daily Mail, 20 March 2000.
- Andrew Porter, The Business, 30 June 2002
- Michael White, “Downing St denies pressure to gag Robinson”, The Guardian, 21 October 1999.
- Paul Eastham, “Tories want answers over ‘Cash Passport to Downing Street’”, The Daily Mail, March 30, 1998; Iain MacWhirter, “Blair Gambles Party Cash”, The Scotsman, 18 November 1997.
- Kevin Maguire and Ewen MacAskill, Fundraiser's role as envoy under attack, The Guardian 1 October 2001.
- John Pilger, Blair's meeting with Arafat served to disguise his support for Sharon and the Zionist project, New Statesman, 14 January 2002.
- Neil Sammonds, British culpability and the shadow of Canary Wharf, ZNet, 10 April 2002.
- Friend of Israel; Londoner's Diary, The Evening Standard, 28 September 2001.
- Marie Woolf, Blair: Do not forget Israeli victims of terror attacks,The Independent, 2 October 2002.
- Fatalities, B'Tselem
- Pierce, op. cit.
- Maguire and MacAskill, op. cit.
- Charlotte Hall,Separation of Church and state, a one-man act, Ha’aretz, 22 October 2004.
- Labor Campaign Advert, Jewish Chronicle, 1 June 2001.
- Register of Members' Interests, The United Kingdom Parliament
- Marcus Dysch, Labour Friends go to Israel, Jewish Chronicle, 19 October 2011.
- Greg Philo, What You Get in 20 Seconds, The Guardian, 14 July, 2004; Greg Philo and Mike Berry, Bad News From Israel, (Pluto, 2004)
- Faisal Bodi, Why I was banned by the BBC, The Guardian, 21 May 2001.
- Tim Llewellyn, The Story TV Won’t Tell, The Observer, 20 June 2004.
- Tim Shipman, BBC Reporter faces Terror Links’ Inquiry, Sunday Express, 19 December 2004.
- Jon Goddard, BBC Slammed By Anti-Israel MPs, Totally Jewish
- Michael White, Mandelson speaks up for Portillo, The Guardian, 20 December 2000.
- Sam Kiley, The Middle-East’s war of words, The Evening Standard, 25 September 2001.
- Richard Ingrams, Who will dare damn Israel?, The Guardian, 16 September 2001.
- Israel's friends make enemies, The Times, 4 October 1990.
- Crispin Blunt, Shooting at MPs won't do any good, The Guardian, 22 June 2004.
- Inigo Gilmore, Israeli soldiers open fire on visiting British MPs, Sunday Telegraph, 20 June 2004.
- Pilger, op. cit.
- Sammonds, op. cit.
- Pilger, op. cit.
- Israel Key to World Security, The Daily Times, 22 May 2003.
- Akiva Eldar, Infrastructure Minister Paritzky dreams of Iraqi oil flowing to Haifa, Haaretz; Israeli firm awarded oil tender in Iraq firm, Aljazeera, 25 February 2004.
- Chris Marsden, Labour extends antiwar witch-hunt to Tam Dalyell, WSWS, 22 May 2003.
- Michael White, Dalyell steps up attack on Levy, The Guardian, 6 May 2003.
- David Goldberg, Let's have a sense of proportion, The Guardian, 26 January 2002.
- Ewen McAskill, Israel seeks head of French envoy, The Guardian; Anti-Semitic' French envoy under fire, BBC News
- Melanie Phillips, Return of the old hatred, The Observer, 22 February 2004.
- Mark Inglefield, Ken Livingstone; Diary, The Times, 19 November 1999.
- Paul Eastham, Red Ken's Nazi slur, Daily Mail, 12 February 2005.
- Ken Livingstone, This is about Israel, not anti-semitism, The Guardian, 4 March 2005.
- Goldberg, op. Cit.
- Marie Woolf, Anti-Semitism is infecting British politics, MPs warn, The Independent, 21 April 2004.