Monday, April 03, 2006

Labour, the Tories and 'Jewish money'

Controversial British journalist Neil Berry - accused of anti-semitism by David Aaronovitch and several other Jewish bloggers - discusses the provenance of the men that fund both New Labour and the Tory Party in a recent article for Arab News. His conclusion? Many of them are Jewish.

Like it or not, I have been dragged into the argument. As part of his evidence, Berry cites extracts from my book Labour Party plc, particularly the sections concerning Lord Levy. Berry notes that chapter four:

‘… went on to question the wider political implications of the Labour Party being bankrolled by Jews who may also be Zionists at a time of heightened sensitivities among Muslims and others about Zionist influence on Anglo-American foreign policy.’

And indeed, it did exactly that, because anything would have been intellectually dishonest. For decades now, it has manifestly been the case that a proportion of Labour’s business support base has been Jewish.

Most of the explanation is simple enough. The Jewish community - historically speaking, anyway - in both Britain and the US has tended towards the left. Moreover, many successful Jews have been working class lads and lasses made good. As I explicitly spelled out in the book:

‘There is no need to resort to anti-semitic conspiracy theory to explain all this. First, there is a longstanding layer of Labour leaning Jewish business people, which formed the core of the Labour Finance and Industry Group.

‘Second, in the early days Levy was quite obviously working his own contacts. As one Labour source put it:

"The nexus is not sinister. It is probably the social relations that surround a particular reform synagogue in North London. If you crack that congregational network, you have probably cracked much of the cross-linkage. It may explain some of the anomalies in the fundraising and the unexpected sources of funds traditionally associated with the Tories."

Yet of everything that went into a 90,000-word volume, the pages that discuss Jewish input into New Labour were easily the hardest to write. I was acutely aware that, taken out of context, even to discuss such questions leaves an author open to the charge of being anti-semitic.

For the record, my late mother was an ethnic, but not religious, Jew. Aware of that heritage, I’ve diligently worked through Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish, attended last year’s Ot Azoy! summer school in London, and have a reasonable grasp of the spoken language.

But I am critical – massively critical – of the repressive actions of the state of Israel in the occupied territories. Politically, I favour a democratic secular state in Israel, with meaningful guarantees of religious freedom for Arabs and Jews alike.

While writing Labour Party plc, I considered the option of self-censorship on Levy and Zionism. But that would have been cowardly. His appointment as special envoy to the Middle East - a Foreign Office minister in all but name - despite having no obvious qualifications for any role in diplomacy simply could not have been glossed over.

Now Berry’s article goes on to stress the Jewish origins of many recent financial backers of the Tories:

‘Already Cameron is much indebted to Jewish backers: Among them, the casino magnate, Lord Steinberg, the media mogul, Michael Green, the chief executive of the Next chain, Simon Wolfson (who is advising him on economic matters), and the owner of the Jayroma clothing company, Andrew Feldman, the latter an Oxford friend of Cameron's who has reportedly become the "chief conduit" of current Tory funding.

‘The precise attitudes toward Israel of all of Cameron's backers are unclear, though Michael Green for one is a zealous Zionist. What is striking is that while he has otherwise put off making manifesto commitments until various policy units have reported their findings, the newly appointed Tory leader lost no time in addressing the "Conservative Friends of Israel" and signaling that Israel's security rates among his top priorities.’

I’m not sure I care for the scare quotes around Conservative Friends of Israel. But as far as I am aware, the facts that Berry utilises are established. It is incontestable that Jewish people provide millions of pounds in funding to both major British political parties.

Yes, yes I know. Believers in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, BNP pamphleteers and sundry other conspiracy theory nut jobs will have a field day. Part of me is reluctant to allow them that luxury.

But is this a legitimate subject for discussion? The answer - for anyone who believes in freedom of speech - can only be yes. The reasoning at work is essentially the same as that which should have governed leftist attitudes to the Muhammad cartoons. Neither discourse should be off limits.

Is Berry personally anti-semitic? A quick google reveals some remarks about 'the Judaic mindset' that certainly could be taken that way. His fascination with Jewish influence as subject matter is certainly, um, persistent. It's probably just the thing that publications he writes for regularly - including Arab News and Muslim Weekly - lap up.

Then again, I’ve never met the man, and have read very little of his work. But as Berry himself argues:

‘My own belief is that I am raising issues that are crying out for public airing. Or have we now reached a point where it is impossible to discuss the political conduct and allegiances of Jews without being denounced as the worst sort of racist?’

On this one, at any rate, Berry is right.

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