Ethical lobbying does not an all-powerful lobby make

As conference season unfolds, the role of interest groups in the political process is again under the spotlight. For the Jewish community, the term "lobby" rarely has favourable connotations.

Talk of a Jewish lobby or, as polite society calls it, a pro-Israeli lobby, has always loomed large in antisemitic discourse. From the Protocols to claims about Tony Blair's "cabal of Jewish advisers", there have always been those who, to quote Jenny Tonge, believe "the pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the Western world". If Rupert Murdoch was Jewish, revelations about News Corp would be manna from heaven for conspiracy theorists.

Of course, there is no Jewish lobby, outside the fevered imaginations of conspiracy theorists. There are Jews who lobby for a range of Anglo-Jewish and pro-Israeli groups. Such lobbying is highly ethical and of huge value, yet critics complain that the work of these groups is illegitimate. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote in the Independent in 2009,the parties were "lavishly entertained by the over-influential Friends of Israel" during that year's conference season.

It is, presumably, fine for friends of India, Palestine and Pakistan to organise fringe meetings, but Israel's friends cannot, what with the largesse that we apparently lavish on politicians - largesse that would come as news to anyone who has ever sampled the not-so-lavish wine and sandwiches at a Liberal Democrat Friends (LDFI) of Israel fringe meeting. It is precisely when Jews (or pro-Israeli campaigners) are singled out for criticism for doing exactly the same as everybody else that Jewish hackles start to rise, and with good reason. We are as entitled as anybody else to lobby for the things in which we believe.

Israel is barely an election issue for the media

Such suggestions chime with conspiracy theories that have their direct roots in antisemitic myths of Jews plotting behind the scenes to manipulate great events. Such unreasonable singling out of the pro-Israeli lobby is also ironic, given that London is home to numerous expensive consultants who polish the reputations of dodgy politicians from countries with human rights records a thousand times worse than Israel's, including many with rather a lot of oil.

Whereas much of this well-oiled lunching is about money, pro-Israeli lobbying is invariably about conviction that Israel's side of the argument deserves to be heard. It is ironic that an area of foreign-policy lobbying that has little to do with money is the one most often accused of being unethical.

So what is the lobbying to which the anti-lobby lobby might object? Organising a fringe meeting at which an Israeli critic of his government engages in debate with an Israeli diplomat? Encouraging MPs to listen to a visiting Israeli speaker? Is it writing briefings for senior Lib Dems who might sometimes want to consider a pro-Israel point of view, alongside all of the contradictory opinions that they will, rightly, also want to hear? The anti-lobby lobby might say that they object only to the other mysterious things they believe are going on, "the attempts by Israelis and by pro-Israelis to influence the (2010) election", as Labour's Martin Linton put it.

My attempt to influence voters with election material that included a photo of me, Nick Clegg and a LDFI stall failed; the good burghers of Hendon decided not to elect me as MP. Apparently, they were immune to my Zionist power of mass hypnosis. And quite how pro-Israelis would influence an election, beyond the influence exercised by all manner of campaigning groups, is beyond me. Israel is barely an issue in the mainstream media during general election campaigns. If there is a pro-Israeli ray-gun that manipulates electors' minds, it is yet to be shared with me by my fellow conspirators.

An ethical lobbyist simply communicates a client's views to policy makers. That is what Jewish and pro-Israeli campaigners do when we tell government what we think about foreign policy, kosher food or faith schools. If you're in government and need to know something quickly, it's enormously helpful if someone you trust can get you up to speed. This is not nefarious; it is just one aspect of the political process.

While the Jewish lobby is a myth, Jewish and pro-Israeli lobbying is as real and as legitimate, as any other. And as long as the anti-lobby lobby lobbies against Israel or the rights of Jews and other minorities, this type of lobbying will most certainly continue to exist.

Matthew Harris is a vice chairman of LDFI. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Last updated: 4:45pm, October 4 2012