Casually caustic 'diplomacy'

Some former Foreign Office men seem determined to conform to stereotype

By Jonathan Freedland, November 26, 2009

If every great stereotype should be lived up to, then the retired panjandrums of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been fulfilling their duty admirably. The stereotype, cherished fondly by British Jews down the ages, is of the FCO man as “Arabist”, innately hostile to Israel and with perhaps a less-than-charitable attitude towards — how shall we put it? — those of the Mosaic persuasion.

No doubt today’s Foreign Office would reject the caricature, noting that they serve happily under a Jewish Foreign Secretary. But the ex-diplomats don’t all seem to have got the memo.

First came Sir Richard Dalton, former ambassador to Tehran and one of the star turns on this month’s Dispatches probe into the pro-Israel lobby. If that programme played with a few of the most time-honoured tropes — a shadowy group of rich Jews pulling the strings of powerless politicians — then Dalton helpfully played on a few more.

“What’s unique about the pro-Israeli lobbies,” he said, “is that they have good access to politicians, often operate behind the scenes and have primary regard — even though they may come from Britain — not for the interests of the British people but for a mixture of what they see as British interests and the interests of another country.”

Powerful, secretive, unpatriotic and with allegiance to a foreign power — all in a single sentence! Give that man a prize for sheer economy of language.

What we have here is a clutch of nasty old clichés

But he has a competitor in the form of Oliver Miles, who used to be our man in Tripoli. In the Independent, Miles suggested historians Sir Lawrence Freedman and Sir Martin Gilbert should not have been on the five-person panel investigating the Iraq war. “Both Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish,” he wrote, “and Gilbert at least has a record of active support for Zionism.”

Now if Sir Oliver had confined his objections to Freedman and Gilbert on the grounds of their published views, he might have had a point. I myself had wondered about Sir Martin’s ability to be neutral on the wisdom of the invasion given that he once wrote that Tony Blair and George W Bush might one day “join the ranks of Churchill and Roosevelt”.

But Miles did not confine himself to that. He argued that the mere fact of their Jewishness should have disqualified these two men. With a view as pernicious as this, it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps with its unstated premise: the assumption that Jews — even those with “outstanding reputations and records” — will, in the end, think with the blood. Freedman and Gilbert may pose as cool-headed scholars, but ultimately they will act ethnically, as agents of their tribe. In this view, Jews cannot sit on a truth-seeking inquiry because they will not search for the truth but rather for what best serves the Jews.

Miles does not say all this explicitly of course. On the contrary, he suggests that he is raising this matter not because of his own views — perish the thought — but because of how others, less enlightened than him, might perceive things. He is worried that “if and when the inquiry is accused of a whitewash, such handy ammunition will be available”. But since when did we allow the views of racists and antisemites to determine, pre-emptively, who sits on public inquiries? The BNP might well denounce the findings of the Iraq inquiry because the panel includes a British Hindu. Does that mean Usha Prasher should have been kept off?

Perhaps Sir Oliver will retreat and say that his real objection is to Gilbert’s Zionism. But this again rests on a faulty assumption: that anyone who supports Israel’s right to exist was automatically gung-ho for the invasion of Iraq. This itself is part of a wider and toxic belief that somehow it was Israel that pushed for and was behind the Iraq war.

But, as Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, has testified, Israel consistently warned the Bush administration that it was Iran, not Iraq, that posed the real threat: “The Israelis tried their best to persuade us that we were focused on the wrong enemy,” Wilkerson has said. What we have here is a clutch of nasty old clichés, still clung to by those who carry great titles and honours – and a few very stubborn prejudices.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 4:31pm, December 10 2009


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