MI5 for many years avoided recruiting Jews as spies out of concern about their potential loyalty to Israel, according to a new book published this week.
Its policy stemmed from the years of Israel’s struggle for independence when the security services feared terrorist attacks on Britain by militant Zionist groups.
The revelation comes in The Defence of the Realm, an authorised history of M15 based on its archives, by Chistopher Andrew.
Although some Jews were enlisted, most notably Victor, Lord Rothschild, who set up M15’s first counter-sabotage department during the Second World War, Professor Andrew writes: “The post-war Service refused to recruit Jews on the grounds that their dual loyalty to both Britain and Israel might create an unacceptable conflict of interest.”
He quotes one MI5 section head, John Marriot, saying in 1955 that “our policy is to avoid recruiting Jews if possible” unless they had qualifications that were needed. One woman was rejected the following year because she was a practising Jew.
“As late as 1974,” Prof Andrew writes, “when it was agreed that there was ‘no general bar on the recruitment of Jews of British nationality’, there was still prejudice against particularly observant Jews and those of distinctively Jewish ‘physical appearance and demeanour’.”
His book devotes one chapter to the threat of Zionism extremism as the militant Irgun and Stern Gang launched attacks on British troops in Palestine. Reports circulated in autumn 1946 that the wanted Irgun leader Menachem Begin was intending to travel to the UK.
In 1947 the Colonial Office in Whitehall survived a Stern Gang bomb — only because the timer failed — and the same group sent letter bombs to British politicians that year.
Although most British Jewish organisations were opposed to terrorism, a few Jews were suspected of planning terrorist attacks here. In one case, in July 1947, grenades and detonators were discovered, by his chauffeur, in the boot of the car of Harry Isaac Presman of north London, but he pleaded ignorance and the police did not charge him.
The authorities were concerned about arms purchases for the Zionist underground and illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine to beat the tight British quota.
Prof Andrew writes: “The Security Service believed that, as a result of its penetration of the Jewish organisations in London and other intelligence sources, ‘only one out of 30 ships carrying illegal immigrants reached their destination.’”
Elsewhere in the book Prof Andrew records how the notorious double-agent Kim Philby, the first of the Cambridge Five, was recruited for the KGB by Arnold Deutsch, a Jewish Communist from central Europe who was studying in London and who was a cousin of Odeon cinema founder, Oscar Deutsch.
Many years later, Philby’s treachery was exposed after Flora Solomon, a Wizo activist, told Victor Rothschild, in a conversation at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, that Philby had tried to recruit her for the KGB.
In the 1970s MI5 was worried about some of the Jewish business associates of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Joseph Kagan, Rudy Sternberg and Harry Kissin, whose dealings in Eastern Europe made them potential targets of Soviet espionage. All became peers.
Kagan was courted by a KGB officer who successfully persuaded him to ask Jewish leaders in the UK to call off demonstrations on behalf of Soviet Jewry. One MI5 officer said he did not think Kagan was “likely to become a conscious Soviet agent but I am sure he has been a valuable source of information”.
Kissin’s taste for call girls also made him a dubious confidant of Wilson’s, MI5 thought.