Britain’s new man in Chile, one of the UK’s most senior Jewish diplomats, is keen to scotch the idea that the Foreign Office is a nest of Arabists. Jon Benjamin, who begins his posting in Santiago next month, has worked at the Foreign Office since he left university a quarter of a century ago and says he does not recognise the Lawrence of Arabia characterisation of the FCO.
“I think it’s true to say that three or four generations ago, there were a disproportionate number of people amongst the senior ranks who had come up from the Arabist branch. But it’s definitely not the case now.”
His comments come as one senior member of the “camel corps” has chosen to challenge the independence of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War on the basis that it includes two Jewish historians as members of the team, Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman. Writing in the Independent, Sir Oliver Miles, the former ambassador to Libya, said: “Both Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish, and Gilbert at least has a record of active support for Zionism. Such facts are not usually mentioned in the mainstream British and American media, but the Jewish Chronicle and the Israeli media have no such inhibitions, and the Arabic media both in London and in the region are usually not far behind.”
Commenting on Sir Oliver Miles’s article, he said: “It could be taken to imply that the Jewish members of the inquiry committee shouldn’t be on it precisely because they are Jewish — and I think that is unfortunate.
“After all, if another commentator were to imply that qualified individuals should be excluded from other public positions simply or largely because they were Christians, Muslims or members of any other religious or ethnic group, then that would rightly be dismissed as prejudice. The same standards should apply to Jewish people.
I do not recognise Lawrence of Arabia in the FCO
“For my part, I haven’t heard any similar such comments from my FCO colleagues nor would I expect to.”
Mr Benjamin recognises that he is not conventional Foreign Office material. As a graduate of Surrey University, where he studied German and Swedish, he does not have the usual Oxbridge pedigree. When he applied for the FCO’s fast track in the mid-1980s, there were some who dissuaded him. “There were people within the Jewish community, and members of my extended family, who said you won’t get in there, they don’t let Jews in.”
He adds: “When I was trying to get in [to the FCO], a small part of the overall motivation was to prove wrong those people in the Jewish community who were saying to me that I couldn’t get in here as a matter of principle.”
At 46 years old, Mr Benjamin is still relatively young for an ambassador, but his experience is vast, his postings often putting him in contact with Muslims across the world. But he says he has not once personally experienced antisemitism during his long career. His first job was in Indonesia, where he learnt the language living with a Muslim family. After the collapse of the Soviet Union he headed the FCO section for central Asia and the Caucasus, where part of his job involved transporting a thoroughbred Akhal Teke horse across 15 quarantine regimes (a gift from President Niyazov of Turkmenistan to John Major). He went on to work for David Davis when he was Minister for Europe in the dying days of the last Tory government.
He led the political section in Turkey (“the world’s number one laboratory for either proving or disproving that you can have a broadly open society and liberal democracy in a Muslim country”) before becoming the head of the FCO’s human rights section. His last posting was in New York, where he had responsibility for dealing with Jewish organisations.
I ask him about the vexed question of which organisations in the Arab world Britain should do business with, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, for example. His answer demonstrates that he is a Foreign Office man to the core.
“You do have to be pragmatic and realistic and deal with groups whose views you don’t like and you don’t share. If they have real influence in a certain country then that’s the reality. If you have a self-denying ordinance you do have to accept that you are self-denying your ability to influence people to a more moderate position.”
Mr Benjamin grew up in the Buckinghamshire village of Farnham Common and attended Slough Grammar School. Although he does not consider himself particularly religious, he makes a point of attending synagogue on high holidays around the world “partly out of curiosity to see what the Jewish community looked like”.
When he was at primary school and other children talked about growing up to be firemen or footballers, Jon Benjamin said he wanted to be an ambassador. His younger self would have been proud of him.