Review of Hil Aked, Friends of Israel: The Backlash against Palestine Solidarity (London: Verso, 2023).
Munich (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – Amid Israel’s assault on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in early July, the House of the Commons passed a bill with significant implications for the United Kingdom’s relations with Israel/Palestine. If it becomes law, the innocuously named Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will dramatically reduce the freedom of public bodies, including local councils, to support boycotts against foreign governments on moral or political grounds. There is no denying that the bill aims at outlawing the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, launched in 2005 to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.
The Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who introduced the bill to the British Parliament, made clear that the BDS movement is the main target while dangerously conflating pro-Palestinian activism with antisemitism. In his presentation of the bill, Gove announced that the legislation he was proposing would provide “protection for minority communities, especially the Jewish community, against campaigns that harm community cohesion and fuel antisemitism.” Michael Gove, a notorious Islamophobe deeply influenced by the vision of a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Western European civilization and Islam, is a paradigmatic example of the characters that populate Hil Aked’s recently published book, Friends of Israel: The Backlash against Palestine Solidarity.
Aked, a writer and researcher with a PhD from the University of Bath, makes a smart use of open-source data and freedom of information requests to present the first book-length study of the Israel Lobby in the United Kingdom. The choice of the term ‘Israel Lobby’ is a very careful one. As they explain, “the Israel lobby is very far from incorporating all Jewish people and is, moreover, far from exclusively Jewish.” Evangelical Christians have become increasingly prominent in pro-Israel activism in the UK.
In its wording, Aked’s ‘Israel Lobby’ parallels that of International Relations scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their famous 2007 book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Mearsheimer and Walt see the Israel Lobby in the US as a product of foreign influence that works against what they understand as the US national interest. Instead, Aked describe the Israel Lobby in the UK as part and parcel of a long history of British state racism, still deeply ingrained in the country’s establishment, that has led British Zionists to be complicit in the plight of the Palestinians for well over a century.
The foundations of the Israel Lobby in the UK are to be found in institutions that predate the creation of Israel such as the Zionist Federation of Great Britain, the Jewish Agency in Britain, or the United Jewish Israel Appeal. These institutions continue to exist and retain close ties with the Israeli government. However, new organizations have proliferated in the last decades as a response to a different context. In the early 2000s, with the failure of the Camp David summit, the outbreak of the Second Intifada, and the increase of illegal settlements in the West Bank, the popularity of Zionism in the UK among both Jewish and non-Jewish people entered a period of crisis.
At this time, successive Israeli governments started to explore new options to promote Israel’s image abroad. Israel’s strategy in the UK was importantly influenced by research on the concept of ‘new public diplomacy’, which defends the effectiveness of involving non-state actors in reaching foreign publics that have grown increasingly skeptical of state power. As Aked explain, Israel decided “to enlist civil society organisations to help wage its propaganda war, believing their Israel-advocacy work to be complementary to official efforts.” Apart from supporting already existing Zionist groups with direct or indirect funding, the Israeli government also helped to establish new pro-Israel civil society groups in the UK. Although they were introduced themselves as ‘grassroots’ movements, the Israeli embassy in London had an instrumental role in their creation.
The Israel Lobby in the UK has been active on several fronts. The British parliament is unsurprisingly one of them. Although public support for the Palestinian people has increased in the UK in the last decades, this change has not been mirrored in the country’s parliamentary politics. The parliamentary groups Labour Friends of Israel and Conservative Friends of Israel boast a numerous membership. Meanwhile, the Israel Lobby has put the focus on university campuses around the UK. Aked describe a two-pronged approach in the Israel Lobby’s strategy toward universities. On the one hand, it has provided private funding for chairs and centers of Israel studies. The donors, as Aked document in the case of the late Lord Weidenfeld, a Zionist publishing magnate who co-founded an Israel studies post at the University of Sussex, often sought to influence the academic appointments for the new positions.
On the other hand, conscious that Israel’s popularity among student activists is diametrically opposed to that it enjoys in the Parliament, the Israel Lobby has sought to stymy grassroots efforts at expanding the BDS movement in British universities. The Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX), launched in 2008 by the Israeli and British prime ministers at that time, Ehud Olmert and Gordon Brown, closely cooperates with the British Council in anti-BDS activities. This is something Aked was able to prove after examining documents accessed through freedom of information requests.
Zionist groups have also aimed at influencing the depiction of Israel in the broadcast media and the press. As Aked importantly note, it is not that “pro-Israel media pressure groups somehow nefariously impose their will on reporters who would otherwise be sympathetic to Palestinians and fearlessly hold Israel to account.” The upper-middle-class status of most British journalists, as well as the structural constraints of the largest media institutions in the country, are already conducive to conformity with the status quo. Even so, the Israel Lobby has worked hard to ensure that the general pro-Israel tendency in British media does not decline. It has done so, Aked explain, with a combination of carrots and sticks. An example of the use of positive incentives are the free trips to Israel, touring areas such as the occupied Golan Heights, offered to twenty to thirty leading British journalists annually by the lobby group Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). At the same time, the Israel Lobby continuously monitors the British media landscape and issues formal and informal complaints about their coverage of the Middle East if they perceive it as critical of Israel.
Very often the complaints do not have an immediate and tangible result, but they certainly put pressure on journalists who might end up self-censoring. On other occasions, the consequences of the Israel Lobby’s efforts are easier to observe. In 2007, after pro-Israel US and UK organizations complained against an article by then BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, the governing body of the BBC forced Bowen to alter his original article, which could only appear as biased against Israel to the eyes of the most ardent Zionist.
As Aked writes, the Israel Lobby “deserves to be scrutinised and opposed because of its role defending Israeli apartheid.” At the same time, Aked maintains that the case of the Israel Lobby reflects broader problems in British and other Western societies. Politics in general and foreign policy in particular are vulnerable to the actions of single-issue lobby groups that succeed in pushing their agendas even when their support among the population is limited. In May 2021, almost 200,000 pro-Palestinian protesters mobilized in London against Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip. Polls conducted by You Gov show that sympathy for the Palestinians among the UK’s population has increased during the past few years.
The generational divide is also remarkable. A May 2023 report shows that citizens older than 65 are four times more likely to express sympathy for Israel than citizens between 18 and 24 years old. Thus, the bill to outlaw the BDS movement in the UK recently passed by the Parliament is clearly at odds with the changes undergone by British public opinion concerning Israel/Palestine. Friends of Israel is, above all, a necessary book. It touches upon multiple dimensions of the Israel Lobby in the UK that had long needed investigation. Future critical writers on pro-Israel networks in the UK will certainly build on Aked’s work. They will be departing from safe ground considering the author’s trailblazing research and sharp analytical skills.
 Hil Aked, Friends of Israel: The Backlash against Palestine Solidarity (London: Verso, 2023), p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 108.
 Ibid., p. 180.
 Ibid., p. 206.