Tony Blair's and Jack Straw's latest charm offensive in the Arab world has many observers perplexed. After-all, the unbecoming respect offered visiting despot Bashar al-Asad, the decision to host Palestinian negotiators in London, the cold shoulder given Israeli diplomats, and the refusal of Britain to export ejector seats for the Phantom jet, has unsurprisingly inspired conjecture that Britain is rapidly slipping into Europe's anti-Semitic orbit.
Blair and most of his predecessors have had middling records when it comes to Israel and the world Jewish community. But the Foreign Office remains another matter altogether. Its hostility towards the Jewish State forms the very backbone of policy, and Jack Straw, who began promisingly, has slowly succumbed to its inevitable embrace.
The change began in September 2001 when Straw, visiting Iran, pointedly blamed Israel for the violence of the entire previous year. Ingratiating himself to his Iranian hosts, he commented that “the factors that help breed terrorism is the anger that many people in this region feel at events over the years in Palestine.” The British Foreign Office stood by his remarks and affirmed that, while Straw believed that there was “never any excuse for terrorism,” at the same time there was “an obvious need to understand the environment in which terrorism breeds.” Such apologetics were painted at the time as a sop to the Arabs in preparation for the war against Afghanistan, but it far more accurately reflects a long standing attitude of the British Foreign Office - both of the career diplomats and the men who have served at its helm.
Take, for instance, George Nathaniel Curzon, Alfred Balfour's successor and Foreign Secretary under David Lloyd George from 1919 to 1923. Serving in the most favorable British government to the Jewish people in history, Curzon was a bitter opponent of Zionism, rejecting the Balfour Declaration of two years earlier and advocating a go-slow approach on the realization of Britain's commitments under that document.
Lord Halifax was Neville Chamberlains' Foreign Secretary (1938-40) and has gone down in history as one of the architects of the Munich fiasco and the disastrous policy of appeasement that led to the Second World War. For Jews, he will remembered as the author of the 1939 White Paper, which restricted Jewish immigration to a trickle and doomed millions to death. An early admirer of Hitler and a Nazi sympathizer, he reportedly told the German leader: “War would undoubtedly serve the purpose of all Jews, Communists and doctrinaires in the world for whom Nazism is anathema.”
The situation did not improve much under Anthony Eden. Three times British foreign secretary, he was widely known for his bias against Jews, and during the 1930s expressed precious little regret about Nazi persecutions. His World War II diaries are rife with anti-Semitic comments and a definite indifference to Jewish annihilation. He is reported, by one of his biographers, “as having been forced into a pact with the devil” for being required, during his prime-ministerial years, to cooperate with Israel against Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
Ernest Bevin, who succeeded Eden in 1945, made no secret of his anti-Semitism. His post-War decision to enforce the 1939 White Paper, while hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors languished in European DP camps, together with his publicly expressed belief that the refugees could be repatriated to Europe, earned the wrath of Jewish leaders. Various colleagues privately noted how often Bevin used pejoratives to describe Jews. His parliamentary Under Secretary, Christopher Mayhew, wrote in his diary (May ,1948) that “there is no doubt in my mind that Ernest detests Jews. He makes the odd wisecrack about the 'Chosen People'; declares the Old Testament the most immoral book ever written and says the Jews taught Hitler the technique of terror. 'What could you expect when people are brought up from the cradle on the Old Testament' he said to me.”
Other former secretaries, such as Lord Carrington (who referred to Menachem Begin as an “international outlaw”), David Owen and Robin Cook all displayed indifference to Israeli rights and contempt for the country's security concerns. In 1998, when Israeli cabinet secretary Danny Naveh greeted Cook at Har Homa in Jerusalem with the words “welcome to the capital of Israel,” he responded: “It's not just the capital of Israel... it's also the capital of Palestine.” Cook refused a briefing on Har Homa from his Israeli escort, declaring “I don't need your briefing, because I don't recognize your right to be here.” Har Homa is a site that has been regarded by all Israeli governments as within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and rightfully claimed as sovereign Israeli territory. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and opposition leader Ehud Barak cancelled meetings with Cook as a result of his comments.
While the present Foreign Secretary may not be an anti-Semite, it is undeniable that his ministry is staffed with men and women for whom Israel's very legitimacy is in question. They follow a long line of Arabists for whom the Lawrence of Arabia vision of Middle East militarism (selfless guerilla bands struggling against the ignoble forces of imperialism) has become an idée fixee. Often forgotten is that Israel is a vital ally of Great Britain and that Britain's present strategic interests in the Middle East hang, very much as they did in 1956, on cooperation with the Jewish state.
Sadly, even that may not be enough to dislodge almost a century of antipathy to both Israel and Jews in the British Foreign Office. All of which might provide convincing evidence that anti-Semitism has an after-life that no level of geopolitical reality will ever completely erode.
Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles.