David “I am a Zionist” Cameron, leader of the opposition, said recently, at the Conservative Friends of Israel (CfI) annual business lunch, that his belief in Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself was “indestructible”. No surprises there. He did however refer to old supporters giving a special thank you to some of the party’s biggest donors and, more importantly, he welcomed new arrivals such as Victor Blank. Victor, former chairman of Llyods Banking Group and one of Gordon Brown’s favourite businessmen, is more commonly associated with Labour Friends of Israel (LfI) and this switching of sides seems to have prompted the Guardian podcast show Sounds Jewish to ask “are British Jews ending their affair with New Labour and returning to the Tories?”
Stuart Polak, director of Conservative Friends of Israel (13:35): MP3
The obvious answer is that both lobby groups will continue to be important, with 80% of conservative parliamentarians (according to Stuart Polak) involved in CfI and a large majority of Labour involved with LfI, although it does seems as if lobbyists are hedging their bets as to who will win the next election.
As for the debate over which side has the strongest Zionist roots Labour wins hands down. The Labour party has a long history of supporting Israel, for example, affiliating Poale Zion in 1920, now called the Jewish Labour Movement, tabling a resolution at conference in 1944 calling for the transfer of natives from Palestine and creating Labour Friends of Israel around 1957. Conservative Friends of Israel, on the other hand was formed in 1973 after the Yom Kippur war.
Zionists lost some of their power in parliament after 1967 when lobby influence was at a peak. This was due to the war and illegal occupation of the West Bank, Golan and Gaza. Leading to a counter lobby forming in 1969 called the Labour Middle East Council, which may have precipitated some Labour Zionist support shifting to the conservatives, just as “leftist” Zionists in the USA moved to the right in the 70’s due to their support for Israel, forming the neo-conservatives.
Decline in support for Israel continued through the 70’s and 80’s accelerating with the illegal war in Lebanon and unjust treatment of Palestinians during the intifada. It was the cover of the so-called “peace” process that gave renewed growth to the lobby groups as support for Israel gained “credibility”. The public mood allowed John Major to restart the arms trade with Israel, something Thatcher had not been able to do, this trade accelerated during the second intifada and the Government has recently refused a petition to end it.
From the show:
With Gordon Brown trailing badly in the polls, are British Jews ending their affair with New Labour and returning to the Tories? Stuart Polak, the director of Conservative Friends of Israel, says yes – arguing that support for Israel is in the DNA of the Tories. Maurice [Glasman] insists it’s Labour that has the deeper Jewish roots.