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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Baroness Tonge and Christian Aid: knifed by the Lobby?

Having described Baroness Tonge as a former trustee of Christian Aid, it's only fair to add that her tenure of the post was brief. Appointed in April 2006, she stepped down at the charity's AGM in November of the same year.

Was she pushed? Of course. But by whom? Not, for sure, by Christian Aid's own mandarins - not, at least, unless someone else was leaning on them. Instead of disowning her appalling views on terrorism they ducked the issue with the breathtakingly disingenuous claim that her remarks were 'outside the remit of a development organisation which deals with issues of poverty and humanitarian relief'. My reaction to this piece of bovine manure is here.

It seems the Baroness may have recently given us a clue to her own views about who did the pushing. Here she is, speaking in a House of Lords debate on 2 July:-

“I am beginning to understand the power of the Israel lobby, active here as well as in the USA, with AIPAC, the Friends of Israel and the Board of Deputies. They take vindictive actions against people who oppose and criticise the lobby, getting them removed from positions that they hold and preventing them from speaking — even on unrelated subjects, in my case. I understand their methods. I have many examples. They make constant accusations of antisemitism, when no such sentiment exists, to silence Israel’s critics.”

(from Engage; the whole speech is in Hansard).

Whether she is talking about her exit from Christian Aid or her earlier enforced exit from the Lib Dem front bench (or both), the issues are the same, so let's for the sake of convenience assume the former.

The phrase "the Israel lobby" has of course acquired its place in "respectable" political discourse thanks to Mearsheimer and Walt's eponymous book. It may have been a shoddy piece of work but it has done its job: like a virus the phrase has entered our collective bloodstream.

A telling insight into the quality of Mearsheimer and Walt's analysis came from their insinuation that the Lobby had "got its grips" (to use the words applied by Baroness Tonge to her own party) into the Church of England. My extended riposte to this claim is here. Clearly, though, it has explanatory force for Baroness Tonge: Church leaders got her kicked out of her Christian Aid trusteeship because they go in fear of the Board of Deputies.

What is the reality here? So far from the Board being an omnipresent, omnipotent lobby with its grips in every institution, it has been savaged by Rabbi Sidney Brichto in the latest issue of the excellent new magazine Standpoint for its timidity in making the case for Israel in an environment where anti-Israel sentiment is ubiquitous.

I surmise that the reasons for Baroness Tonge's exit from her trusteeship were eminently straightforward. Namely that in the upper echelons of the Churches there are to be found decent and reasonable Christians who uphold Israel's right to exist and her citizens' right to life, and that they were not prepared to accept that an apologist for terrorism should hold a post in an official agency of the Churches. My guess is that CA's bosses privately sympathized with the Baroness but were not willing to stick their necks out for her. A public row with Church leaders could easily damage the charity's standing among ordinary churchgoers - and thus its income. That, by the way, is the parameter within which it plays at radicalism. In a way I have more respect for War on Want, which makes no bones about its politics and raises its cash from those who think as it does.

And what role did Jews, inside or outside the Board of Deputies, play? Well, Jews have good reason to be well-informed and concerned about the Baroness's views, and I can well believe there were some who alerted their Christian contacts to her track record and argued that she was not an approriate person to hold such a position. You can call this lobbying by all means, but it is not, repeat not, an instance of The Lobby at work, pulling the strings of those nominally in authority. It is - need I say it - a normal way for human beings to conduct their affairs. It bore fruit because decent and reasonable Christians found themselves in agreement with it - through persuasion, not through intimidation.

There are, I fear, two factors which would make it hard for Baroness Tonge to give this scenario credence. The first is that she appears to be so totally convinced of the rightness of her cause that she cannot conceive of anyone - especially a Gentile - disagreeing with her in good faith. In this she exemplifies the almost cult-like character of the anti-Israel movement. If they will not acknowledge how evil Israel is there must be sinister forces at work.

And with that we arrive at the second factor. My scenario assumes that Jews are ordinary human beings who feel, think and act in the way ordinary human beings feel, think and act and have ordinary human powers. For someone who sees the Board of Deputies as the local branch of the Lobby, and bishops and Lib Dem leaders alike as its abject puppets, that assumption has already ceased to be self-evident. And the reason for devoting a longish post to a person of no huge importance in herself is that these attitudes now reach deep into the mainstream.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Kind of an one trick pony, isn't she?

I don't know, after a while she could even seem to be amusing. We have certainly enjoyed ourselves on her account a few times at SJ ;-)

Cyrus said...

Well, she does also have views on dentistry, if Hansard is to be believed.