The BBC and the 'Jewish Lobby'

When Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer published The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy in 2007, they took pains to distance themselves from the notion of a “Jewish lobby.” No, their “Israel lobby,” they insisted, was composed of “a loose coalition of individuals and organisations … made up of both Jews and gentiles.” In a passionate letter to the New York Times, they protested:

We never employ the term in our book. Indeed, we explicitly rejected this label as inaccurate and misleading, both because the lobby includes non-Jews like the Christian Zionists and because many Jewish Americans do not support the hard-line policies favored by its most powerful elements. The Israel lobby, we emphasized, is defined by its “specific political agenda … not the religious or ethnic identity of those pushing it.”

But words slip and slide in usage and meaning, rarely obeying the bidding of their authors. Such has been the fate of “Israel lobby.” 

Last week, the BBC interviewed the American academic and anti-Zionist Norman Finkelstein for its influential series Hard Talk. Sarah Montague introduced the program with the words “American presidents have long been criticized for being too in thrall to the Jewish lobby.” Jewish, not Israeli. At the BBC iPlayer page, the interview is captioned with the exact same words. These words are not in quote marks.

During the interview, Norman Finkelstein claimed the lobby had two parts. First, there were the “paid agents of a foreign power.” Second, a wider group made up of “large numbers of Jews in influential positions.” The power of this lobby was presented as unstoppable: “When the lobby goes into action … Obama backs down.”   The idea that the lobby controls US foreign policy was not challenged by the interviewer. She merely asked Finkelstein for his views on the consequences for this control of the much-discussed "distancing" of American Jews from Israel.

Whatever view one takes of the Walt and Mearsheimer thesis—mine is sharply critical—it is worrying that the BBC chose not to distinguish between an “Israel lobby” and a “Jewish lobby.” It is difficult to see how a discourse about “the Jewish lobby” does not, even if inadvertently, encourage bigoted stereotypes about the all-controlling influence of “the Jew.” 

The program itself was much better than its introduction. Montague did not give Finkelstein an easy time. But that introduction: dear oh dear.

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