Who are Friends of Israel?

COFIS on an anti-racism march, Glasgow, 18 March 2017

The Confederation of Friends of Israel, Scotland (COFIS) has joined or attempted to join each of the last two annual anti-racism marches organised in Glasgow by Stand Up To Racism (SUTR).

SUTR Scotland rejected requests that it should tell Friends of Israel groups that they are not welcome on the march. COFIS and its affiliate, Glasgow Friends of Israel, say they intend to join the march this year (2019) too. They appear to be supported in this by the SUTR Scotland leadership.

COFIS and the various regional Friends of Israel groups that organise under its umbrella are not Jewish community groups. They are exactly what the name suggests - groups set up to support the racist Israeli state. It is hard to find a statement about Israel from them that is less than supportive of the actions and policies of the Israeli government.

The launch of Edinburgh Friends of Israel in 2015 drew guests from all over Scotland. Around 95% of them were said to be non-Jewish, and most of these to have been Christian. Glasgow Friends of Israel was launched shortly afterwards. Co-founder Sammy Stein said: "The vast majority of our members are not Jewish." Similar groups have been set up around Scotland, including Aberdeen, Dundee, Dumfries and Galloway, Highland and Perth. The COFIS website currently lists thirteen groups as established or in the pipeline.

The groups were said to be "independently funded by members". But their rapid flowering was the outcome of an inititiative of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). BICOM is a privately funded lobby and action group for the benefit of Israel. It describes itself as "an independent research centre producing research and analysis about Israel and the Middle East" and says it supports "a close relationship between Britain and Israel, based on shared values and interests." It was set up in October 2000.

In May 2011 BICOM held a conference in London on the theme "We Believe in Israel". Speakers included the British Ambassador to Israel, the Israeli Ambassador to Britain, Trevor Kavanagh from the Sun, Jonathan Freedland from the Guardian, British Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Matthew Doyle, political director for the Office of Tony Blair (and former deputy director of communications at No 10 during Blair's premiereship). Reports on the conference by the Jewish Chronicle and Left Foot Forward offer contrasting perspective on the event.

The "We Believe in Israel" brand then evolved into what was described as a "grassroots network within BICOM", with Luke Akehurst as Director. Akehurst was a former Labour councillor for Hackney and a former Director of PR company Weber Shandwick. According to his bio on the WBII website, he "is not Jewish but has been a committed Zionist all his life."

We Believe in Israel states that it seeks to "provide a united front that brings together all the existing supporters of Israel in the UK, across the political spectrum" and to "facilitate and support a grassroots network of supporters of Israel in the UK". WBII was approached by Al Jazeera during the making of their documentary The Lobby, screened in January 2017. WBII confirmed "that while it was not controlled financially or otherwise by Israel, it worked with a  range of stakeholders including the Israeli Embassy."

Plans for a second WBII conference in 2012 were scrapped in favour of "a quiet organisational revolution" to build "capacity for the year-round follow-up that's needed." The second conference was eventually held in London on 22 March 2015 with the theme "Winning the Communications Battle for Israel." Speakers this time included Michael Gove MP and former Israeli Minister of the Interior, Gideon Sa’ar. Edinburgh Friends of Israel was formally launched a week later, with WBII Director Luke Akehurst amongst the speakers. Glasgow Friends of Israel held its inaugural meeting in May. According to the Jewish Chronicle, six regional groups were set up in Scotland between October 2014 and July 2015. The Jewish Chronicle gives much of the credit for this burst of activity to one man, a former Free Church of Scotland lay preacher called Nigel Goodrich.

Goodrich seems to have found support from Christian Zionist networks1. For example, in July 2015 he was interviewed by Simon Barrett on the evangelist TV channel Revelation TV. The channel lists eight aims on its website, of which the final one is to "be a voice in support of the Jewish people and nation of Israel". Simon Barrett produces and presents The Middle East Report, a regular feature on Revelation TV. He was briefly, in 2014/15,  BICOM's head of media and had previously worked for the Henry Jackson Society, a neo-conservative think-tank. His bio on the Revelation TV website states that he has also worked for the Zionist Federation. He says: "It is such a privilege and honour to have a platform such as Revelation TV to proclaim God’s plans and purposes for Israel and the Jewish people, especially at a time when the mainstream media distort the truth about Israel." Barrett was MC at the launch of Edinburgh Friends of Israel. Goodrich was facilitator.

At around this time the Israeli Government began to step up the resources available to counter international campaigns for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. In May 2015 Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed Gilad Erdan as Minister for Strategic Affairs. The ministry has a chequered history. Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer calls it the "Ministry for Silly Affairs." It was created in October 2006 when Avigdor Lieberman was brought into government to prop up Ehud Olmert's failing coalition. Lieberman wanted the Internal Security ministry, with responsibility for the police, but could not be given it as he was under investigation for money-laundering. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs was invented to give him a cabinet job with an appealing title. The ministry was dropped when Liebeman left government, then resurrected to give Moshe Ya'alon a job in 2009.

Yuval Steinitz took over in 2013 and at the same became the Minister for Intelligence, with responsibility for Mossad and Shin Bet. He headed a sea-change at Strategic Affairs, which was now to take responsibility for the international fight against BDS. But he seems not to have been able to secure a budget that would give the fight real clout. His cabinet colleagues at foreign affairs and defence saw to that. Presumably they either thought the importance of BDS was exaggerated, or thought the fight against it should be conducted without fanfare, or just wanted to keep the action for their own ministries. The reshuffles that followed the 2015 election briefly put Ze'ev Elkin at the head of the ministry, only for him to be replaced 11 days later by Gilad Erdan, who also took the public security portfolio with responsibility for police. Erdan's appointment was confirmed by the Knesset on 25 May 2015. He had driven a hard bargain. On his facebook page he said:

"As a member of the cabinet, I am well aware of the danger that faces us due to the anti-Israel activities of the BDS movement. I came to agreement with the prime minister on allocating the necessary resources and budgets."

The Ministry of Strategic Affairs was now assured of the budget it needed for an offensive against BDS.

In 2016 an Al Jazeera undercover reporter - "Robin" - struck up a relationship with Shai Masot, a "senior political officer" working from the Israeli Embassy in London. This became the basis of the documentary The Lobby, screened in January 2017. There are indications that Masot may have been working for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, though the ministry denies this 2.

Asked by Robin "Have you ever built something, like a group?", Masot said, with a little more prompting from Robin along the way:

"Yeah, I did several things like that, yeah. In Israel and here. Nothing that I can share but yeah. Yeah, because there are things that you know happen, but... It's good to leave those organisations independent. But we help them."

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Shai Masot, senior political officer at the Israeli Embassy, filmed by Al Jazeera
Shai Masot, senior political officer at the Israeli Embassy, filmed by Al Jazeera

There is no evidence linking Masot to the sudden flowering of Friends of Israel groups in Scotland in 2015. But in October 2015 Masot was at the SNP Conference in Aberdeen. He approached Andy Murray, founder of SNP Friends of Palestine, and identified himself with a business card. He took Murray's card in return. When Murray flew in to Tel Aviv the following month as part of a fact-finding mission to Palestine, he was detained, strip-searched, interrogated for 10-12 hours and then deported. During the interrogation he was shown photographs of himself taken covertly at the SNP conference. He says that he has no doubt that his treatment was a result of his interaction with Shai Masot.

Besides shooting The Lobby in the UK, Al Jazeera shot another documentary, The Lobby USA, with the held of another undercover reporter, Tony Kleinfeld. Pressure from the Israeli government, via the government of Qatar, has so far prevented Al Jazeera from screening the documentary, but copies of all 4 episodes have been obtained by The Electronic Intifada and are available to view on YouTube. The Lobby USA includes a recording of Sima Vaknin-Gil, Director General of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, speaking at a meeting in Washington. She says:

"If you want to win a campaign, you must have information superiority. And this is exactly the added value of Israel's capabilities, technological and otherwise, we can bring to the game and we are working on that very hard."

She is referring to the added value that Israel's intelligence apparatus can bring to domestic US campaigns. Ian Hersh, Director of Operations for the Israel on Campus Coalition, is filmed saying:

"In terms of information sharing, we did add the Ministry of Strategic Affairs to our operations and intelligence brief."

Israel is evidently spying on US citizens and using that information to undermine the ability of those it disgrees with to exercise their democratic rights, while strengthening the capacity of those it supports. The Israeli operations are explicitly opaque and anti-democratic. Speaking at the 2016 national conference of the Israel American Council, Sima Vaknin-Gil said:

"Ambiguity is part of our guidelines, that's why I'm not going to say too much about each one of the legs."

The target for all this activity is the international BDS campaign. The goal of the BDS campaign is simply to pressure Israel into respecting the internationally recognised rights of the Palestinian people, as set out in the 2005 call to BDS by Palestinian civil society. Israel cannot do this without dismantling the racist framework that underpins the Israeli state. Racism marked Israel's creation through ethnic cleansing - the Palestinian Nakba - and was maintained through citizenship and residency laws and other forms of demographic engineering and through its treatment of Palestinians in the territories occupied after the 1967 war and its protection and support for illegal Israeli settlements in those areas. Israel's new Nationality Law, passed by the Knesset in July 2018, exemplifies and deepens Israel's structural racism. The BDS campaign is an explicitly anti-racist campaign, just like the boycott movement against apartheid South Africa.

Israel's response has been to present BDS as an "anti-semitic hate campaign". It does this partly by encouraging governments, institutions and organisations to adopt rules and policies that can be used to suppress or shame BDS activists. In many countries, including Britain and the US, this approach dovetails very well with the policies and inclinations of the government, the ruling class and the security establishment. Israel is a European settler-colonial project, and the European ruling class naturally wishes to sustain it.

Social media posts by Glasgow Friends of Israel are virulently anti-Corbyn, describing him as "truly evil", a "terrorist-loving traitor" and "deeply steeped in sewage."

Pro-Israel networks promote warmth towards Israel built around ideas like "love" and "truth", to which Christian Zionists sometimes add "grace". This is contrasted with the supposed "hate" of pro-Palestine campaigners. Friends of Israel and like-minded organisations channel the coercive and huggy strands of Israeli strategy more or less simultaneously, as Andy Murray found to his cost.

Like We Believe in Israel, Glasgow Friends of Israel identifies with the slogan "pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace."  They do not explain what "peace", would look like in the West Bank, grossly fragmented as it is by Israeli settlements. And they insist that the Palestinian diaspora must find its "peace" anywhere but Palestine. They are pro-Palestinian in the way that colonisers are often pro-colonised. They want to "support" Palestinians by persuading them that resistance is useless.

The Friends of Israel groups operating in Scotland are pro-Israel lobby groups. They were not created and built by the Jewish community. On the contrary, they have relied heavily on Christian Zionists for their grassroots support. They are inspired and guided, directly of indirectly, by the Israeli government. They work to remove discussion of Israeli state racism from the political agenda. One of their key aims is to suppress BDS - a movement built on anti-racist principles and supported by anti-racists. They have no place in any anti-racist movement.

  • 1. The term Christian Zionism came into use in the 20th century. Christian advocacy of the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land has its origins in the Protestant Reformation, long before Zionism came into being as a political movement within the Jewish community. Before the 20th century it was generally referred to as Christian Restorationism. Christian Zionists believe that the return of Jews to Israel is prophesied by the Bible and is necessary in order to put in train the events (incuding the destruction in battle of those Jews who do not convert to Christianity) which will lead to the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. As the basis for a political programme it is literally apocalyptic. But it should not be assumed that this programme is supported literally and in its entirety by all who regard themselves as Christian Zionist and welcome the creation of the state of Israel in fulfilment of Biblical prophecy.

    Lord Shaftsbury, a 19th century social reformer and evangelical Anglican, believed the Second Coming of Christ was imminent and advocated strongly for Christian Zionism.  LLoyd George and Lord Balfour both took an interest in Christian Zionism.  Christian Zionism contributed to the support given by churches, including the Church of Scotland, to the Balfour Declaration. More recently the Church of Scotland has been strongly critical of Israel.

    In 2006 a group of Palestinian churches issued the Jerusalem Declaration saying: "We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation." The Church of Scotland incorporated the declaration into their 2007 report "What Hope for Peace in the Middle East?" and added its own critique of Christian Zionism.

    Christian Zionism has a strong presence in the US and is influential amongst neo-conservatives and Trump supporters. One of the most powerful US-based Christian Zionist organistions is Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which also has a UK branch. CUFI UK describes itself as "Britain's fast-growing Christian Zionist movement" and says its purpose is "to provide a national association through which churches, ministries and individuals in the United Kingdom can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to Biblical issues." It describes Nigel Goodrich, who set up Friends of Israel groups in Scotland, as a "friend of CUFI".

  • 2. After the embassy in London cabled the Israeli Foreign Affairs ministry complaining about the Strategic Affairs ministry "operating" organisations in Britain, Masot met up urgently with "Robin" and was covertly filmed saying:

    "My position is that if you need help, to connect you to the groups, to be in different places, I can do that. But you cannot be affiliated with me , and you cannot use me as someone who said something."

    The Ministry of Strategic Affairs subsequently denied that Masot worked for them. But evidence then emerged that in September 2016 Masot had accompanied the Minister for Strategic Affairs, Gilad Erdan, at a lunch meeting with Conservative Friends of Israel’s executive director James Gurd.