Her Majesty's Foreign and Prejudice Office
Published in: Jewish Chronicle
Last September, the Times reported some startling remarks made at a private Anglo-Italian conference by the British ambassador to Italy, Sir Ivor Roberts. In addition to disobliging comments about President George Bush, Sir Ivor also claimed that his administration was subjected to 'conditioning' and 'pressure' from the Jewish lobby.
Although these remarks were made under 'Chatham House rules' which means they were not meant to be attributed, Sir Ivor's comments found their way into the Italian press, and from there into the Times.
Bad as these published remarks were, however, it seems that Sir Ivor didn't stop there. According to information which has now reached me, he also said that Senator Kerry would be friendlier to the Palestinians and would finally stand up to the Jewish lobby in Washington.
In any sane universe, Sir Ivor's published remarks would have caused a furore. This was, after all, pure Judeophobia, advanced by a man representing his country. There wasn't even the fig leaf of anti-Zionism behind which he could shelter. This was simply the classic conspiracy myth that powerful Jews run the world by subverting the policy of the planet's most powerful nation for their own sinister ends.
But this is not a sane universe. No one leapt up and down about it, except for the Board of Deputies which promptly wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to complain.
A month later, Mr Straw deigned to reply - only to stonewall. He couldn't comment, he said, because the alleged remarks were made in private. But never mind - he assured the Board that the government takes antisemitism 'extremely seriously', 'utterly deplores it' and 'condemns it in all its manifestations'. Except of course when it manifests itself in the mouth of a member of the diplomatic service, when it is neither deplored nor condemned - and not even taken seriously enough for the Foreign Secretary to inquire whether the account of these remarks was true.
In any event, Mr Straw's scuttle for safety behind the Chatham House rules was somewhat spoiled by the comments of a senior diplomat, who, the Times reported, said Sir Ivor had 'made a mistake' and that 'people at the top are deciding what should be done'. Well, now we know what they decided to do. Nothing. After all, as the unnamed diplomat also said, 'He's 58 and has a fine record'. That's the spirit, chaps.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Sir Ivor himself has said: 'The remarks as reported did not reflect my personal view'. Well, whose view was it it, then? If the Foreign Secretary decided Sir Ivor did not make these remarks, he should have told the Board. If he found he did, he should have sacked him and apologised to the Jewish community for the collective slander committed in the government's name.
But Mr Straw has not done so. His failure to act, and the general silence in which the story was received, are in stark contrast to public outrage over other prejudiced behaviour. Look, for example, at the denunciations of the Spanish football fans for their racist 'monkey chants' at England's black players last week.
There are, of course, racists in every culture. The crucial thing is how the authorities and the public react. There was uproar in Britain over the failure of the Spanish side to apologise for the racial abuse. More controversially, the TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk was forced out of his job because of comments he made about Muslims. Yet no-one has batted an eyelid at Sir Ivor's reported remarks, while the Foreign Secretary insouciantly waves the incident away.
The lessons for British Jews from this telling episode are extremely uncomfortable. For it reveals that prejudice against Jews in Britain is not only now out in the open but officially condoned. Alas, the paranoid libel of sinister Jewish cabals that control the world is now found on the lips of every other armchair general or broadcasting executive, and tripping off the keyboards of newspaper columnists from the left to the right.
But Sir Ivor's remarks and the way these have been received move this firestorm of prejudice onto a different level still. For what this incident tells us is that this ancient calumny against the Jews is both embedded and openly tolerated within the class that runs the country. It tells us that a government which wears its anti-racist credentials on its sleeve does not think that anti-Jewish prejudice is even worthy of action.
What hope can British Jews have that the state will protect them from prejudice and attack when it does nothing to stop or condemn such prejudice in its own ranks? And where, above all, does it leave the identity of British Jews when they find themselves thus demonised as a sinister 'other' within their own country?
The signals given by governments are crucial in influencing attitudes within a society. Jack Straw's silence in the face of Sir Ivor's remarks will only further embolden the anti-Jewish prejudice in Britain that is now on such brazen and alarming display, and calling into question the nature of the Jewish settlement in Britain itself.