In the swirl of diplomacy, intrigue and back-channel deal-making that accompanied the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly in late September — urgent world summits on the climate and the economy, frantic Iranian nuclear negotiations, Israeli-Palestinian non-negotiations — perhaps the most unlikely mission was that of Ivan Lewis, the British deputy foreign minister for Middle East affairs. He spent the days before the U.N. opening session in meetings with American Jews, trying to convince them to support their own president, Barack Obama.
“One of the messages I want to send loudly and clearly is that the American people, including the Jewish community, should get behind this president and his policies,” Lewis told me.
Britain, Lewis said, sees Obama as the right man to lead America and the world at a critical juncture. “We watch with admiration the leadership he is providing in the Middle East and on health care. We also believe he will provide the leadership needed in the world on climate change” — the topic that Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown had identified a day earlier as a “last opportunity to protect our planet.”
“We believe he perhaps uniquely understands the interconnectedness of the modern world,” Lewis added.
Lewis began the interview by delivering his talking points in classic English diplomatic deadpan, sitting ramrod straight, hands folded in front of him as he faced his interviewer across a British consulate conference table. Great Britain is “a very warm friend of Israel, but that doesn’t mean that we agree with every policy of Israel,” he said. British policy holds “that the only way forward is through a secure and viable Palestinian state, emphasis on secure and viable. It must be accompanied by the Arab world’s normalization of ties with Israel. There is no alternative, other than eternal conflict.” Despite widespread pessimism, peace is possible “if we can see brave and visionary leadership that combines realism and optimism.”
It was when Lewis described the reception he was getting from his New York audiences that his reserve gave way to flashes of emotion. Even though he had been aware of the bitter debates dividing Americans — his portfolio includes North America along with the Middle East — he seemed taken aback by the vehemence of the anti-Obama rhetoric he was encountering. And he was openly angered by “lies” he was hearing about his own country.
British people, Lewis said, were “offended” by the American media’s treatment of the British National Health Service, “as though it were a failing institution when it decidedly is not.” Even more heatedly, he dismissed claims “by people on the right” that Britain was “pandering” to its Muslim minority at the expense of Israel and British Jewry. “This is not just nonsense — it is a lie,” Lewis said.
Critics of Obama’s Middle East policies, he added, “cannot hide behind the shield of Zionism.”
“True Zionists should support rapid progress towards a negotiated two-state solution and normalized relations with the Arab world as the best way of securing Israel’s future,” Lewis said. “They should support President Obama, safe in the knowledge that no settlement will be promoted or accepted which puts Israeli security at risk.” In any case, he said, Israel would never agree to sign such an agreement.
It might sound incongruous for a British Cabinet minister to be lecturing American Jews about “true” Zionism, but Lewis comes by it honestly. He wears his own Judaism on his sleeve, in an understated, British sort of way. He’s an active member and former vice-chairman of the Labour Friends of Israel parliamentary caucus. His previous career, before entering politics, was in Jewish philanthropy.
As it happens, Lewis’s boss, Foreign Minister David Miliband, is also Jewish, which is something worth pausing to contemplate, though the two men are as different as two 40-something Jewish Labour Party leaders can be. Miliband, 44, grew up in the rarefied world of London’s left-wing intelligentsia, son of a renowned socialist theoretician, and attended several elite British and American universities before joining the policy staff of then-Labour Party chief Tony Blair. Lewis, 42, grew up in the middle-class Manchester suburb that he now represents in Parliament, and he speaks with more than a hint of the Manchester-Liverpool regional accent, making him sound, to American ears, a bit like Ringo Starr. A graduate of a local community college, he served as chief executive of the Manchester Jewish Federation before running for Parliament in 1997.
The fact that Great Britain’s top two foreign policy officials are both Jewish might teach us something about British foreign policy, though Lewis insists it’s just coincidence. “We would say that Britain is a friend of both Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. His government is leading efforts to toughen Europe’s stance against the Iranian nuclear program, which threatens Israel and Arab states alike. Britain wants Israel to open the Gaza border to “humanitarian” shipments; at the same time, it opposes international “boycotts and embargoes” against Israel, which “demonize” Israel and are “neither moral nor helpful.”
But, I asked, isn’t Britain awash these days with bitterly anti-Israel rhetoric and boycott demands by everyone from artists and academics to trade union leaders? Don’t the Israel-friendly policies Lewis describes put his government on a collision course with its own public opinion? Lewis first tried to duck, saying his government is “balanced and fair.”
Pressed on the point, however, he turned defiant. “If the analysis of public opinion is that Israel should be boycotted and demonized,” he said, then the British government, in opposing boycott calls, is “providing the courageous and visionary leadership that we’re calling for from other leaders in this conflict.”
Speaking personally, he said, “I am totally comfortable with British policy. I have never had to choose between being British and being Jewish. I’m proud of both.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).