Thousands of activists have descended on Washington for the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference; the organisation is the cheerleader of the pro-Israel Lobby in the US. Under the banner “Many Voices, One Mission” they will discuss ways to whitewash the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and deadly blockade of Gaza. They will also seek to ensure that Donald Trump listens to the pro-Israel voices in his camp, and ignores the anti-Semites who, curiously, he also patronises.
Not too many Britons will be on the platform, although former Prime Minister Tony Blair is due to address delegates with his endless wisdom, as is the former education and justice secretary Michael Gove. One more interesting speaker from Britain will be Jonathan Turner of the little known UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI).
This group was formed in 2011 to “provide professional legal support including advocacy, research, advice and campaigning in combating attempts to undermine, attack and/or delegitimise Israel, Israeli organisations, Israelis and/or supporters of Israel, to organise basic training for lawyers on international law and Israel, to enable them to engage in a balanced way in public debates, to provide background assistance to students at university who require protection against anti-Semitism and hate speech etc.,” and to “to contribute generally as lawyers to creating a supportive climate of opinion in the UK towards Israel.” In other words, these “lawyers” are actually “lobbyists”, albeit largely acting pro bono in their spare time. Turner, for example, is a barrister at Three Stone Chambers specialising in intellectual property and competition law. Lobbying for Israel is his hobby.
Although lawyers acting as lobbyists is relatively rare in Britain, in the US it is commonplace. Hogan & Hartson, Holland & Knight, Williams & Jensen are three of the biggest lobbying firms in America, and they are all also legal practices, and are staffed largely by attorneys. Lawyers make good lobbyists, of course, because they know how to make and win an argument. One of the more prominent supporters of Israel in the United States is Alan Dershowitz, who has a long career behind him as a criminal defence lawyer.
So what does UKLFI actually do? Well, for a start, it is against peaceful protest, which is odd given that peaceful protest is legal in this country. “The disrupters loudly sang, chanted and shouted,” the group intoned back in 2012. Its fluster was all down to pro-Palestinian activists who had interrupted an Israeli orchestra performing at the Royal Albert Hall. The protesters’ crime was “effectively ruining the performance for those present and causing the BBC to take the live transmission off the air.” Although irritating for listeners of BBC Radio Three, having a classical music performance interrupted is arguably less irritating than having your land stolen, as has happened — and continues to happen — to Palestinian in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. UKLFI has also successfully challenged a resolution by the Royal Institute of British Architects that was intended to seek the suspension of the Israeli Architects Association from the International Union of Architects, as well as preventing a second unarmed “Gaza flotilla” sailing to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians whose food and medical supplies rely on the whims of the Israeli government. Jonathan Turner of UKLFI has reportedly been working in conjunction with the well-resourced Zionist Federation and the aggressive pro-occupation movement StandWithUs to repress the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on British university campuses. They do this by issuing legal threats.
UK Lawyers for Israel is also happy to help organise events which encourage racism, even though hate speech is as illegal as peaceful protest is legal. “Get out of our country,” a pro-Israel activist shouted at a recent protest against a pro-occupation Israeli speaker at University College London; this was filmed on two separate cameras. “Don’t touch the vermin,” shouted another activist, as two more non-white protesters lay prostrate on the floor trying to stop the talk going ahead. In the weeks running up to the event, UKLFI had assisted the organisers in making sure that that their representative could speak at the university.
Finally, UKLFI is against media freedom. In May 2009, journalist, writer and TV presenter Jonathan Dimbleby criticised pro-Israel pressure groups in an article for Index on Censorship relating to a complaint by such groups that the BBC’s Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen, was biased. Both Dimbleby and Bowen received complaints from one man — Jonathan Turner, now Chairman of UKLFI. Dimbleby had been due to take part in a further investigation of the influence of the pro-Israel lobby for Channel 4’s Dispatches series, but pulled out.
It is clear that UKLFI has friends in high places. Its board includes Lord Alex Carlile QC, who was the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation from 2001 to 2011, and Lord David Pannick QC, widely regarded as the best defence barrister of his generation. You need good lawyers to defend Israel, it seems; the more serious the case, the more proficient the lawyers defending it must be. That tells us more about Israel than it does about those who try to defend its human rights abuses and contempt for international laws and conventions.