At the start of last week, Baroness Jenny Tonge, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson in the UK House of Lords, told the Jewish Chronicle that Israel should launch an independent inquiry to disprove allegations that its medical rescue teams in Haiti are ‘harvesting organs’ of earthquake victims. By the end of the week, Tonge had been fired by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.
Just as the trajectory of the speculations around Israeli organ theft in Haiti have followed the typical route of conspiracy theories – accusations based on rumours have been taken as fact; unanswered questions have been taken as evidence of dodgy dealings; tenuous links have been drawn between separate alleged events – so Tonge’s sacking is now helping to fuel another, popular conspiracy theory: that our political leaders are puppets in the hands of a Zionist lobby.
The JC asked Tonge to comment on an article published in the Palestine Telegraph, for which she is a patron. The article, by Stephen Lendman, referred to a YouTube video in which a ranting man in Seattle suggests that the Israel Defense Forces’ aid mission to Haiti – with a capacity to treat 500 patients a day – had sinister aims: to steal organs from locals. Lendman concluded that this alleged illicit operation is ‘another crime against humanity among Israel’s growing list’.
Tonge told the JC that the IDF is ‘to be commended for their fantastic response to the Haitian earthquake’, but she then added the words that would mark her political fall: ‘To prevent allegations such as these – which have already been posted on YouTube – going any further, the IDF and the Israeli Medical Association should establish an independent inquiry immediately to clear the names of the team in Haiti.’
Responding to Tonge’s statement, Nick Clegg said it was ‘ludicrous’, ‘offensive’, ‘wrong’ and ‘stupid’. It was bizarre for the baroness to suggest that Israel should launch an investigation to prove that a nonsense claim is, well, nonsense, said Clegg. But he insisted that Tonge is not anti-Semitic or racist, or else she wouldn’t be a Liberal Democrat. Yet within a couple of days, Clegg gave Tonge the sack.
Predictably, many are now claiming that a Zionist lobby pressured the Lib Dems into getting rid of Tonge. Yet, in reality, what has come to light here is not the alleged power of British Jewish interest groups or any stranglehold by Israel over British politicians, but a manifest weakness within the British political elite. So desperate are the likes of Clegg to avoid debate and conflict that they would rather just brush difficult issues and people aside than confront them head on.
At the same time, the Tonge sacking has also shown how weak politicians consider us, the public, to be. In politicians’ minds, the public is too stupid to be able to recognise Tonge’s remarks as foolish and wrong. Instead, they imagine, her words will incite hatred and bitterness amongst Muslims and pro-Palestinians towards Israel and the Jews, while Jews will apparently be hurt, upset and offended. The irony is that such a scenario becomes more, not less, likely when debate is suppressed, when opinions cannot be aired, and when tough questions are not allowed to be asked. (In this case, considering the ludicrousness of the claims around the IDF’s actions in Haiti, and the craziness of Tonge’s suggestion, the record could have been set straight fairly easily.) Our politicians’ fear of animosity amongst British communities becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who believe the Jews are organ grinders are likely to have their prejudices confirmed by Clegg’s and others’ actions – and, in turn, those Jews with a distinct victim mentality, the ones weary of the world at large, will sink even deeper into their own paranoia.
Tonge’s statement was foolish, yes. Never mind Israel launching an inquiry into these mad claims – even a quick glance at Lendman’s sources should raise suspicions about the credibility of his arguments. He hooked his story off a YouTube video showing the strange webcam speculations of one random individual, who felt CNN reports of the Israelis treating hundreds of people in Haiti in state-of-the-art medical facilities should not be taken at face value. Something dodgy must be happening in those operating rooms, the man suggested.
Lendman then cited a range of unverified reports of Israeli organ theft in the Occupied Territories, suggesting these lend credence to the ‘damning’ YouTube video. These reports include a 2009 article for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, which in turn cited a story from the Swedish Aftonbladet which accused the IDF of stealing Palestinians’ organs. But the Aftonbladet article, which caused a diplomatic row between Sweden and Israel, has been widely discredited and, as I reported for spiked, it was, in fact, nothing more than a shabby concoction of hearsay and prejudices.
Asking the Israelis to conduct an inquiry into claims made on YouTube – one of the biggest, modern-day outlets for cranky, weird and silly ideas – is a strange suggestion. It is akin to asking the US to investigate whether its own government carried out the 9/11 attacks – after all, there are lots of people on YouTube making that claim.
The responses to the claims that the IDF is harvesting organs in Haiti, to Tonge’s statement, and to her sacking, have all been underpinned by a game of victim-status one-upmanship. Anti-Israeli campaigners and commentators in the West have expressed outrage on behalf of hapless Haitians and have taken the opportunity to decry the evil Zionist state which, they say, is kidnapping Palestinians in order to rip organs from their bodies. Meanwhile, Israeli politicians and Jewish groups have decried Tonge’s response as classic anti-Semitic slander, a blood libel in modern times, and further evidence that Jews in the West are in mortal danger. As for Tonge’s sacking, Clegg justified it on the grounds that Tonge’s comments were offensive and potentially hurtful.
Tonge herself, rather than being any kind of traditional anti-Semite, shows that contemporary Israel-bashing really exemplifies a sense of powerlessness felt by the political elite, political commentators and activists. Tonge has criticised the Israeli lobby in British politics and beyond, and has said that she herself has felt pressured by it. Whether theories of Jewish control are expressed in classic conspiratorial and anti-Semitic terms or in more subtle ways, they ultimately express a very contemporary feeling that politics is beyond common people’s control, even beyond the control of elected politicians. Instead, apparently, politics is in the hand of an unreachable powerful force, in this case Israel and the Jews. Political impotence and a powerful state of flux and confusion drives today’s fear and loathing of a so-called ‘Israel lobby’.
Contrary to what the conspiracy theorists in both the blogosphere and polite society believe, the sacking of Tonge does not reveal that a powerful Jewish lobby is pupeteering British politics. It merely shows, once again, that our politicians are too weak and insecure, and too distrustful of the public, to deal with controversies in a mature manner.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.