Israel lobbyists caught in Presidents Club sexual harassment scandal

Disgraced Presidents Club chairman David Meller has also been a leading Conservative Friends of Israel figure. (The Edge Foundation)

Current and former trustees of a “men only” club at the heart of a sexual harassment scandal unfolding in the UK have deep ties to the Israel lobby, The Electronic Intifada can reveal.

Several attendees of a fundraising dinner at London’s elite Dorchester Hotel last week also have significant connections to Israel lobby groups – including funders, founders and sympathetic lawmakers.

The Presidents Club, a registered charity which organizes the secretive annual event, has sent some of its many donations to the Community Security Trust, a group which works against the Palestinian-led boycott of Israel.

In the wake of an undercover investigation by The Financial Times, the club on Wednesday announced it was to close, and “distribute remaining funds to children’s charities.”

But a swathe of medical charities on Wednesday announced they were returning more than $1.7 million worth of donations from the club.

The paper sent two female investigative reporters posing as hostesses to the event. According to the paper, the women were told to keep attendees “happy — and fetch drinks when required.”

The group of around 300 men were described by the paper as a “mix of British and foreign businessmen, the odd lord, politicians, oligarchs, property tycoons, film producers, financiers, and chief executives.”

The exposé, written by undercover reporter Madison Marriage, stated that they and the rest of the women hired to work at event were made to sign nondisclosure agreements, had their phones taken off them, and were told to expect some of the exclusively male guests to be “annoying.”

The report stated that “all of the women were told to wear skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels. At an after-party many hostesses — some of them students earning extra cash — were groped, sexually harassed and propositioned.”

“I was groped several times,” the undercover reporter behind the story told the BBC’s Newsnight program.

None of the men named in this article are alleged to have directly participated in sexual harassment. Yet with sexism rampant in the British establishment, it is perhaps unsurprising to find the Israel lobby caught up in a sexual harassment scandal – they are part of that very same establishment.

Conservative Friends of Israel

On Wednesday Presidents Club trustee David Meller – chairman of the club, which has organized such events for more than 30 years – was forced to resign his role at the Department of Education.

An anonymous former colleague of Meller’s told The Guardian that he had “desperately wanted” to be appointed to the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper chamber – “and now he’ll never get his ultimate prize.”

Meller was a director of the influential lobby group Conservative Friends of Israel between 2013 and 2014.

He has donated more than $71,000 to the ruling Conservative Party and gave considerable sums to two of its most ardent Israel-supporting lawmakers, Robert Halfon and Michael Gove.

As The Electronic Intifada reported last year, Meller is particularly close to Gove – currently the environment minister. Meller was a key supporter of the politician’s short-lived campaign to become Conservative Party leader in 2016.

One of the charities Meller is currently trustee of is the Tel Aviv University Trust.

Israel lobby donors

Some of the Presidents Club’s many donations were to the Community Security Trust, an anti-Semitism monitoring charity which has also secretly supported work to undermine the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

According to Charity Commission accounts, the Trust received donations from the Presidents Club totaling almost $100,000 between 2012 and 2015.

Gerald Ronson and his friend Harvey Soning. (JTV/JAI)

A second Presidents Club trustee, Harvey Soning, is close friends with Community Security Trust founder Gerald Ronson, according to the latter’s autobiography.

Ronson himself attended a Presidents Club event in 2010, according to an Independent on Sunday column at the time.

According to the 2010 report and to The Financial Times’ exposé, other past attendees at the men-only event include Leonard Blavatnik and Poju Zabludowicz.

Music mogul Blavatnik, named Britain’s richest man in 2015, has funded the UK Friends of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers.

Poju Zabludowicz (right) with Israel’s then-ambassador to the UK in 2010. (UK in Israel)

Zabludowicz, a real estate billionaire and Conservative Party donor, established and bankrolls the major Israel lobby group BICOM – the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre – which seeks to influence what it calls “opinion formers” to support Israel.

The brochure for the Presidents Club gala last Thursday, published by The Guardian, named Zabludowizc as a patron for 2017-18.

Labour Friends of Israel

Another attendee at last week’s event was Labour party fundraiser Jonathan Mendelsohn, a prominent supporter and former chairperson of Labour Friends of Israel, and a member of the House of Lords.

Presidents Club attendee Jonathan Mendelsohn (right) on a trip to an Israeli “counter-terror” institute last year. (IDC Herzliya)

Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday night forced him to step down from his post in the shadow cabinet. A spokesperson for the Labour leader said that “the reports about this appalling event were deeply shocking and there can be no excuse for anyone’s attendance.”

A former advisor to Tony Blair, Mendelsohn fundraised for the party in the “New Labour” era, and since 2007 has been a director of Progress, the hard-right Labour faction.

According to The Telegraph, Mendelsohn “made a fortune from sex chatlines and online gambling.”

Despite Labour under Corbyn breaking with its Blairite past, Mendelsohn had been a party spokesperson for business, energy and industrial strategy.

In response to The Financial Times revealing that he was listed on the Presidents Club seating plan, Labour spin doctors initially told journalists Mendelsohn “was only present for part of the dinner and wasn’t aware of any of this behavior – he completely condemns it.”

Labour Friends of Israel has in the past made much of the supposedly “progressive case for Israel,” claiming that “women enjoy equality” in Israel – very much neglecting the rights of Palestinian women.

No one saw anything

Conservative minister for children and families Nadhim Zahawi has faced pressure to step down after he confirmed that he was at the event, saying “was truly shocked by the reports that have emerged.”

Zahawi has posed pro-Israel questions in the House of Commons and last year signed a Conservative Friends of Israel letter praising the Balfour Declaration – which paved the way for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Even the Presidents Club itself initially feigned shock at the revelations.

A spokesperson responded that “organizers are appalled by the allegations of bad behavior at the event … Such behavior is totally unacceptable. The allegations will be investigated fully and promptly.”

Only the next day, the club announced it was disbanding. An internal investigation seems unlikely.

The founder of the agency responsible for hiring the women as hostesses told The Financial Times that she was unaware of any sexual harassment allegations but claimed that “with the caliber of guest, I would be astonished.”

Yet the tone of the evening was clearly set by the event organizers from the start.

With additional research by Asa Winstanley.

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OK, I'll try to be the first to jump in with the standard "Rick's Cafe" response- "I'm shocked- shocked to find wealthy Zionist men abusing young women in this establishment!"

Fortunately, the women weren't dressed to represent Palestinians. If they had been, the manner of their reception would have been even more degrading.

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Hilary Aked

Hilary Aked's picture

Hilary Aked (@hilary_aked) is a London-based freelance writer and researcher, an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a PhD student at the University of Bath researching the pro-Israel lobby in the UK. They also write for Spinwatch, Ceasefire, OpenDemocracy and Huffington Post.