For the JC Jan 2020 by Jenni Frazer
On Richard Kemp’s Twitter biography are the words “Keep attacking” — a mantra which could sum up this military man’s life.
He is an anomaly in British society, a soldier down to his bootstraps, who uses every public platform he can to speak well of the Israel Defence Forces, which he describes as one of the most moral armies in the world. And he has received plenty of hatred for his stance — often accused of Islamophobia and requests from “officialdom” to stop praising Israel.
But he refuses to change his position, arguing that he was “taught right from wrong” when he was growing up, and believes that fundamentally, the Israeli army and the British army are on the same side, fighting the same enemies of terrorism and extremism.
Colonel Kemp — his rank when he left the army in 2006 — was born in Maldon, Essex, and grew up in the garrison town of Colchester. His father, he says, was in the army towards the end of the Second World War, but was not a professional soldier. But Richard Kemp, the second eldest of four siblings, always wanted to join the services. “I was always going to do this. So I left school one day and entered the army the next.”
And what drove him towards the army? “I wanted to fight,” he says, simply. “I was patriotic, I wanted to serve my country. It wasn’t a bloodthirsty desire to kill people. But I was physically tough, and I wanted to engage.”
In school, he says, he was a person who used his strength to deal with bullies. But everything was geared towards getting into the army, and he was just 17 when he signed up, in 1977. He was already, unusually, the recipient of an army scholarship which allowed him to enter the officers’ military academy, Sandhurst, after “literally taking the Queen’s shilling” at Bassingbourn Barracks, Cambridgeshire. (He explains it was no longer an actual shilling but coins were involved in enrolling in the military. He’s not sure if it’s still done today).
The future colonel spent 14 months at Sandhurst, learning to be an officer. “I had had quite an interest in the IDF when I was at school, but when I was at Sandhurst the IDF was a subject we studied in enormous detail, probably more than any other army.”
At the time, he says, very few Sandhurst cadets had been to university, unlike today. “Everyone there wanted to get out and start doing the job, but they also recognised, as I did, that you have to be trained, you can’t just do it”. In Kemp’s case he was learning how to be in command of 30 soldiers making up a platoon of infantrymen, a tight bonded group of men whose lives depended on everyone working together.
“If you do well at Sandhurst you get sent to the part of the army you want to be in. If you do less well, you have to settle for wherever they send you. I was fortunate. I wanted to be in the infantry, pretty much the top echelon of what people wanted to do. I did well enough to get infantry as my first choice”.
As well as practical training, the student soldiers studied the art of war, which is how Kemp came to learn about Israel’s wars and what choices it had made. “We looked at the most recent conflicts — the Six Day War and, of course, the 1973 Yom Kippur War. What we were mainly interested in was the stuff which was most relevant to what we would be doing. We looked at Vietnam, too. Essentially it was a pretty objective examination of what had taken place.
“British soldiers and officers had the utmost respect and admiration for the IDF, and the high-profile operations which it carried out”. That admiration, says Kemp, was for a country “which could fight against such tough odds, beat the enemy and win”. Wryly, he adds that Israel was also “lucky to have the enemy it has”, for had it had to fight against, for example, the Americans, it might not have been the same story.
He is keen to point out that the IDF is “very similar to us”, not surprising because of its early history and what it learned from the soldiers of the British mandate. But he adds that its hallmark is “an independence of thought and refusal to be contained by tradition and history”, frequently a characteristic of the British army, too. Primarily, Kemp suggests, the ability to “think creatively” is a trademark of the IDF.
But direct dealing with Israel was a fair way off for Richard Kemp, who served in many theatres of war during his army service. Most difficult, he says, was Northern Ireland, where he served a total of eight and a half years, a “very challenging” duty where the British army was “very heavily constrained” as to what it could and could not do.
After Northern Ireland came other conflict zones: Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, with many service awards and recognition along the way.
It was, however, during one of his Northern Ireland tours of duty that he first met a serving IDF officer — in 1986, when an Israeli general arrived in Belfast, anxious to learn what he could from the British “about why we knew where certain terrorists were, but didn’t kill them”. The Israeli general, says Kemp, “was very interested in our rules of engagement”. He was almost certainly also interested in British intelligence operations — but those remained confidential.
In the mid 1990s Kemp visited Israel for the first time, making two holiday visits to the country. But it was not until 2002, when he was working on secondment to the Cabinet Office, that he had his first professional encounters with Israel — and that was in the delicate field of counter-terrorism. Kemp was the adviser to the Prime Minister on intelligence relating to international terrorism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; and because he was aware of Israel dealing with Hizbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda, he sought to incorporate its experience into British responses.
It was not all plain sailing, he says. “There was an institutional opposition to Israel within the Foreign Office; but they failed to keep up with events, and recognise that the Arab world was changing, too. Israel was no longer the primary enemy in the region — it was Iran.”
Setting up, in the highest levels of government, to speak positively about Israel, certainly gave Colonel Kemp a foretaste of things to come. He has frequently been warned by various levels of officialdom that his support for, and blunt speaking about, Israel, could be said to undermine his credibility when warning about Iran or terrorist endeavours in the Middle East.
But Kemp is unfazed. He says: “Those people willing to stand up and speak out against Islamic terrorism, and/or people who give their support to the Jewish state, are very often attacked and accused of being Islamophobic. In my case I do both, publicly and vigorously. I attack Islamic terrorism, which I spent a lot of my life fighting against, either on the ground or in intelligence terms. And I also stick up for Israel, because I know that what Israel does, generally speaking, is right, and that we’re all fighting the same fight. The only way really to get at somebody who takes that position is to smear them. The obvious means of slurring them is to accuse them of Islamophobia. I’m not unique in having that accusation made against me”.
In the same way as he has defended Israel, he says, he has defended Islamic countries, having fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and been awarded medals by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Balkans for having risked his life, and the lives of his soldiers, in defence of Muslims. “It’s pretty much the only non-violent method people have to deal with someone like me, is to slur them”.
But Kemp refuses to back down. He is passionate in his advocacy for Israel, saying simply that he was taught as a child “to know right from wrong, and I know that the things that are said about the IDF are wrong, and that the IDF and the British army are essentially on the same side. I think there’s such entrenched hatred and refusal to accept there’s anything good about Israel in many sections of society in the UK — and that includes the media. I’ve had a lot of kickback from many sections of the media — in much of the media I can’t even talk about Israel”.
Colonel Kemp — who describes himself as a Christian, and a Zionist, “but not a Christian Zionist” — has an unerring belief that ultimately he will be proved right. “I know how much Israel has helped us, including me personally, on helping with intelligence to prevent terror attacks. My support and admiration for Israel is the right thing to do.”