November 1, 2023

Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson once boasted that it was impossible “for a political party to be more committed to a national home for the Jews in Palestine than was Labour”. Keir Starmer only wishes he could be so confident and straightforward. Despite his best attempts to project strength in his speech yesterday, his party has been torn in two over its response to the Israel-Hamas war, with his support for Israel’s military response widely considered a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. More than a dozen front-bench Labour MPs have broken ranks to call for a ceasefire; one said that this turning point could be Starmer’s “Iraq moment”. Labour’s position on Israel, it seems, risks engulfing his leadership project entirely.

It is strange, then, to remember that it is Starmer, not his furious critics, who is keeping with Labour’s traditional positioning on Israel. Labour had been the political home for British Jews since the first Labour MPs in 1905 voted against the Conservative government’s efforts to restrict Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. And Labour called for a Jewish state even before the Balfour Declaration. The party’s 1917 War Aims Memorandum called for “a free state, under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish People as desired to do so may return”. The statement was endorsed by Labour Party conference, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the National Executive Committee.

Over the next three decades, 11 Labour Party conferences voted to affirm support for a Jewish national home in Palestine before the state of Israel was finally established in 1948. And Labour MPs regularly defended the idea of a Jewish state in public. The former coal miner Tom Williams, who would serve in Attlee’s Cabinet, told the House of Commons in 1938: “When a national home was promised to the Jews, I presume it was not intended to be a home of shifting sands, a home under canvas that could be blown away by any and every large gust of wind… It was to be a home really worthy of a great people.” In a complete reversal of the current political landscape, Labour was confronting a pervasive scepticism towards the Jewish cause that existed on the Right of British politics.

The Conservative governments of the interwar period had become increasingly opposed to Jewish immigration to what is now Israel during the British management of the region, which began in 1919 under a mandate from the League of Nations. In 1939, the Conservative Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald announced that the UK government would cap the number of Jewish migrants at 1,500 per month, with Jewish rights to land ownership also severely restricted. Labour MPs erupted in horror at the proposal. As Left-wingers Michael Foot and Dick Crossman argued: “To limit Jewish immigration just at the moment when Palestine was the sole available refuge from Hitler would be a crime against humanity.” Philip Noel-Baker, a Labour MP who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize, denounced the immigration caps as unworkable and immoral, adding that Conservative opposition to a Jewish state “will fail because in the most tragic hour of Jewish history, the British people will not deny them their Promised Land”.

After coming to power in 1945, however, the new Labour government was similarly reluctant to remove immigration controls immediately. As Prime Minister, Attlee was concerned about the backlash from Muslims, especially in India, the independence of which was a key foreign policy priority. With US President Harry Truman, he agreed to an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry to decide the next steps. When it reported in May 1946, the committee recommended ending restrictions on Jewish migration and proposed that 100,000 Jews be allowed into Palestine immediately. Attlee’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin opposed the recommendations, saying Americans supported the report because they didn’t want “to have too many of them [Jews] in New York”. This notorious comment would lead to Bevin being pelted with eggs and tomatoes by activists when he visited New York.

Bevin has gained a posthumous reputation for antisemitism, but his biographers are insistent that his reluctance to support the creation of Israel had more to do with what Tony Benn would later call “the traditional anti-Israel bias in the Foreign Office” rather than hatred of Jews. In keeping with the broader attitude of the Left, as a trade union leader Bevin had championed Jewish organised labour, including those in Palestine. In 1936, he even told the TUC conference: “It seems to me that the new star of Bethlehem now shining over Jerusalem is the star of socialism… We must give these people [Jews] the opportunity of developing socialism… extending to them our blessing and helping them to build a new Jerusalem in Palestine.” Bevin’s later scepticism seems a reflection of the broader opinion of the British elite and Foreign Office, which for decades was pro-Arab.

And from the perspective of realpolitik, support for the Arabs made more sense for Britain, with Zionism seeming the Romantic, utopian cause. Britain’s main interests in the Middle East were tied to oil and trade routes that were controlled by Arab nations and, in a Cold War context, there was little to be gained from offending the Arabs and pushing them closer towards the Soviet Union. The two figures who best personified this division in the British political elite were Michael Foot and his brother Hugh, a distinguished career diplomat. Michael made his first visit to Palestine in 1934 to visit his brother, who was serving there in the British Colonial Service, and witnessed his reactionary sentiments first-hand. Hugh, like most of the Colonial Service, sympathised with the Arabs so much that the Palestinian flag was draped over his coffin at his funeral in 1990.

Michael, on the other hand, took up the cause for a Jewish homeland. As editor of Tribune, he employed staunch Zionists, including Jon Kimche, Evelyn Anderson, and Tosco Fyvel. In response to Bevin’s intransigence in 1946, he and Richard Crossman composed a pamphlet called A Palestine Munich? which argued that Labour was at risk of adopting a policy of appeasement, as the Conservatives had done, which would again abandon the Jews for the sake of geopolitics. They insisted that “survivors of Hitler’s gas chambers now herded into the displaced persons’ centres should be permitted to join their friends and relatives in the National Home”. They were referring to the unprecedented displacement of Jewish refugees in Europe following the Holocaust, which was compounded by increasing Arab animosity to Jews in the Middle East, with thousands forced to flee their homes in Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere.

For the immediate post-war decades, it was Michael Foot’s idealism which won out. And Zionism was not just associated with the Labour Party but with the most radical wing of the Labour Left. Nye Bevan, perhaps its most celebrated figure, wrote as poetically as anyone of the cause for a Jewish homeland following a visit in 1954:

“When… the Arab says the Jew should find a home anywhere except in Palestine he asks something the Jew cannot concede without mutilating his racial personality beyond endurance. It is no answer to say that many centuries have passed into history since the Jew was at home in Palestine. If he had been permitted the security of a safe home elsewhere, the answer might do. But, as we know, it was not so.”

Tony Benn expressed similar emotions. He had been at the Sha’ar HaGolam kibbutz by the Golan Heights on VE Day when he was serving in the RAF. And he would return in 1956 for Israeli Independence Day, writing in his diary that he was doubly amazed by the social and economic progress of the Israelis because “underneath it all was the tragedy of 6 million dead in the gas chambers and the miracle of a home for Jews after 1,900 years of pogrom and ghetto”. Benn was a greater admirer of the Jewish socialist movement and concluded that “perhaps the kibbutzim have the answer — stay rooted to the soil and pass it on more richly fertile than before to your sons and grandsons”. This was representative of many on the Left who regarded Israel as a great socialist experiment, sowing the desert with the seeds of a genuine egalitarianism.

Such proud and conscious identification with the Israeli state is very rare on the Left today. And the roots of its modern position date to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six-Day War. The New Left, the strain of identitarian socialist politics then emerging across the West, took the view that Israelis had come not as refugees but as conquerors, anticipating the contemporary framing of the country as a “settler colony”. But the PLP was still decidedly Zionist. In the Sixties and Seventies, over 10% of Labour MPs were Jews; in 1966, 38 Jews were elected as Labour MPs, compared to five in 2019.

This remained the dominant attitude at the top of the party. During the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, Harold Wilson wanted to impose a three-line whip on a motion demanding the Conservative government send arms to Israel. Roy Jenkins, Wilson’s erstwhile deputy who had resigned to support joining the European Economic Community, cautioned that it was a bad idea. The Labour leader shot him down: “Look, Roy, I’ve accommodated your fucking conscience for years. Now you’re going to have to take account of mine.” Wilson explained to Jenkins that he cared just as much about Israel as Jenkins did Europe.

Wilson’s leadership, however, was the high point of Labour Zionism. Although the party has retained a sturdy pro-Israel flank, the breadth and depth of the Labour Party’s commitment to Israel has waned in recent decades, while the New Left’s interpretation of Israel has grown in strength. There are multifarious reasons for this: the severity of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (until 2005); the hardline governments of Sharon and Netanyahu; the fading of Jewish influence within Labour and the rise of a Muslim-Labour constituency; and the successful advocacy of groups like the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

Among activists, an ambient anti-Israel attitude has become gradually predominant, as the scenes in London over the past three weekends have demonstrated. Israel is now regarded as a powerful and authoritarian military state rather than a refuge for a victimised people. The result is a fascinating sea change in political allegiances. Today, Labour’s historic Zionist instincts have faded. The group which had been so long championed by the British Right — Arabs in Palestine — have become the primary concern of the British Left. Even if Starmer’s beliefs on Israel are as strongly-held as Harold Wilson’s, it seems unlikely he can win his party round to the same position.