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The tragic death of Labour Zionism The party of the Jews has found a new cause

Not exactly Harold Wilson (Peter Nicholls/Getty Images)

Not exactly Harold Wilson (Peter Nicholls/Getty Images)


November 1, 2023   6 mins

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.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

richardmarcj

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j watson
j watson
8 months ago

It’s not just elements of the Labour party who are struggling with this intractable issue. In many regards the way party opinion moved and oscillates during the decades outlined in the Article reflects the trend in broader public opinion too.
Was impressed Starmer dug in and hasn’t budged. Showing some mettle here not going to do him any harm. This is not a simple issue and as everyone knows what Labour policy in opposition might be makes not a jot of difference to what will happen in the middle east. The debate and arguments are a form of self indulgence in many regards and I think that what frustrates him as much as anything. ‘Studently’ type debates about this are one thing, but when you became a PM, with all the complexity that will involve, things get serious.

Guy Haynes
Guy Haynes
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Agree with all of that, though I fear that he might “reverse ferret” at the slightest opportunity. He’s not so far and credit to him for that though.

However, where I am not seeing any leadership from Keir Starmer at present is towards the Jewish population of this country – many of whom are living in fear from the threat of their own countrymen. In a supposedly civilised country, this is entirely unacceptable.

While undoubtedly difficult for him, Starmer has the opportunity to make a tangible differences by having those difficult conversations and calling out the behaviour of the sizeable minority who are causing British Jews to live in fear. With the Police seemingly unwilling to get involved – shamefully so in my view – it is undoubtedly the right thing to do.

Jeff Herman
Jeff Herman
8 months ago
Reply to  Guy Haynes

It is not just British Jews living in fear but others who have perceived to have caused offense to Muslims. Is the Batley teacher still living in hiding? Salman Rushdie? Others stay silent to avoid being accused of Islamophobia.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  Guy Haynes

V much hope he doesn’t ‘reverse-ferret’, and I don’t think he will. Essentially he removed his predecessor from the Labour party and been unflinching to date on that because of anti-semitism. That’s a pretty unpredecented action against a previous Party Leader by their successor. I actually think on this Starmer has set out his line in the sand and holding to it.

Francisco Javier Bernal
Francisco Javier Bernal
8 months ago
Reply to  Guy Haynes
Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

His wife is Jewish; not one he can probanly sit out. I thought his comments about islamopjobia were misplaced in the context of events in London over the past 3 weeks.

El Uro
El Uro
8 months ago

Labour’s policy has never changed. They choose someone who can be called “oppressed” and dance around him with a tambourine, even when the “oppressed” one robs and sets fire to their house.
PS. The problem is that in many cases the “oppressed” are oppressed because of their own behavior. The criminal definitely feels oppressed in prison. Should we fight for his freedom? Unfortunately, many (especially women) think: “Yes, of course!” Then we get Portland,

Last edited 8 months ago by El Uro
Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
8 months ago

Starmer is a career politician with a killing desperation to be PM. Who does Starmer get more votes from British Muslims or British Jews, that’s the crux?

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
8 months ago

The roots of the Labour / Jewish alignment must be found surely in the pogroms in Russia in the 1890s which led to mass emigration and much of the diaspora in Britain and America. As victims of chauvinistic nationalism – which at the time was associated mainly with right wing parties – Jews in the West naturally identified with left wing and internationalist politics. This alignment continued for a century despite the increasing prosperity of the Jewish communities but unsurprisingly gradually eroded with e.g. the neo-cons defecting to the the Republicans and the Tory party under Thatcher coming to be more influenced by Jewish businessmen than the diplomats of the “Camel Corps”. Simultaneously, Israel changed from being seen as a socialist country dominated by idealistic kibbutzniks to a rampantly capitalistic and intensely nationalist entity led by the abrasive leaders of Likud. As anti-semitism and anti-Zionism were deliberately conflated by the latter – the better to intimidate their critics – Jewish identity shifted increasingly towards a nationalist and right wing focus i.e. the precise opposite of the starting point in the 1890s. The Labour Party’s reorientation is perhaps best seen as just a reflection of this wider evolution of attitudes.

Last edited 8 months ago by Alex Carnegie
R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago

…a very large number of habitual Labour voters in specific metropolitan/urban seats are virulent anti-Semites…the majority of younger Labour activists are anti-Semites…and almost a third of the PLP are anti-Semites…and I would expect that number to have risen to a majority by the end of next week…
…by the time we get to Christmas, they will be openly supporting Hamas and calling for “Palestine to be (Jew) free…from the River to the Sea…”
Anybody considering voting for them should search their conscience…

AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago

Labour has a selling point as the party sticking up for the oppressed/disadvantaged. They have embraced the Working Man, the Jews, the feminists, women, the Gays, freedom fighters, Muslims and the Genderfluid crowd.
Unfortunately for the different groups Labour drops them (or will drop them) as soon as all the political benefit has been extracted.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
8 months ago

Simple fact: so-called Palestinians, as Arabs, have always had a home, if their neighbors had really cared; the Jews, no. Never in anything that could be called recent times. As civilized people, to equate Arab Palestinian history or territorial needs, with Jews, is outrageous.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago

The proportion of Jews voting Labour has been statistically tied around the 20 per cent mark since 2010 at the latest, Jeremy Corbyn made no difference whatever to that, nor did having a Jewish Leader in the person of Ed Miliband, only one constituency in the entire House is even 20 per cent Jewish, and that seat has been Tory since 2010, as it had always been before 1997. Indeed, it was Margaret Thatcher’s own seat, a fact that had a dramatic impact on foreign policy.

On Israel and Palestine, there are, in drastically reduced order of size from each to the next, four broad schools of thought in Britain: the indifferent, the profoundly ambivalent, the strongly pro-Palestinian, and the fiercely Zionist. Yet almost all politicians, and the entire media, belong to that tiny fourth faction, which barely featured in British public life until there was a Prime Minister whose constituency happened to have a wildly untypical ethnic profile, but which did not become anything like dominant even under her.

That dominance arose in a window of perhaps half a generation, between the retirements of the British Mandate veterans (although a few of those are still alive, such as my late father’s old Army comrade who went on to by my Senior Tutor when I was an undergraduate), and the emergence of the mass anti-war movement in relation to Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq. To this day, Israel is not a British ally. In what specific way is it? It simply is not. Yet we are expected to make Israel’s, often undeniably unpleasant, enemies our own.

Israel armed Argentina during the Falklands War as an act of anti-British revenge on the part of Menachem Begin. Even beyond that, what have the Israelis ever done for us? What would they? Why should they? They have everything that they could possibly need to defend themselves. We are irrelevant to them. Yet our politics revolve around them. Their Ambassador to London accompanies our Foreign Secretary when he visits her country. No one else, absolutely no one, gets that kind of treatment. And if it were to cause bombs to go off in Britain, well, somehow that would prove that it had been right all along. “Not just today, not just tomorrow, but always”? That is not the stuff of grownup relations with any foreign state. None, including that one, would say such a thing about Britain. Nor should it.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Well let’s hope, David, that our support for Israel arises from a cold calculation of our national interest, instead of the usual fannying about with a “foreign policy with an ethical dimension”. Neither Israeli nor British Jews will be engaging in terror and subversion in the UK. You can’t say the same about Hamas and it’s acolytes.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago

The Holy Family Church in Gaza City was bombed during Mass on this All Saints Day. That’s a hattrick, since Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have all now been bombed. Last night, it was the Greek Orthodox Cultural Centre, as it had already been the extremely ancient Church of Saint Porphyrius. Almost all Greek Orthodox of the Jerusalem Patriarchate are Palestinian. And the whole world knows who bombed the Anglican-Baptist Al-Ahli Arabi Hospital, including its chapel, with a handful of people in a handful of countries pretending to believe something else, thereby placing themselves in the same category as those who affected to imagine that Dr David Kelly had committed suicide. Indeed, those are very often the same faux fantasists.

How was hitting any of those unmistakable targets a strike against Hamas? But in addition to including two parties that differed from Hamas in forbidding women to be candidates for public office, the Israeli Government includes people who, like that Government’s ISIS allies in Syria but demonstrably unlike Hamas, actively believe that there is a religious obligation to destroy churches, even the most sparsely Protestant (or indeed Modern Catholic) ones, since the assertion of the Divinity of Christ is itself idolatrous.

In Britain, that Government enjoys such cross-party support that MPs on both sides of the House are purged for deviating from its line, while the rest of us face criminalisation if we expressed the opinion of three quarters of us, including the Editorial Board of the Financial Times, in favour of a ceasefire, or if we endorsed the constitutional position of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud partyforcefully articulated by Tzipi Hotovely, that there should be one state from the River to the Sea. In any case, Andy McDonald never said that second part.

jack sales
jack sales
8 months ago

UnHerd needs to really start pushing its podcasts. This piece of really should be better known more widely.

Ed Paice
Ed Paice
8 months ago

Ah yes, Michael Foot. Had rather forgotten about him. Thankfully. The Jeremy Corbyn of his day (but with rather greater intellect).

Douglas H
Douglas H
8 months ago

Really interesting – thanks for this.

Clare Haven
Clare Haven
8 months ago

When one thinks of the Bennite tradition in the Labour movement today, one thinks of (or I do) such disciples as George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn. Especially on the question of Europe.

It’s striking to me therefore that both these left-wingers of the old Labour guard are fervent critics of Israel and vocal supporters of the rights of Palestinians. One doesn’t associate them with the ‘new left’ at all.

I’d be interested to hear of any thoughts on this significant deviation.

A D Kent
A D Kent
8 months ago

Who writes the headlines around here? Where did the ‘Tragic’ come from – this rather nice historical analysis seems to be rather neutral on the goodness or otherwise of Labour’s shift away from Zionism.

That notwithstanding, any assessment of the recent relations between the UK Labour party & Israel that doesn’t include the term “Apartheid” I don’t think can be considered complete.

Otherwise this single phrase I think contains the main reason for any change in the views of most currrent (or more likely recently left/expelled) Labour members with regards to the Zionist project “the hardline governments of Sharon and Netanyahu”

Arthur G
Arthur G
8 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I think it’s pretty tragic when any Western political party moves from supported the targets of an intended genocide to supporting the wanna-be perpetrators of that genocide.
When are people going to wake up and accept that a large minority (at least) of Muslims in the world, including immigrants to the West, hate Western values, hate Jews and Christians and secularists, and want to impose an Islamic theocracy on the whole world?

Last edited 8 months ago by Arthur G
Gorka Sillero
Gorka Sillero
8 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I love how you just ignore the fact that Arab muslims literally want to wipe the Jews from the Middle East. Genocide, that is.
You probably also think it wasn’t 6 million, just about 100k