Labour, Israel and the ‘new anti-Semitism’

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Tony Greenstein reviews: Paul Keleman The British left and Zionism – history of a divorce Manchester University Press, 2012, pp227, £16.99

It is not often that a book can be classed as indispensable to an understanding of Zionism – the ideology of the movement that established the Israeli state – and its relationship to the left and the labour movement. But The British left and Zionism is one.

There are many books which have been written about the history of Zionism – most of them tedious and repetitive – whose conclusions were formed before even a word was written. Books under this heading include David Vital’s The origins of Zionism and Zionism: the formative years. By contrast, anyone wanting a comprehensive Marxist analysis of Zionism could not do better than Nathan Weinstock’s Zionism: a false messiah. Unfortunately Weinstock himself underwent a “personal and political crisis” and became a Zionist!

For an understanding of the origins of the Zionist labour movement, Zeev Sternhell’s The founding myths of Israel is groundbreaking. Sternhell, a childhood survivor of the Nazis, tells the story of the endemic political and financial corruption of the Histadrut union confederation and its lack of democracy. As Golda Meir noted, Histadrut was not so much a trade union as a “great colonising agency”.1)The Observer January 24 1971 However, if you want a history of Zionism and Israel from both a cultural and political perspective, employing the tools of comparative history, then Gabriel Piterberg’s The returns of Zionism cannot be bettered. Meanwhile, Joseph Gorny’s The British labour movement and Zionism 1917-1948 never once questions the fundamentals of Zionism. It is essentially a functional and descriptive history.

Paul Kelemen’s book is the first comprehensive account of the history of the British left and Zionism. It is written from an avowedly anti-Zionist perspective and because of this it provides an essential and unique insight into the twists and turns of the Communist Party, as it had to adapt its understanding of Zionism to the needs of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy.

Today, when ‘anti-Semitism’ is a principal weapon of the right in the Labour Party, this book is essential to understand how the British labour movement came to adopt and support Zionism from August 1917 onwards. This was an essential component of Labour’s support for the British empire and the weaponisation of ‘anti-Semitism’ is nothing more than a rationale for Labour support for British foreign policy in the Middle East.

Jews and Zionism

Kelemen begins by noting that the character of Israel was determined by the circumstances of its birth – at its centre the expulsion of the Palestinians. Its formation as an ethno-nationalist state “carried a strand of the ideological legacy that the state’s existence was meant to refute”. In other words, the Israeli state was the bastard offspring of European fascism.

Hannah Arendt observed in 1961, when reporting on the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker, that there was “something breathtaking in the naivety” with which the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, had denounced the infamous Nuremburg laws, which had prohibited intermarriage and sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jews. The better informed among the correspondents noted the “irony”, which was that Jews and non-Jews could not get married in Israel either. Although they could marry abroad, their children would be considered bastards – effectively Mischlinge, to use the Nazi term for those of mixed race.

In view of the fabricated ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign battering the Labour Party today and the allegations that Labour has been ‘overrun’ by anti-Semitism, it is worth noting the comments of Sydney Webb, a founding Fabian and colonial secretary between 1929 and 1931: “French, German, Russian socialism is Jew-ridden. We, thank heaven, are free.” And why? “There’s no money in it” (p20).

It is worth noting, in view of the reports that Jeremy Corbyn and ‘anti-Semitism’ have been responsible for putting Jews off voting Labour2)www.tabletmag.com/scroll/236063/why-just-13-percent-of-british-jews-say-they-will-vote-for-labour-in-the-general-election. See also ‘Labour’s first Jewish leader is losing the Jewish vote’ The Daily Telegraph October 30 2014, that as early as the 1959 general election Jews in Finchley supported the Tories by a ratio of 3:1. In the 1964 general election Jewish voters still preferred the Tories by 2:1. As Kelemen noted, “The Jewish community’s embourgeoisiement would also alter its interaction with Zionist politics.” Those who therefore suggest that all was fine with the Jewish community and that the only thing preventing it from supporting the Labour Party, as it had done in the past, was the advent of Jeremy Corbyn are being disingenuous, if not outright dishonest.

The Jewish community today is not that of the 1930s. The East End Jewish working class simply does not exist today. As Jews have moved to the suburbs, so they have moved up the socio-economic ladder, and their politics have also changed. Support for Zionism is part of that political shift to the right: “While Anglo-Jewry’s Jewishness was redefined by Zionism, its Englishness was reshaped to mirror the social conservatism of English suburbia” (p71).

On the other hand, Jewish working class residents of Hackney in the late 1970s were found to hold similar racist views of their black neighbours as non-Jewish, white inner-city residents. This is the elephant in the room. Amidst all the nonsense about ‘anti-Semitism’, what is omitted is the growing Islamophobia and racism amongst a section of the Jewish population (p74). This reflects the finding of Geoffrey Alderman, an academic and Jewish Chronicle columnist, that nearly 2% of the Jewish community in 1979 were voting for the National Front. ((G Alderman The Jewish community in British politics Oxford 1982, pp159, 163-67

The Jewish Chronicle of March 3 1978 cited a Jewish primary school headteacher in London, who claimed that Jewish parents did not wish to send their children to the same schools as black children (p77).

In his chapter on British communists and Palestine Kelemen began by noting that the Mile End constituency in the East End, which was heavily Jewish, elected England’s only Communist MP, Phil Piratin, in 1945. This was a consequence of the leading role that the Communist Party had played in the anti-fascist struggle and that of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany.

As Zionism, in the wake of the holocaust, began to gain a base among the Jewish working class, the Communist Party had great difficulty in coming to terms with Zionism, which it saw as just another form of nationalism. This problem was compounded by the CPGB’s Stalinist politics and the geopolitical considerations of the Soviet Union – which did a 180-degree turn in 1947 by supporting the creation of the Israeli state. The CPGB was afflicted by what Kelemen terms “Yishuvism” (the Yishuv being the native Jewish community in Palestine before Israel was created).

The CPGB saw the Jewish working class in Palestine as like any other: “The communist movement’s Marxism furnished no insight into the specificity of settler colonialism.” One leading member of the party’s National Jewish Committee went so far as to describe the Jewish working class in Palestine as oppressed. While the CPGB depicted the Yishuv “in crude, instrumentalist terms as a tool of British imperialism” (p93), it failed to see that the Jewish working class was privileged in comparison with Arab workers and that it was Jewish institutions that were spearheading the exclusion and dispossession of the Arabs.

Zionism in Britain made very little impact among Jewish workers or trade unionists. A correspondent in the Young Zionist complained that the Jewish working class had no interest in Zionism and preferred to join the Communist Party. It was not until the war years that Poale Zion (forerunner of the Jewish Labour Movement) increased its membership from less than 500 to 1,500. In 1946 Jews made up 10% of the CPGB’s membership (p98).

Kelemen described how in 1948 the CPGB supported Israel in its war against the Arab states (p101). The reason for this U-turn lay in Stalin’s crude analysis, which saw Britain as the main obstacle to Soviet interests in the Middle East. The Arabs were seen as British pawns and the future Israeli state as being in revolt against imperialism rather than just British imperialism. It was a gross miscalculation, which undermined the position of the Communist Parties in the Arab east. The CPGB’s position helped consolidate support for Zionism in the left wing of the Jewish community.

Labour Party

In his chapter on ‘Social democracy and Israel’ Kelemen noted the attitude of the Labour Party towards the British empire. Far from supporting the movement for colonial independence, Labour leaders rationalised imperialism into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The party’s handbook for speakers stated: “Imperialism is dead, but the empire has been given a new life. Socialist planning is developing it not for personal profit, but the Common-Weal” (p118).

Labour’s support for Zionism was at one with its overall support for empire. Whereas the Tories did not bother to hide their belief that the empire was a source of wealth for capital, Labour’s imperialists dressed up Britain’s role in the language of trusteeship and benevolence. Even so, on August 20 1948 Tribune’s editorial was headed, ‘Let’s stay in Africa’. The reason being that “Africa offers huge material resources, which can be exploited for the benefit of Britain and the world” (p122).

In practice what happened was that Africa, etc was superexploited by the Attlee government in order to pay for reforms, such as the creation of the national health service. Thus the British working class was tied into support for imperialism. It was the left as much as the right of the Labour Party which subscribed to the ideas of Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay that colonisation was for the benefit of the colonised. This belief in a ‘constructive’ imperialism was the basis of Labour support for Zionism. Between 1917, when the Labour Party first declared its support for a “Jewish home” in the War Aims Memorandum, and 1949 the party conference declared its support for Zionism on 11 occasions.

During the nakba, when three-quarters of a million Palestinians were expelled, the Labour press was full of articles such as that in the New Statesman by David Kimche, who described Jewish farmers watching with “tears in their eyes”, as the Arabs left Haifa and Jaffa. What Kimche did not mention was that they were leaving because the Zionist militias had bombarded them with mortars (p126).

In the 1960s the few MPs sympathetic to the Palestinians were on the right of the party – Christopher Mayhew, George Brown, David Watkins … This contrasts with the position today when the Labour right is solidly behind Zionism in all its racist glory. In fact, Kelemen shows how the left of the party was up in arms about Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 – prominent among them was Aneurin Bevan.

Kelemen skilfully shows how the growth of anti-Zionism on the left owed nothing to Soviet propaganda – as alleged by Zionist propagandists and its echo chamber, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. It was a consequence of Vietnam, 1968 and support for third-world national liberation movements.

One of the great myths of labour Zionism was that, regardless of its colonisation, it was internally socialist. It operated the collective kibbutzim and owned a major chunk of the Israeli economy. It was a new generation of historians such as Baruch Kimmerling, Zachary Lockman and Zeev Sternhell who demolished this theory. Labor Zionism’s colonisation took a collective form, although in the process it gave birth to capitalism. ‘Collective colonisation’ was simply the most efficient form of colonising Palestine.

The new left, unlike the Communist Party, was not hindered by the foreign policy requirements of the Soviet Union with its crude understanding of Zionism, which shaded into anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionism was never a part of Soviet opposition to Israel. Kelemen describes the first Palestine solidarity march held in Britain in London in 1969, organised by Tariq Ali’s Black Dwarf, when 500 were expected and 2,000 turned up. In November 1969 there was the first Palestine Solidarity Conference of 300 people, although the organisation seems to have then disappeared (pp159-60).

This was a time of considerable ferment. In Israel an explicitly anti-Zionist organisation, Matzpen, was founded in 1962 and from the mid 1960s it was advocating the inclusion of Israel in a prospective socialist union or federation of the Arab east. Meanwhile, Fatah, the leading party in the Palestine Liberation Organisation began to promote the idea of a single, democratic, secular state in the whole of Palestine, that despite the fact that the ‘official’ communists were constrained by their previous support for the Israeli state. In 1972 Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian doctor in London, formed Palestine Action.

Kelemen mentions the travails of The Guardian, which employed the first pro-Arab Middle East correspondent, Michael Adams. Adams was the only western correspondent who was not dazzled by the messianic hysteria that accompanied Israel’s conquest of the West Bank. I vividly remember BBC correspondent Michel Elkins barely containing his joy, as Israel won the 1967 war. Guardian editor Alistair Hetherington censored a report of Adams on Israel’s destruction of three Palestinian villages, from which their inhabitants were expelled (p161).

Pivotal

A pivotal change in Labour’s pro-Israel attitude took place in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Ted Heath froze British arms sales to Israel. In response Harold Wilson put down a motion supporting the supply of arms to Israel, but after a backbench rebellion Labour MPs were given a free vote and 15 voted with the government, while 70 abstained. David Watkins saw this as the end of 50 years of Zionist domination of Labour policy (p163). Unfortunately he was a tad too optimistic!

Until 1982 and the Lebanese war, the Labour left had been overwhelmingly pro-Israel. At that time Tony Benn and Eric Heffer left Labour Friends of Israel, though Ian Mikado never renounced his Zionism. Kelemen states that LFI was launched in the wake of the Suez war with the support of 40 Labour MPs and that it was created by Poale Zion. Kelemen claims that at that time Poale Zion was a Jewish-only organisation, whereas today I estimate that at least two thirds of the JLM are not Jewish.

When Tony Blair took over the Labour leadership, LFI came back into favour. Blair declared that it was “one of the most important organisations in the labour movement” and Gordon Brown declared that LFI had more support among MPs than it had ever had in the 40 years since its formation (p179).

In his concluding chapter on ‘A new anti-Semitism?’ Kelemen notes that the 2006 report of Dennis MacShane’s all-party inquiry into anti-Semitism had recommended that the “the Jewish community itself … is best qualified to determine what does and does not constitute anti-Semitism”. As Kelemen comments, this represented a “considerable slippage” from the Macpherson report, which stated that initial reports were only prima facie evidence and not conclusive as to whether a racist incident had occurred.

Indeed the very idea of a ‘community’, which in reality is a political group, determining what constitutes anti-Semitism, is an obvious recipe for a politically inspired definition, such as that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which conflates Zionism and anti-Semitism. Kelemen notes that the political context for so-called “new anti-Semitism” was the decline of traditional anti-Semitism and the rise of Islamophobia (p193).

References   [ + ]

1. The Observer January 24 1971
2. www.tabletmag.com/scroll/236063/why-just-13-percent-of-british-jews-say-they-will-vote-for-labour-in-the-general-election. See also ‘Labour’s first Jewish leader is losing the Jewish vote’ The Daily Telegraph October 30 2014