The spectacle of Keir Starmer getting a standing ovation after declaring his support for Israel and condemning the Palestinian resistance at the Labour Party conference should surprise no one.
Labour Party support for Zionism goes back to even before the Balfour Declaration made it a British Imperial project.
On 10 August 1917, the Labour Party conference declared its support for Zionism, three months before the Balfour Declaration and this was made even more explicit at a joint Labour Party-TUC conference on 28 December 1917.
Labour committed itself to supporting the establishment of a Zionist colony in Palestine where “such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return and may work out their salvation, free from interference by those of alien race and religion”.
Why did the Labour Party take this stand? For the Labour right, there were two motives. One was because they saw a Zionist colony in the Middle East as strengthening the British Empire and the other was because they did not want Jewish refugees fleeing antisemitic persecution in Europe coming to Britain.
As for the Labour left, they convinced themselves that the Zionist settlement was a socialist project that would actually benefit the Palestinians.
Labour support for Zionism was made clear at conference after conference. In 1920, for example, a resolution, “Palestine for the Jews”, was passed unanimously.
In 1935 in the run-up to the general election, Labour leader Clement Attlee made clear how proud the Party was at having supported Zionism “in the dark days of the Great War…and that ever since, the annual Conferences of the Party have repeatedly reaffirmed their enthusiastic support of the effort towards its realisation”.
Labour made clear that it was completely opposed to any self-government in Palestine until there was a Zionist majority.
When the Great Palestinian Revolt broke out in April 1936, Labour gave its full support to the British military and its Zionist allies in their brutal repression of the resistance.
They condemned the revolt as fascist-inspired and their only criticism was that the Tory government was not cracking down hard enough and made too many concessions.
One Labour MP actually called for the total destruction of the town of Jaffa to intimidate not just the Palestinians, but Arabs everywhere.
Palestinian efforts to get the Labour Party to condemn British atrocities failed completely and those British socialists who did support the Palestinians were inevitably condemned as antisemites no matter how ferociously opposed to antisemitism they actually were.
Labour support for Zionism continued into the 1940s. In 1940, Labour issued a declaration of its War Aims which inevitably included support for Zionism and in the spring of 1944 a Labour Party statement explicitly supported the removal of the Palestinians to make way for Zionist settlers.
It was necessary “for transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in.”
This was Labour Party policy at the time of the 1945 general election, indeed the speakers’ notes issued to candidates explicitly stated that Zionist settlers should be allowed into Palestine “in such numbers as to become a majority” and that “the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in”.
The only time that the support of the Labour leadership for Zionism ever weakened was when it was seen as undermining the Empire’s position throughout the rest of the Middle East. This was felt to be the case once Labour took power in 1945 and the Labour government reneged on its Zionist commitment.
Only the Labour Left, including the Tribune newspaper, continued to support the Zionists even through the Nakba, the expulsion by violence and terror of over 800,000 Palestinians from their homes.
For the likes of Richard Crossman MP, a leading figure on the Labour left, the Palestinians were not driven out of their homeland but left voluntarily and anyway as he told the Commons, their homes were “only mud huts…terribly bad villages full of vermin”.
Once Israel was established, the Labour leadership returned to its enthusiastic support for Zionism. From Harold Wilson to Tony Blair to Keir Starmer enthusiastic support for Israel and condemnation of Palestinian resistance has been a keystone of Party policy.
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