By John Newsinger
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On Labour and Zionism

This article is over 5 years, 2 months old
The Labour Party has a long history of support for the state of Israel. It’s the shifting of opinion towards Palestinian rights that has prompted the current antisemitism claims, writes John Newsinger.
Issue 446

Far from being “institutionally antisemitic”, a much better case can be made that the Labour Party has throughout most of its history been “institutionally Zionist”.

The Labour Party embraced the notion of creating a Jewish state in the Middle East even before the Balfour Declaration, and thereafter regularly reaffirmed this commitment. This was a commitment shared by both the left and the right in the Party, although for different reasons.

The Right saw a Zionist settlement and takeover of Palestine as a way of bolstering the British Empire’s position in the Middle East. A Zionist settlement would be a support against Arab nationalism in the same way that Protestant Ulster was a support against Irish nationalism.

The Labour left supported the Zionist cause for very different reasons. As far as they were concerned, Zionism was a movement of the left, bringing progress to a backward Middle East dominated by a landowning aristocracy that kept the great majority of the population mired in poverty. Zionism was going to inject left-wing ideas into the Middle East with Jewish workers leading the way in the fight for emancipation.

The kibbutz was seen as the institution that best exemplified this. Of course, this was just so much wishful thinking, encouraged by the Zionists, but only tenable if what was actually going on in Palestine on the ground was ignored.
Whatever the different motives for embracing Zionism, the consequence was that throughout the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, the Labour Party supported the denial of self-determination to the Palestinians, opposing even the most limited moves toward self-government. These had to be opposed until the Zionist settlers were a majority in the country. The only time this commitment wavered was when support for Zionism actually appeared to be undermining rather than reinforcing the British Empire’s position.

When the great Palestinian revolt against British rule and Zionist settlement erupted in 1936, Labour supported, indeed urged on, the repression. The revolt was condemned as fascist-inspired. One Labour MP actually demanded that Jaffa should be levelled to teach the Palestinians a lesson. When the Chamberlain government proposed concessions to the Palestinians, restricting Zionist immigration, Labour was completely opposed. They condemned it as “appeasement”.

Labour’s Zionist commitment continued throughout the Second World War. In 1940 the party published its war aims which reaffirmed its support for Zionism, and in 1945 Labour went into the general election with a concrete pledge to encourage the Palestinians to leave their homeland in order to make way for Zionist settlers. The pledge actually called for Zionist settlement to be expanded into Egypt, Syria and Transjordan. This commitment was included in the Speakers Notes that were issued to candidates. The Labour MP responsible for drawing up this commitment, Hugh Dalton, even considered including a commitment to establish Zionist colonies in Eritrea and Libya, but in the end decided against it.

Once in office, the Labour right abandoned this Zionist commitment because it was seen as arousing so much Arab opposition that it compromised the British Empire’s position in the region. This led to the Zionist revolt against British rule that ended with the establishment of the state of Israel and the expulsion of the Palestinian population in 1948. While the Attlee government abandoned its Zionist commitment, the Labour left remained strongly pro-Zionist with the Tribune newspaper leading the way.

What about antisemitism? The uncomfortable reality was that there was no necessary contradiction between antisemitism and support for Zionism. Both the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, who had both been strongly pro-Zionist in the 1930s and during the Second World War, routinely referred to Jewish people as “yids”. Dalton, a vicious racist, dismissed the left wing ideas of Harold Laski, a Jewish socialist, as just so much “yiddeology”. And Attlee, of course, decided not to give Ian Mikardo MP a ministerial post because there were, in his words, already too many Jews in the government, a decision Dalton fully supported.

It is also worth remembering that the Attlee government decided to deal with a chronic labour shortage in Britain by recruiting workers from Europe. Among those brought into the country by a Labour government was an entire surrendered Ukrainian SS Division. At the same time, the government decided to, as far as possible, keep Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors, out of the country. This forgotten episode is one of the most shameful in the history of the Labour Party.

In the years after the Attlee government, the cornerstone for Labour’s foreign policy was support for US imperialism, and this led to the Labour centre and right once again embracing the US’s Middle East ally, Israel. For the Labour left, however, Israeli expansionism, the treatment meted out to the Palestinians and the rise of the Israeli right in the shape of Likud, led to growing disillusionment. For the first time, some on the Labour left began to question and even reject Zionism. Inevitably they were accused of antisemitism.

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