Israel has not been the political flavour of the month for many years. Much of this is attributed to the settlement drive on the West Bank following the six-day war in 1967. Others attribute it to collusion with Britain and France during the run-up to the Suez campaign in 1956. It can certainly be argued that Israel has not changed for the better, but it is also true that the British left has changed dramatically since the end of the Second World War.
The left has always found the national identity of Jews difficult to fathom. At the onset of the French revolution, Comte Stanislaus de Clermont-Tonnerre remarked in the National Assembly: ‘Everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation; everything must be granted to them as individuals. They must be citizens. It is claimed that they do not wish to be citizens. Let them say so and let them be banished; there cannot be a nation within a nation.’
The French emancipated the Jews, yet no matter how heartfelt by the revolutionaries, it did not reflect how Jews understood themselves. The fragmentation of Jewish identity during the 19th century did not help. It stretched from the ultra-orthodox, who rebuilt the ghetto walls, to those who embraced Christianity. Indeed, many Jews escaped the problems of tradition and modernity through assimilation and often found solace in the national revolutionary movements. Yet while they wished to escape their Jewishness, they were continually identified as Jews because of the rise of anti-Semitism.
The discrimination and persecution led to discussions about solutions to the Jewish problem. In eastern Europe, the Tsars had hemmed the Jews into the western reaches of their empire. It was in this territory that the Jews transcended their religious definition to truly become an ethnic group. A people in the modern sense of a nation. It was here — the hermetically sealed territory known as the Pale of Settlement — that Zionism arose, a territorial solution in Palestine.
The left was bewildered by this landscape of Jewish identities and Jewish solutions. Being on the left also did not mean that you were immune to anti-Semitism, as the writings of Bakunin, Proudhon and Duhring testify. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s recent books on Stalin show clearly that ‘the hope of humanity’ did not care for Jews and acted on his prejudice.
Marxists always found it difficult to accommodate Zionism and indeed any form of Jewish nationalism. Since the Jewish condition was unique and did not conform to normal theoretical parameters, Zionism, by extension, it was argued, was wrong. Yet as Fred Halliday pointed out over 30 years ago: ‘Neither Marx nor Lenin produced a general analysis of the Jewish question; it was not their prime concern to do so. In so far as their writings are relevant today, they apply to analytic objects comparable at the theoretical level to those they confronted: Marx’s work relates to the study of ideology and religion, Lenin’s to that of non-territorial ethnic groups — perhaps to the national question in the contemporary US.’
Yet today’s disciples of Lenin and Trotsky have cherry-picked convenient quotes which fit in with their political programme.
Zionism was originally a minority concern of British Jews, but there was profound interest in the early Labour party. Arthur Henderson, Keir Hardie’s successor and a Methodist lay preacher, was a Christian Zionist who strongly welcomed the Balfour Declaration. Ramsay MacDonald actually visited Palestine in the early 1920s and marvelled at the building of socialism by the Jewish pioneers. Others such as Beatrice Webb, a respected Fabian theoretician, viewed the Zionist experiment in colonialist terms in comparing Marxist kibbutzniks in Palestine with white settlers in Kenya. During the 1930s, Jews flooded into the Labour party and, together with the Communists, fought the Blackshirts in London’s East End. Jews from all over Europe volunteered in disproportionate numbers to fight in the International Brigades against Franco’s forces in Spain. This catalysed a profound solidarity between the Jewish working class and the British left.
The Holocaust proved to be a great leveller of dreams. From all the possible solutions of the Jewish problem, Zionism had proved durable, successful and survivalist. British Jews asked what would have happened if Hitler had crossed the channel? Would the British people have fought in the synagogues as well as on the beaches and on the landing grounds? Would the King have publicly worn a yellow star? Or would British collaborators be found in abundance to betray their Jewish neighbours and aid the Nazi extermination machine? For a majority of Jews — and non-Jews particularly on the left — the abandonment of the Jews in Europe changed attitudes towards Zionism.
The British cabinet was split on British policy in Palestine. The Labour left under Aneurin Bevan passionately embraced the cause of a Jewish state in Palestine and affirmative action. Bevan, in fact, threatened to resign from the government in protest against Clement Attlee’s policies. The left viewed the rise of Israel as the building of a socialist society in a desert of feudal monarchies and reactionary nationalists. Tony Benn strongly endorsed this view and regularly wrote passionate articles in the Labour Zionist Jewish Vanguard in the 1950s.
The 1960s became the era of the liberation struggles of small peoples such as the Vietnamese in a war against a superpower and the fight against apartheid South Africa. This was also a search for a political identity by the new post-war generation of the British left in an era of post-Stalinism, decolonisation and emerging multiculturalism. The New Left of the post-war era differed from the Old Left in that its adherents were essentially of middle-class origin and often students. It did not grow out of the ranks of the deprived and the oppressed. Unlike their parents, they did not live through the fight against fascism. Unlike the Jews, the Holocaust became a distant memory. The rise of the Palestinian national movement, under the banner of the PLO after 1967, seemed to fit in much better with their black and white scenario of imperialism crushing ‘the wretched of the earth’. The Israel-Palestine conflict was anything but simple, yet an easy, right or wrong, depiction was preferred. This new interpretation coincided with the settlement drive after 1967.
The advent of New Labour aided this simplistic view by creating an ideological vacuum into which the far left poured. Until recently, the Guardian’s comment and analysis pages featured only rejectionist Israelis and Palestinians with the odd token peacenik. The academics union, the UCU, has been transformed into an appendage of the Socialist Workers Party with its attendant apparatchiks. Selective outrage is practised against Israelis, but there is a deafening silence on Chinese dissidents, Mugabe’s mayhem in Zimbabwe and the murderous Burmese junta.
The far left and Islamism meet up in the conviction that the Jews are not a people and have no right to national self-determination. Indeed, the animus against Israel — as opposed to the policies of an Israeli government — sometime spills over into an unrecognized dislike of Jews per se. Although there is a growing recognition that this is no more than a reflection of reactionary ignorance, this is a road down which anyone with a history of the 20th century will not wish to travel.
Progress May 2008