Labour Party Inquiry on Anti-Semitism
Who am I?
I am an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London. My book, Israel and the European Left was published in 2011 and I have long been interested in this area. I have therefore written this briefing paper which traces the road which has led to this inquiry.
Jews and the Origins of the Labour Party
The Labour party since its inception has attracted large number of Jews to its standard because it stood for ordinary working people and condemned racism. It identified with Jewish aspirations for a homeland in Palestine in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. Between 1917 and 1945, the party conference reaffirmed its support for a Jewish National Home on no less than eleven occasions.
Yet there had always been examples of anti-Semitism in the labour movement – stretching back to H. H. Hyndman and the social democratic federation. Some viewed all Jews as wealthy capitalists who exploited British workers. Even during the Spanish Civil War, there were occasional outbreaks of anti-Semitic commentary by members of the International Brigade. The offenders were asked to attend public lectures on anti-Semitism and to educate themselves about the scourge of racism.
During the period of the British Mandate, close links were developed in the 1920s between the labour movement in Britain and its sister movement in Palestine. In addition many future leaders of the Zionist enterprise such as Moshe Sharett, the dovish first foreign minister of Israel studied in London. Such students – many at LSE – developed strong connections with the British labour movement and with other students involved in anti-colonial struggles.
In the 1930s Jews who fought the British Union of Fascists made common cause with the British Left and Labour party in particular. Nearly 10% of British nationals who fought in Spain were Jewish – a vastly disproportionate number. Some served in the Major Atlee Company of the British battalion.
Jews and the labour movement shared a common determination to resist Hitler. British Jews knew that but for 20 miles of clear blue water, they would have suffered the same fate as their European cousins. Whereas Zionism had been a minority Jewish concern before 1939, the realisation that there had been no international workers’ uprising during the Holocaust persuaded most Jews that their own state was needed, both to protect Jews and to build socialism.
Richard Crossman and the ‘Keep Left’ Group
In early 1946, the ‘Keep Left’ group in the Labour party was formed and exhibited strong support for the Zionist cause. One of its prime movers was Richard Crossman who had visited the liberated camps as early as May 1945. Richard Crossman, an academic and Labour MP, carefully delved into the Jewish problem in Europe and its solution in Palestine. Atlee had ironically appointed Crossman to the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry (AACI) on Palestine as a veritable safe pair of hands who would deliver the correct verdict. Indeed, as far back as 1937, Attlee had separated immigration to Palestine from the plight of pre-war Polish Jews. (1)
Crossman asked whether Zionism was simply a heartfelt, but transient, reaction to Nazi anti-Semitism and whether the very concept of ‘a Jewish nation’ was simply a reflection of this.
In contrast, Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, did not ask such profound questions. He instead reduced Jews to their popular stereotypes, both capitalist and communist. Bevin was also concerned that any British withdrawal from Palestine would allow the Soviets to fill the vacuum. In a press conference to announce the establishment of the AACI, he jocularly remarked that the Jew should not push to the head of the queue.
Crossman became very aware of the difference between the American and British attitude to the Jewish problem. The USA had been established by immigrants, both Jewish and non-Jewish, often fleeing European persecution. There was essentially a mass conversion to Zionism after 1945 by US Jews who felt responsible for those of their traumatised kinsmen who had survived. This in turn filtered through to American non-Jews.
The English, Crossman reasoned, were unsympathetic to Zionism because their deepest fear was one of invasion. The English had been localised for centuries in their own villages and towns. Amidst the ruins of European civilisation, ‘the Englishman thinks of Zionism as something synthetic and unnatural’ (2) and believed Zionism to be ‘the product of high powered American propaganda’. In Crossman’s opinion, the Englishman viewed the Arab as defending his thousand-year old civilisation against the invader.
In the context of the first revelations of the mass murder of European Jewry, the 1944 Labour party conference had remarkably promoted the notion that there should be unrestricted immigration of Jews until they became a majority. There were even unpalatable hints of transferring the Palestinian Arabs out of Palestine. Hugh Dalton argued in 1945 that it would be ‘morally wrong and politically indefensible to impose obstacles’ for entry to Palestine. In contrast, the Mufti of Jerusalem and the mainstream Palestinian Arab leadership had actively been pro-Nazi during the war on the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Indeed in Yugoslavia Tito had charged the Mufti as a war criminal and called for his extradition from the Middle East.
Crossman saw Zionism as ‘the twentieth century adaptation of Jewry to a hostile world’ and despite the public handwringing after Auschwitz, he believed that the Jews would remain in constant danger of persecution. Crossman believed that free Jewish immigration and the rise of a socialist Hebrew republic would undoubtedly be anathema to Arab nationalists who were struggling against imperialism. In both cases, an injustice would take place. He concluded, however, that Zionism as a solution was the lesser injustice.
Following the rejection of the AACI report by the Atlee government, Richard Crossman and Michael Foot wrote a hard-hitting pamphlet, entitled A Palestine Munich? They commented on the Labour party’s profound opposition to the 1939 White Paper:
The Labour party was fully aware of the danger of war. It realised that to permit Jewish immigration to Palestine would certainly antagonise the Arab states which had already been permeated with Nazi and Fascist propaganda. On the other hand, the party felt it impossible to connive at the sacrifice of another small ally in the interests of expediency. To limit immigration just at the moment when Palestine was the sole available refuge from Hitler would be a crime against humanity. Lastly, the party was convinced that, by appeasing the Arab league with regard to Palestine, the British government would not achieve its loyal support during the war. (3)
Nye Bevan and the Labour Left
The recognised leader of the Labour Left, Aneurin Bevan projected strong feelings about Israel and threatened to resign from Atlee’s government over British policy in Palestine in the late 1940s. Bevan’s wife, Jennie Lee, a politician in her right and founder of Britain’s Open University, wrote after their visit to Israel in 1954:
They gather in their own from every kind of area, none so humble, so diseased, so illiterate, so despised and downtrodden that they are not welcome. This is the kind of passion that socialist workers everywhere who have had their own experience of victimization and of exile through poverty, should particularly understand. (4)
The further left that was travelled, the more sympathetic to the Zionist experiment. Labour politicians such as Tony Benn were enthralled at the prospect of building socialism in Israel.
Moreover Bevan was distinctly unsympathetic to Arab nationalism and to Nasser’s rule. He accused Nasser of ‘stirring the pot of nationalist passions’ and was critical of the progressive nature of his rule:
If a social movement elects to take the path of revolution, it must pursue it to the end and the end is a complete transformation of society, accompanied by a transference of power from the old to the new social forces. Judged by this criterion, the movement first led by General Neguib and then by Nasser has not as yet added up to a social revolution or anything like it. (5)
Bevan’s comparison of ‘the semi-medieval institutions of the Arab nations’ with progressive Israel reflected the broad support for Israel within the Labour party. (6) Indeed it was far more supportive than the Conservative party – and Eden was deemed to be someone who continuously placated Arab feudalism.
In 1956 Nye Bevan led the anti-war protests over Suez in Trafalgar Square. He argued that because Eden was wrong, this did not mean that Nasser was right. The Israelis, he believed had been provoked. In general, such protests were not specifically directed at Israel, but against the duplicity of the Eden government in its pretence that it was merely some sort of neutral referee in this affair. Moreover, Labour believed that Israel was not an equal partner in the attack on Egypt and that the country’s vulnerability had been exploited by the British and the French for their own purposes. (7)
Israel and the Developing World
In April 1955 Nasser agreed to attend the Bandung conference at the behest of India’s Nehru and to initiate a non-aligned bloc from within the developing world.
The deposing of the government in Guatemala by the US, the insurgencies in the Philippines and Malaya, the revolt of the Viet Minh in Indo-China and the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya all fuelled the desire of many new countries to aid those who had not yet achieved independence. The Israel-Palestine conflict was, however, more complicated. On the one hand, the Palestinian case was rarely heard. On the other, the Zionists had fought the British and seen them leave their country.
The campaign to exclude Israel from developing world forums had commenced even before the UN proposal of a two state solution. In March 1947, representatives of Zionists had participated in an Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. Although an invitation was extended to both the Jews and Arabs of Palestine, the latter plus all the Arab states boycotted it as well as the Indian Muslim League. At the second conference in January 1949, Israel was not invited and consequently all the Arab states attended. (8) At the first Asian Socialist Conference in Rangoon in January 1953, the Egyptian delegate refused to sit at the same table as the Israeli delegate. In April 1954 in Colombo, the Pakistani Prime Minister forced a discussion on the Israel-Palestine conflict at the outset of the preparatory conference for the formation of a non-aligned bloc. Pakistan had always counted on Arab support in its ongoing struggle with India. The final communiqué was watered down by Nehru and U Nu of Burma.
Burma, Ceylon and India, however, all argued for Israel’s attendance at the Bandung conference. Although both Vietnams agreed to come, Pakistan and Indonesia opposed any invitation to Israel, arguing that if Israel attended then the Arab states would refuse to come. (9) Nehru reluctantly concluded that an Arab boycott would sink the movement at its very birth and therefore Israel reluctantly had to be excluded. Nine Arab states eventually came to Bandung including representatives of the feudal regimes of Saudi Arabia, Libya and Yemen.
The boycott of a social democratic Israel became a political inheritance for many on the British Left in 2016. It appealed to the second generation children of recent immigrants – those who could identify with the Palestinians as a colonised people.
The USSR and Anti-Zionism
In the spring of 1947, the USSR suddenly changed its long-held policy towards Zionism and promoted the idea that a state of the Jews should be established in Palestine. This abrupt change was probably due to a Soviet desire to attain a warm water port in the Middle East and to keep the Americans out of the Middle East. Within a few years however the USSR began instead to cultivate Arab nationalism and in particular the developing world.
By the 1960s, Soviet publications increasingly began to link Zionism and Nazism following the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Fascism under the Blue Star depicted Zionism as an octopus with tentacles, stretching into every nook and cranny, controlling everything from afar. Yuri Ivanov in Beware Zionism spoke about Zionist power over the banks, the media and Western governments. In a report from Cairo, a few months after the Six Day war, quoting Arab sources, Sovetskaya Estonia stated that:
The Israelis turned the town of El Arish into a large concentration camp in which the Arab population is the object of terror, torture and humiliation, no less cruel and bestial than the crimes perpetrated by the Hitlerite executioners in the Jewish ghettos. (10)
Palestinian militants who participated in the armed struggle against Israel were depicted as ‘anti-Nazi partisans’. The expansion of Israel’s territory almost fourfold as a result of the war was characterised as premeditated and an example of Zionist ‘lebensraum’.
Zionism was depicted as reactionary and inherently anti-Soviet ever since 1917. (11) Its treatment of Arabs was compared with treatment of blacks in South Africa. (12) The attack on Nasser’s Egypt during the Six Day war was solely an assault on ‘one of the progressive movements’.
Publications such as Trofim Kichko’s Judaism without Embellishment caused many European Communist parties to condemn it.
A McCarthyite aspect of all this was locating ‘Zionists’ amongst rivals and opponents. Thus Zionists were involved in the subversion of socialist Czechoslovakia in 1968. The presence of Jews within the administration in Dubcek’s Czechoslovakia such as Eduard Goldstuecker and Frantisek Kriegel led to anti-Semitic jibes from Soviet leaders (13) and accusations that these life-long Communists were working for foreign Jewish organisations.
‘Zionists’ were demonised and held responsible for the ills of the world. Thus Jack Ruby who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President Kennedy, was labelled ‘a Zionist’. Inevitably Trotsky was unmasked as a ‘Zionist’ in Ivan Shevtsov’s bestselling novel, In the Name of the Father and Son. (14)
Israeli Jews were stripped of their Jewishness and their recent history when ‘Zionists’ were said to have collaborated with Nazis during World War II to murder Jews. A separation opened up between those Jews who had perished in the Holocaust and ‘Zionists’ who were transformed into the embodiment of all evil.
After 1968, the year of student revolt in Europe, there was a revival of Marxism and Trotskyism in particular. Many of the stereotypes of Jews that featured in the Soviet press began to enter the lexicon of the European New Left.
Multi-Culturalism and Israel-Palestine
The Israeli peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 was overshadowed by the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon three years later. This war created a deep political schism in Israel which was reflected in the Jewish Diaspora in a preference for the Israeli peace camp.
The protest from the Diaspora built on disillusionment with the Likud government and the settlement drive on the West Bank. The protest from liberals and social democrats in Britain emphasised instead an identification with Palestinian sufferings and an outcome, based on a two state solution. They found themselves rubbing shoulders however with Trotskyists and Stalinists who did not believe that the Jews had a right to national self-determination and that Israel was no more than a colonial outpost of the West.
Britain’s imperial past cemented Palestine to London. There was a gradual awakening in British society as to the damage caused by colonialism. The charismatic figure of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s loomed large. He transcended normal politics in a manner which his predecessors in the 1960s had never done. The political story of Mandela lost its complexity and its nuances. It was reduced to heroic basics for popular consumption.
The Mandela syndrome exemplified the polarising belief of good and bad, of right and wrong. This retreat from complexity was also played out in the arena of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Palestinians were good guys and underdogs. The Israelis were villains and occupiers.
Britain like other European countries had opened its doors to immigrants from its former colonies to implement a dramatic transition from an all-white society ruling large swathes of the world to a vibrant multi-cultural society whose exemplar was London. This rapid change had taken place in less than fifty years.
The tradition of anti-colonialism was enhanced by this change. The early work of figures such as Fenner Brockway who had done so much to initiate the end of empire was inherited by adherents of the New Left. By the 1980s, the anti-colonial influence of the New Left had permeated the Labour party and much of liberal discourse.
Ken Livingstone and the New Labour Left
The broad shift to the Left after Labour’s defeat by Margaret Thatcher brought to prominence a new generation that had neither experienced the fight against fascism nor witnessed the rise of Israel. Their mindset had been fashioned during the decolonisation period and thereby had more in common with their counterparts in France whose outlook had been coloured by the Algerian struggle than their parent’s generation. Ken Livingstone, elected head of the Greater London Council in 1981, symbolised this dramatic change in Labour party politics. The GLC began to promote the Palestinian cause and accommodated the Labour Committee on Palestine on its premises.
Livingstone himself had embarked on a six-month trip to Africa including newly independent Algeria and Ghana as a young man in the mid-1960s. He later commented that it had been ‘the combined equivalent of both national service and a university education’. (15) With the end of conscription, the openness of the sixties, the onset of decolonisation, the development of multi-culturalism in London, it was not surprising that Livingstone had rejected the outlook of his Conservative voting parents.
Livingstone was perhaps the leading figure in the 1980s who provided a bridge for the New Left into the Labour party. He had come to prominence at a nexus in party politics. The post-war social democracy as exemplified by the Wilson and Callaghan governments had run its course.
Livingstone achieved authority within the GLC by fighting internal battles within the Labour party. He often forged alliances with different Trotskyist groups. Such alliances were recognised as serving the short term interests of both sides and could be discarded if a better offer arose. Many of these far Left entryists viewed Livingstone as an entry point into the Labour party. For the far Left, Livingstone was a valuable asset. He projected populist views externally and facilitated the prospect of the recruitment of new cadres from within the Labour party internally.
Livingstone grew up in a ‘poor white’ area of London where there were few Jews. Most Jewish communities were situated north of the river. Moreover the Jews with whom he came into contact in the political arena on the Left had transcended their Jewishness for the revolutionary ideal. His attack on wealthy property developers, the Indian-born Reuben brothers ‘Why don’t they go back to Iran and try their luck with the Ayatollahs?’ sounded very reminiscent of the time-honoured characterisation of Jews by the British far Right. (16)
In a particularist sense, Livingstone occupied the space where the far Left met the far Right.
Livingstone edited the Labour Herald in the early 1980s which followed an aggressive line on Israel. The paper was printed on the presses on the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) – one of the most sectarian of all Trotskyist groups.
A broadcast of BBC 2’s The Money Programme in 1983 alluded to substantial funding of the WRP by Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Its party organ Newsline subsequently ran a story entitled ‘The Zionist Connection’ which conjured up a traditional imagery of Jewish conspirators pulling the strings of power. Ken Livingstone agreed with this line that there was indeed a powerful Zionist connection that ran from the Labour Left through the Thatcher government to the BBC. (17) When the funding was cut off a few years after, both Newsline and the Labour Herald folded.
Anti-Semitism in the UK Today
Opinion polls suggest that most British people favour a two-state solution. A majority of British people do not see themselves as partisan – except during times of recent conflict when Palestinians are perceived as the victims. Moreover anti-Semitism in the UK is lower when compared to other European countries. Yet British Jews both in perception and through experience exhibit much more pessimistic views.
In 2015, City University conducted a wide-ranging survey of British Jewish attitudes towards Israel. Over 90% saw identification with Israel as a component of their Jewish identity. The vast majority of respondents agreed that a two-state solution was the only way in which Israel would achieve peace with its neighbours. A majority agreed that Israel was an occupying power in the West Bank and that Israel should give up land for peace. 75% opposed settlement expansion and viewed it as an obstacle to peace. 55% agreed that British Jews had a right to criticise Israeli policies in public while 32% disagreed. Yet despite such dovish views, the respondents were highly supportive of Israel’s security.
During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the respondents believed that 70% of those who selectively condemned Israel’s actions, exhibited anti-Semitic motives. Even for those critics who felt that Israeli actions were disproportionate, a majority of respondents (52%) still believed that anti-Semitism was a motivating factor.
The JPR Survey of British Jews which was carried out earlier indicated that 48% believed that anti-Semitism was a problem and that 68% believed that it had increased. One in five of the respondents indicated that they had experienced anti-Semitic harassment in the previous twelve months. When asked who was likely to make negative statements about Jews, 57% thought the Left as opposed to 33% from people of right-wing views. (18)
The Labour Party and Anti-Semitism Today
Ed Miliband’s time in office introduced a new system of party membership which enabled an influx of hundreds of thousands. For many young people this presented an opportunity to rid Labour of the men in blue suits and return the party to its traditional values on behalf of working people. For others, however, it encouraged entryism which allowed the far Left to find a new home.
In most European countries, the soft and hard left possessed their own parties. In the UK, the far Left was highly unsuccessful in creating electable parties as the Communist party’s history demonstrates. The absence of proportional representation accentuated this situation. Entryism into the Labour party therefore became a logical pathway from the 1930s onwards.
It was this change in party membership that propelled the unlikely figure of Jeremy Corbyn on Labour’s peripheral Left to the party leadership in 2015. It also provided a psychological green light to what had been bubbling up below on the Israel-Palestine conflict to overflow publicly. Social media acted as a loudspeaker. What had been frowned upon in the past was now deemed acceptable. It built on a broad historical process which had been in train since the 1960s.
An example of this is the recent introduction the pejorative term, ‘Zios’. If the City University survey indicated that an overwhelming 93% identified in some fashion with Israel, who then are the ‘Zios’?
Operation Protective Edge in 2014 was clearly a turning point. The large number of Palestinian civilian casualties blotted out any rational explanation of the conflict. It became a cause célèbre on the Left. It also produced an increase in the number of recorded anti-Semitic acts in the UK and beyond.
The far Right in Israel believes that anti-Zionism is always anti-Semitic. Groups on the far Left in Britain such as the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) believe that anti-Zionism can never be anti-Semitic. The reality perhaps lies somewhere along this spectrum and depends on the language used and the context of such remarks.
Many British Jews feel uncomfortable that a red line has been crossed in recent times and that the problem lies with the Left rather than the Right. Clearly there are signifiers such as comments that Zionists control the media or that they were behind the invasion of Iraq.
It is a feeling that legitimate offence, caused by criticism of Israel government policy has now morphed into racism about Jews. Can this be related to a definition of anti-Semitism by political bodies or an interpretation by academics? Probably not, but it is what Jews sense – and this is borne out by rigorous surveys.
The Jewish fear is that what begins with the delegitimisation of the State of Israel will end with the delegitimisation of the Jewish people.
Is the current situation merely the isolated actions of a few foolish individuals that deserve to be disciplined – as most current party members believe. Or is it the culmination of a historical process to produce an environment which has been given greater legitimacy during the past year?
If this is a mood, an environment, then there is no quick fix. The solution is education, debate and dialogue which takes time. This also means an explanation of Zionist ideology and raising its status above that of a slogan or soundbite. Conveying complexity does not mean imposing a viewpoint, but it does lead to self-education and a greater awareness.
1/ David Ben-Gurion, letter to Z. Aharonovitch 14 February 1938 in Joseph Gorny, The British Labour Movement and Zionism: 1917-1948 (London 1983) p.144.
2. Richard Crossman, Palestine Mission (London 1947) p.34.
3. R.H.S Crossman and M. Foot, A Palestine Munich? (London 1946).
4. Tribune 22 January 1954.
5. Tribune 3 August 1956.
6. Jewish Vanguard 29 January 1954.
7. June Edmunds, The Left and Israel: Party Policy, Change and Internal Democracy (London 2000) pp.44-45.
8. Ran Kochan, Israel in Third World Forums in Israel in the Third World ed. Michael Curtis and Susan Aurelia Gitelson (New Brunswick 1976) pp.248-249.
9. George McTurnan Kahin, The Asian-African Conference (London 1956) p.7.
10. Sovetskaya Estonia 10 October 1967.
11. Pravda Ukrainy 5 August 1967.
12. Peace and Progress Radio 4 October 1967.
13. New York Times 29 August 1968.
14. JTA 25 March 1970.
15. John Carvel, Citizen Ken (London 1984) p.39.
16. Times 22 March 2006.
17. Newsline 9 April 1983.
18. Could it happen here? What existing data tell us about contemporary antisemitism in the UK, JPR Newsletter May 2015.
Submitted to the Chakrabarti Inquiry 25 May 2016