The National Health Service is rightly revered by all in this time of the coronavirus. It is admired worldwide and based on the principle that medical care should be provided ‘free at the point of delivery’. It was established in July 1946, by Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health in Clement Attlee’s post-war government. But this is not all that he should be remembered for — he had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with British Jews in their fight against the British Union of Fascists and was a strong advocate of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel.
Bevan was the acknowledged leader of Labour’s Left in post-war Britain. It was his belief in a more just world after the Nazi destruction that informed both his fight against the British Medical Association to establish the NHS and his determined opposition to Ernest Bevin for a state of the Jews.
Bevan left school in South Wales at 13 to go down the mine at Ty-Trist Colliery and learned a harsh lesson in life when his father died young from pneumoconiosis, caused by coal dust. He could therefore easily relate to the poverty and living conditions of the Jewish immigrant to Britain. He recalled being awakened in the middle of the night when an anti-Jewish riot broke out in Tredegar in 1911 so that he could help to give shelter to several Jewish children who had been driven out of their homes.
The origins of the NHS did not lie in Bevan’s Marxism, but in the Tredegar Medical Aid Society where residents paid a regular subscription. Aneurin Bevan argued that ‘no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means’.
Bevan was stiff-necked and stubborn. He answered back — and was out of work for three years in the 1920s. Like his countryman, David Lloyd-George, the humanist Bevan came from a religious background and was well acquainted with the biblical geography of the Holy Land.
A few months after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, he called upon other MPs to establish a broad front against fascism. At the Labour party conference in Bournemouth in 1937, he argued that British arms should be delivered to the Spanish Republicans who were fighting Franco. After all, Hitler and Mussolini had no such qualms. All this brought him into the company of many who anxiously viewed the gathering storm-clouds in Europe. Israel Sieff of Marks and Spencer, a tireless worker for Zionism and Nicholas Winton who rescued hundreds of Jewish children were amongst a growing band of followers.
Bevan’s political nemesis in the cut and thrust of parliamentary politics was Winston Churchill. Both were masters of the English language. Yet Bevan admired Churchill’s resolute stand against Nazism during the 1930s and was scathing about Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Unlike the head of the Labour party, Clement Atlee, he worked to bring down Chamberlain and supported Churchill to replace him.
Being on the Left, however, did not mean that he was Stalin’s lackey. In September 1940 when Britain was facing a German invasion, he wrote a powerful article condemning the Nazi-Soviet pact and the stand of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ of the blinkered Communist party. Bevan wrote that ‘it is equally our socialist obligation to raise our voice against the attempts of the strong in trampling the rights of the weak’.
Bevan strongly supported the establishment of a Jewish Brigade to fight against Hitler and was appalled to view the film of the dead and the dying in the camps when those images reached Britain in April 1945. In cabinet, he argued for increased immigration to Palestine. According to his biographer, Michael Foot, he threatened to resign over British conduct in Palestine.
Bevan was greatly intrigued by the idea of a socialist experiment in Palestine. Zionism was not simply the creation of a homeland for the Jews, but also the creation of a new society unlike the ones that existed in the countries that they had left behind. This world outlook also informed his belief in the NHS — ‘a free health service is pure socialism and as such it is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society’.
Aneurin Bevan later became friendly with Yigal Allon, the Palmach commander in the War of Independence and a member of the Marxist Zionist party, Ahdut Ha’avoda. He supported partition in 1947 as a means of resolving the conflict.
In 1954, Bevan and his wife, Jenny Lee, visited Egypt, Jordan and Israel and spoke at a Knesset reception. He told Knesset members that the Arab world hoped that an economic boycott would bring Israel to its knees and pointed out that the Palestinian Arab refugees remained a continuing obstacle to any resolution of the conflict. On returning to the UK, an enthusiastic Bevan advised British Labour leaders to renew ‘their faith in democracy and socialism’ by going to spend time on a kibbutz.
Bevan was not impressed by Gamal Abdul Nasser, the new Egyptian strongman, whom he accused of ‘stirring the pot of nationalist passions’. During the Suez crisis, Bevan opposed Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, but saved his ire for the Conservative prime minister, Anthony Eden. Bevan argued that ‘Britain and France converted the crisis, not into a conflict between Egyptian nationalism and the legitimate claims of world commerce, but into the old acid struggle between imperialism and the new nations’.
Bevan was an early advocate of the cause of Soviet Jewry and raised the issue on a visit to Moscow in 1959. The following year, he passed away after a battle with cancer. Yigal Allon flew from Israel to attend the funeral.
Today the libertarian Right rarely mention Bevan’s founding role when they clap for the NHS. The far Left, on the other hand, never mention Bevan’s Zionism when they turn their heads to him, an honoured member of the pantheon of socialist heroes.
After Bevan’s death, Israel Sieff commented that what makes an Isaiah is ‘an unconquerable faith that good is not only morally better than evil, but it is socially stronger too’. It is this which connects the aspirations of the NHS with the ideal of Zion.
Jewish Chronicle 2 April 2021