The contested history of the left and Zionism

Issue: 144

Miriam Scharf

Philip Mendes, Jews and the Left: the Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), £65, and Paul Kelemen, The British Left and Zionism: History of a Divorce (Manchester University Press, 2012), £15.99

These two books, one concentrating on Jews and the left internationally and the other on Zionism and the British left, show some convergence in their pre Second World War coverage of left support for Zionism. But the different political perspectives of the authors—Mendes is pro-Zionist and Kelemen is not—lead to very different references, analyses and commentary for the period after the establishment of the state of Israel.

Mendes’s premise is that Jews form a community and as such have particular “objective Jewish interests”. Mendes’s focus is on Jewish involvement in the left and he provides detail of the shift in different countries and political parties from universalist, ie supporting changes that would benefit all exploited classes or groups, to particularist views of Jews. Jews who retain universalist, more socialist, attitudes after 1948—and Mendes acknowledges many of them—are suspect.

Kelemen, by contrast, begins by pointing out the ethnic exclusiveness of Zionism as a problem. Given that Israel is an ethnically defined state founded on the dispossession of the Palestinians, what he aims to explain to us is not so much the divorce of the left from Zionism but why there was a marriage in the first place.

Kelemen details pre-1939 policies, speeches and documents from the Labour Party, Communist Party and Anglo-Jewry to provide this explanation. He then evidences British government attitudes, especially among Labour MPs, to the post-war situation. Noted throughout is the lack of concern for, or sometimes any reference whatever to the Palestinians. Tracing the shape of Zionist ideology, Kelemen notes the principle of national self-determination as adopted by the Labour Party in 1917. He contrasts Lenin’s endorsement of self-determination as a way to undermine imperialism with Harold Wilson’s vision of an evolutionary process for non-European peoples under Western tutelage. He shows how the latter view prevailed among Labourites whose Social Darwinist tendencies led them to contend that European Jews would develop Palestine for the “greater good” in a way that Muslim Arabs could not. Providing evidence that the nonconformist heritage of the British labour movement—in which “Israelites” were venerated—fed this view, he shows how the kind of anti-Semitism that characterises the Jews as a different and special people also helped the Zionist project and provided an unchallenged racism against Arabs and Palestinians.

The identification of Zionism with social progress was the political line of the labour Zionist party Poale Zion, which Mendes characterises as “Left Zionist”, a party linked to the Zionist labour organisations in Palestine. Both authors document the importance of Poale Zion in promulgating and winning Labour Party support for the idea that Jews settling in Palestine conformed to a new socialist ideal. Mendes cites Kelemen on the British Labour Party from 1936-45, when “successive annual party conferences supported the establishment of a Jewish state”. Quotes from Labour leaders, like Herbert Morrison and Richard Crossman, exhibit the exceptionalism with regard to Israel that, for Mendes, is welcomed as understanding the Jewish interest. Similar quotations used by Kelemen demonstrate why and how those with social democratic ideas supported Zionism.

Kelemen shows the case for a Jewish nation as an imperialist ally is crucial to understanding the Realpolitik favouring Zionism. For example, he quotes Ramsay MacDonald in 1929: “It is of greatest importance to us that we should keep American oil interests in good relations with us.” For Mendes, there is only “alleged collaboration with Western imperialism”, even post-Suez.

Both books look at pre-war Jewish support for left parties, clearly showing that the still largely working class Jewish population were far less interested in going to Palestine than in improving their material conditions where they were. Jews were disproportionately active in the Communist Party, Labour Party and trade unions in the UK; and Mendes shows this was also the case worldwide. Here Mendes’s contribution on Bundism, the majority working class and socialist response to anti-Semitism and oppression in Eastern Europe, is useful: “The Bund accused the Zionist movement of legitimitising Polish anti-Semitism and also attacked its negation of the national rights of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine.” The Bund opposed the creation of Israel in 1948, claiming, “It was designed to serve the imperialistic interests of the Western powers, and would only perpetuate the conflict between Jews and Arabs.”

Kelemen and Mendes provide detailed research on the Communist Party, in the former case solely the Communist Party of Great Britain: the CP’s anti-colonialist opposition to Zionism, its support for the Union of Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine against the Jewish only Histadrut, and its support of Arab demands to cease Jewish immigration. They also show that during the rise of fascism support for Zionism rose in the Jewish working class. Both report the most important change for all national CPs was when the line from Moscow reversed into support for the Zionists against British imperialism in 1947. Kelemen quotes telling coverage from the CPGB’s daily newspaper, indicating their confusion and then submission, so that by August 1948, “the only force the Daily Worker was prepared to exonerate from causing Palestinians to abandon their homes was the Israeli army”. He shows how other left papers including the Daily Herald and the Tribune told the same story.

Mendes records the attitude of Communist Parties showing acceptance of the Moscow line that Israel was part of the struggle against British and Anglo-American imperialism. American, French and Canadian CPs write of “a just war of independence against British and US-sponsored imperialism”. Though much harder to swallow for the Arab CPs the joint statement issued by the CPs of the Middle East in October 1948 condemns the “Arab invasion of Palestine”, dutifully tailing Stalin’s line.

In regard to the CP, Mendes’s description of Jews’ disproportionate prominence in leadership roles in post-war Eastern European governments provides interesting reading, but is more pertinent to how Stalinism used anti-Semitism than to a discussion about Zionism.

Perhaps more relevant to readers now is the discussion by both writers of the left in relation to Israel following the Second World War. After the Holocaust they concur in showing how the idea common across the political spectrum was that Europe’s surviving Jews should have a nation. Kelemen shows that, in the Labour Party, the fact that Israel provided an important strategic ally to the US, and therefore the UK, served to counter Soviet influence and Arab nationalism. This made Zionism popular on the right, while the left continued its support for Israel’s “social democratic values”. He sees this convergence as enabling the popularising of “an image of Israel as a beacon of progress in the Middle East”. Mendes notes that the response of the 1944 Labour Party Conference to the Holocaust was to vote for admission of Jews to Palestine “in such numbers as to become a majority” to urge “the ‘transfer’ of the Arab population to neighbouring countries”. He quotes approvingly leftists, among them Harold Laski, Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan, arguing for the party’s traditional Zionist perspectives and praising both the Histadrut and “socialist” Zionist parties and culture.

Then comes the break, described by Kelemen in terms of how some of the left changed their understanding of the nature of the Israeli state to that of an illegal occupier and imperialist ally, and so began the left’s divorce from Zionism. Both writers see Israel’s 1967 victory and subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as a watershed. Both identify the rise of the “new left” in the 1960s, their analysis of Israel being influenced by the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the wider world recognition of Palestinians as a national group with national rights.

Kelemen, aware of the accusation of anti-Semitism waiting in the wings, shows objectively how the left was able to break with Zionism and to stand up for Palestinian rights. He relates this to developments among the Palestinian political parties and does good service to the radical left outside the Labour Party mainstream. Kelemen traces the conflict between a pro-Zionist Labour leadership and grassroots activists. This includes the launch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in 1969 alongside Harold Wilson’s backing of Israel. It also includes the Blair/Brown governments’ support for Israel parallel to the proliferation of pro-Palestinian groups during their tenure with dropping levels of support for the Labour Friends of Israel and the Trade Union Friends of Israel. In contrast, Mendes’s desire to de-legitimise anti-Zionism leads him to include insignificant esoteric groups and to misrepresent more influential Marxists and Trotskyists.

Mendes says a consequence of the 1967 war was that “support for Israel became the principal determinant of Jewish identity”. The left after this is characterised by those who support a two-state solution. He resorts to judgemental and subjective language for other analyses:

“anti-Zionist fundamentalists today wish to eliminate the actual existing nation state of Israel. Israelis and their Jewish supporters are depicted as inherently evil oppressors… Conversely, Palestinians are depicted as intrinsically innocent victims. In place of the fundamental and objective centrality of the state of Israel to contemporary Jewish identity, anti-Zionist fundamentalists…utilise ethnic stereotyping of all Israelis…[and] construct a subjective fantasy world in which Israel is detached from its specifically Jewish roots, and then miraculously destroyed by remote control” (pp125-126).

In Kelemen’s account different proposals are examined, for example the debate between Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman, with the latter arguing for a one-state solution and exposing Israel as an ally of Western imperialism.

One of the most demanding aspects in writing such an account is the massive number of events that provide the context for the development of ideas on the left. Kelemen has not only included the left’s various responses to different government papers and reports on Palestine but has made an impressive effort to show how major events in 1947-8, Suez, the 1967 war, etc affected the different elements of the left. He has excavated much interesting evidence of these responses. To give an example from during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon: By August 1982 only two resolutions of 500 submitted to Labour Party Conference concerned the Middle East; a month later 46 resolutions critical of Israel had been submitted. At the conference a resolution from Norwood Constituency Labour Party called for support for “the establishment of a democratic secular state in Palestine as the long-term solution to the Palestine problem”—it passed.

The younger generation of the British left is now pro-Palestinian and critical of Israeli occupation and bombing. Palestinians have become an acknowledged symbol of the oppressed and for the fight for freedom and justice. Kelemen’s book showing the history of how the British left finally reached this position is meticulously well researched and well written. Mendes, although including interesting material, has a familiarly skewed analysis. This he exemplifies in his concluding contrast between “Western values” and “the culture of the Arab world”, pessimistically forecasting that the latter “would be very unlikely to protect the human rights of Israeli Jews”.