The Labour Party,
anti-Semitism and Zionism

Issue: 153

John Newsinger

In June and July 1917, the then secretary of the Labour Party Arthur Henderson visited revolutionary Russia on behalf of Lloyd George’s coalition government. He returned extremely disturbed by what he had seen. The radicalism of the Russian working class appalled him and he recognised the danger that the revolutionary contagion could spread. The growing unrest in Britain and the possibility that it might become infected with the spirit of Bolshevism required that the Labour Party move to the left, that it reorganise itself, adopt a reformist socialist programme for the first time and make clear its war aims. The party had to reposition itself if revolution was to be avoided in Britain.

The leading Fabian Sidney Webb was brought in to help draw up Labour’s new prospectus which included a “Memorandum on the Issues of the War”.1 The first draft was discussed at the Labour Party conference on 10 August 1917. Section xii of the document proclaimed the party’s support for Zionism: Palestine was to become “a Free State under international guarantee”.2 This was nearly three months before the coalition government issued the Balfour Declaration.

Webb’s Statement of War Aims was formally adopted as party policy at a joint conference of the Labour Party and the TUC on 28 December 1917. It proclaimed that the war was being fought so that “the world may henceforth be made safe for democracy” and went on to call for “the complete democratisation of all countries”, for “the frank abandonment of every form of imperialism”, for “the suppression of secret diplomacy”, for “the universal abolition of compulsory military service in all countries” and for “the entire abolition of profit-making armaments firms”. The statement explicitly rejected “the imperialist aims of governments and capitalists” in the Middle East. And Section F of the document, “The Jews and Palestine”, once again committed the party to support the establishment of a free state in Palestine “to which such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return and may work out their salvation, free from interference by those of alien race and religion”.3

What is interesting, of course, is that of all the pious sentiments expressed in the “Statement of War Aims”, the only one that the Labour Party has actually adhered to over the years has been its Zionist commitment. Far from abandoning every form of imperialism, successive Labour governments have ruthlessly pursued the imperial interests of British capital and to this end have abandoned “democratisation”, conducted “secret diplomacy”, supported “compulsory military service”, embraced “profit-making armaments firms” and pursued “imperialist aims” in the Middle East. Indeed, the statement provides a pretty much perfect mirror image of Labour’s actual policies when in power, excepting its Zionist commitment. The only times this commitment has been compromised is when it was seen to conflict with British interests in the Middle East during the term of the 1945-51 Labour government. And even then the Labour left, as we shall see, vigorously campaigned against the government and moreover positively celebrated the Zionists’ eventual triumph. Wholehearted reconciliation between Labour and the Zionists soon followed.

Why did Labour embrace Zionism in 1917? The principle motive seems to have been the belief that the commitment would assist the British war effort by engaging the sympathy of the Jewish community in the United States and more particularly that of the Jewish community in Russia who were seen as an important force in the revolutionary movement in that country. More generally, there was also the belief that a Zionist settlement in Palestine that was under British protection would be a strategic asset that would help bolster British power and influence in the region. Certainly, Webb himself had no sympathy for Zionism beyond its usefulness to the British war effort and the British Empire. In the words of Leonard Woolf, he was, for all the empty rhetoric of the Statement of War Aims “a common or garden imperialist conservative” as far as the British Empire was concerned.4

And, moreover, Webb was on occasion quite capable of giving voice to anti-Semitic prejudice. He once remarked on how glad he was that there were “no Jews in the British Labour Party” and that whereas “French, German, Russian Socialism is Jew-ridden. We, thank heaven are free”, something he put down to there being “no money in it”.5 The predominant view in the Labour Party at this time was that the British Empire was a force for good in the world, that any abuses could be reformed and that the “native” populations positively benefited from colonial rule, including from white settlement. From this point of view, Zionist settlement in Palestine was to be supported as something that would benefit the Arab population, a belief strongly encouraged by the Zionists themselves. Nevertheless, the essential underpinning of the Labour Party’s commitment to Zionism was, from the beginning and continues to be today, its usefulness first to the British Empire and, since the 1950s, to the British State’s “special relationship” with US imperialism.

The 1920s

In The Chariot of Israel, published in 1981, Harold Wilson, the former Labour prime minister and himself a staunch Zionist, celebrated the fact that it was impossible “for a political party to be more committed to a national home for the Jews in Palestine than was Labour”. As he pointed out, “since 1917…this theme had been incorporated in Labour’s statement of war aims” and “had been reiterated eleven times from then to May 1945”.6 In 1920, for example, the Labour Party conference voted unanimously in favour of a resolution, “Palestine for the Jews”. It was proposed by J Pomeranz, the secretary of Paole Zion (the “Jewish Socialist Labour Party”), that had affiliated to the Labour Party that year. The following year, a similar resolution, proposed, once again, by a Paole Zion delegate, was carried unanimously. And when Labour first took office in 1924, the colonial secretary, J H Thomas, a completely unapologetic imperialist, told the commons that the government had determined “after careful consideration of all circumstances to adhere to the policy of giving effect to the Balfour Declaration”. Labour supported the League of Nations’ Mandate that gave Britain control of Palestine and was wholeheartedly committed to the establishment of “a Jewish autonomous Commonwealth” in the country.7 The wishes of the Arab population, both Muslim and Christian, counted for nothing. There was to be no self-determination for the Palestinian people.

This support for Zionism was reinforced by the visits that various leading party members made to Palestine between the World Wars. James Ramsay MacDonald himself visited the country in 1921 and was very favourably impressed by the Zionist settlers he met, “Israelites returning to Zion”. His A Socialist in Palestine was published by Paole Zion the following year. Here, he described how the settlers were building a “dwelling place” in “the home of their fathers…in socialist fashion and upon the foundations of communal idealism”. “They were”, he wrote, “a happy fraternal company of men and women, brown of face and sturdy of limb, everyone engaged in hard manual labour”. They had come together “to rebuild Palestine and fence it against capitalism”. As for the “Muslim” opposition to Zionist settlement, the Palestinian people were being misled by their leaders, “who wish for strife and to engage in riots and pogroms”. Nevertheless, MacDonald convinced himself that the Zionist settlement would benefit the Arabs and that already “the Jewish worker is helping the Arab to raise his standards”. His acceptance of the proposition that the Arab population would benefit from the Zionist settlement was something that he was very much persuaded of by the settlers he met because there is no evidence of his discussing the situation with any Arabs.

One remarkable passage in A Socialist in Palestine shows that while MacDonald embraced the Zionist project with some enthusiasm, he was still gripped by the most vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes. He contrasted the settlers with “the rich plutocratic Jews” who were quite likely to “make one anti-Semitic”. The Jewish plutocrat, the future Labour prime minister seriously argued, in terms redolent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, “is behind every evil that governments do, and his political authority, always exercised in the dark, is greater than that of parliamentary majorities”.8 This belief that the Jewish capitalist was somehow worse than the non-Jewish capitalist dated back to the Boer War, which sections of the British left did indeed blame on Jewish financiers. MacDonald had still not escaped this prejudice 20 years later, the evidence of the First World War notwithstanding.9

The Labour MP who took up the Zionist cause with the greatest enthusiasm and determination between the World Wars was Josiah Wedgwood (the great-great-grandson of the famous potter of the same name). He claimed to have been one of the instigators of the Balfour Declaration and made clear in his memoirs that he became convinced of the efficacy of Zionism when he saw the “political and strategic virtue in a buffer state between a German Turkey and a British Egypt and Africa”. During the winter months of 1926-27, he and his wife toured Palestine where “the whole Zionist organisation entertained us from Dan to Beersheba”. Here he encountered “the best Jews in the whole world”.10 This experience prompted him to write The Seventh Dominion which was published in 1928. Here he urged an end to the Mandate and the formal incorporation of a Jewish Palestine into the British Empire as the seventh self-governing Dominion along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland and Newfoundland. He wrote: “They will say…that I am an imperialist…if it be imperialism to be convinced that the race that spread from…these islands is the finest on Earth and in history, then I am an imperialist.” As far as Palestine was concerned the task was to “immigrate the Jews until the higher civilisation is numerous and wise enough to make democracy safe for all” and then the new Dominion would “be of real political and commercial service to the Empire, for Palestine is the Clapham Junction of the Commonwealth”. With the port at Haifa secure, “the British fleet can look after the Near East in comfort and security”.11

Wedgwood’s enthusiasm for the Zionist cause was such that he saw Palestine as but the first step in the Zionist settlement of the Middle East. On one occasion, speaking to a Zionist audience in the United States, he compared the settlement of Palestine with the white settlement of Massachusetts, observing that beyond that initial foothold “spreads the illimitable land…Irak is crying out for cultivation”. Was it ever possible, he wondered, to set a limit to the expansion of “a successful colonising western race”?12 And as for the Palestinians, Wedgwood was often not even prepared to maintain the pretence that the Zionist settlement would benefit the Palestinian people. As he told the House of Commons: “every change in cultivation or in civilisation does injure some people, and these wandering Bedouin have suffered and must suffer as civilisation advances”.13

Wedgwood’s advocacy of Zionism was too extreme for the mainstream Zionist movement which preferred to proceed more cautiously, disguising rather than proclaiming its objectives. But it was taken up by the breakaway right wing of the movement, the fascist-influenced Revisionists, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. In February 1929, Wedgwood launched a pro-Zionist pressure group, the cross-party Seventh Dominion League, in London with the intention of establishing branches throughout the Empire. A Jerusalem branch was set up in May 1928 with Jabotinsky elected chair. Wedgwood was to maintain close relations with the Revisionists into the Second World War.

Imperial concerns

For the British, support for Zionism was predicated on it being of strategic benefit to the Empire. As the 1920s unfolded a number of factors began to call this into question. First of all, the Zionist project itself had stalled with the number of settlers arriving throughout the 1920s making it extremely unlikely that they would ever achieve a numerical supremacy over the Palestinian population. Indeed, in 1926 more settlers left Palestine than arrived. Secondly, the settlement was nevertheless generating increasing unrest among the Arab population, not only in Palestine, but in neighbouring countries as well. The dispossession of the Palestinian peasantry was creating hostility, not just towards the Zionists, but towards the British as well. Far from strengthening the British position in the Middle East, the Zionist settlement was weakening it. This was the situation when the second Labour government, a government without an overall parliamentary majority, took office in 1929.

The new colonial secretary, Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield, was regarded as a friend by the Zionists for his role in Labour’s 1917 commitment to their cause. In fact, his support was absolutely conditional on their usefulness to the Empire and this he no longer felt was the case. In August 1929, the Revisionists had deliberately provoked confrontation with the Arabs, leading to clashes that left 133 settlers dead, and sent shock waves through the British administration. Passfield began to pull back from the Zionist commitment. His wife, Beatrice Webb, gives a good insight into his thinking in her diaries. She wrote that “expediency” as well as “justice” demanded that the government had to protect the interests of the Arab population. Unless Britain was “prepared to keep an army of occupation in Palestine indefinitely” to defend the settlers against Arab attacks then measures would have to be taken for the “protection of the Arab”, to prevent them from being “gradually extruded by economic pressure” with all the consequences that would inevitably follow. And the government also had “to consider the feelings of the Mohammedans of India, not to mention Egypt”. Indeed, she considered that “responsibility for this debacle lies with the fatuous promise of a Palestine Jewish Home” and thought that future governments would be grateful that Sidney had forced the “Jews…to be more considerate and reasonable”.14

One of the things that Passfield objected to was the Zionists’ Jewish labour only policy, driving out and excluding Arab workers from employment wherever they could. On one occasion, he asked a group of Zionists how they would feel “if we said no Jews can be employed in certain sections of England”, but he nevertheless admitted that there was nothing the government could do to “prevent the Jews from excluding Arab labour”.15

Passfield’s proposals were embodied in a White Paper published on 21 October 1930 and provoked what has been described as “the first open political confrontation between the Zionist movement and the British Government”.16 In the White Paper he proposed restrictions on Zionist land acquisition and on Jewish immigration. Even more threatening were the proposals for a legislative council with its inevitable Arab majority. What he proposed did, in his own words, “negate the idea of a Jewish state”. He found himself at the centre of what he described as a “Jewish hurricane” that mobilised the Zionist movement throughout the world against the Labour government.17

Zionist supporters from all parties in the Commons accused the government of having repudiated the Balfour Declaration with the Conservative front bench joining the attack. On top of this the government faced a by-election in Whitechapel, a constituency with a large number of Jewish voters. The Liberal candidate was Barnett Janner, a staunch Zionist (he later defected to Labour). On 27 October, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann spoke at a public meeting attended by over 4,000 people condemning the government, and there was a real fear that, despite a majority of over 7,000, the seat might be lost. The local Labour Party was controlled by the Transport and General Workers’ Union with both the deceased MP, Harry Gosling, and the new Labour candidate, James Hall, being officials of that union. To ensure that the seat was not lost, the TGWU general secretary, Ernest Bevin, declared against the White Paper and made clear that he would instruct all Labour MPs sponsored by the union to oppose it. He was at this time and for some years afterwards regarded as a close ally by the Zionists. Despite this the Labour majority was still reduced to just over 1,000.

In the face of this onslaught the government retreated. Prime minister Ramsay MacDonald repudiated Passfield’s White Paper and submitted to terms effectively dictated by Weizmann. On 13 February 1931 a letter from MacDonald to Weizmann was read into Hansard, reversing government policy, and as Weizmann later jubilantly put it, enabling “us to make the magnificent gains of the ensuing years. It was under MacDonald’s letter that Jewish immigration into Palestine was permitted to reach figures like forty thousand for 1934 and sixty-two thousand for 1935, figures undreamed of in 1930”. This episode was “a severe test” of the Zionist movement which nevertheless “emerged triumphant”.18

The 1930s

With the humiliating defeat of Passfield’s White Paper, Labour reverted to its staunch support for Zionism. Once again this was reinforced by Zionist-sponsored visits. In 1935 Herbert Morrison, who was very much on the right of the party, a staunch Zionist and imperialist, was particularly impressed. He remarked that he knew “the London Jew very well” and that the settlers he had met were “not obviously Jews at all”. Indeed, “The New Jew to be found in Palestine was a revelation to me. Go to see him if the chance comes in your way”.19 His visit was “one of the most inspiring experiences I have ever had” and what he saw was “socialism on the highest level”. The following year, he told the Commons that when he had returned from Palestine he had felt “that I should like to give up this business of the House of Commons and join them in the clean, healthy life that they are leading”. The Zionist settlement was “one of the most wonderful manifestations in the world”. What they were about “is work typical of the finest of British colonisers in the history of our Empire. You cannot sneer at this kind of thing”.20

Even more impressed was Susan Lawrence, who came from the left of the party. She had been a Poplar councillor, imprisoned along with George Lansbury in 1921, she went on to become a Labour MP, and although she lost her seat in 1931, was still on the National Executive Committee. Lawrence reported back on her visit in the most fulsome terms: “I cannot tell you with what an uplift of spirit I saw our old Utopia in News from Nowhere actually practised. It seemed so beautiful, it seemed so impossible, but there it was”. It was, she wrote, “a fine thing to have set one’s foot in Utopia.” On her return, she confided that on her retirement she planned to return to Palestine and live out her days in a hut on a kibbutz. She never did, of course.21

These accounts are reminiscent of those provided by the visitors who were given conducted tours of Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s and returned home singing its praises. The tourists who visited Palestine as the guests of the Zionists came home apparently completely unaware of the growing unrest among the Palestinians, dispossessed and discriminated against, denied even the limited concessions that were being made to the “native” populations in other colonies. The Jewish labour only policy left these tourists unmoved. Instead they enthusiastically embraced what they believed to be a progressive settler colonialism, swallowing whole Zionist propaganda that their settlement was actually benefiting the Palestinians and that Palestinian opposition was the work of a clique of reactionary landlords misleading an ignorant peasantry. As Paul Kelemen puts it, as far as the Labour Party was concerned, Zionism was “a benign form of colonialism”.22

This enthusiasm was given official standing when on 14 November 1935, in the run up to the general election, the Labour leader, Clement Attlee, issued a statement endorsing Zionism:

The British Labour Party recalls with pride that in the dark days of the Great War they associated themselves with the ideal of a National Home in Palestine for the Jewish People, and that ever since, the annual Conferences of the Party have repeatedly reaffirmed their enthusiastic support of the effort towards its realisation.

They have never faltered, and will never falter, in their active and sympathetic co-operation with the work of the political and economic reconstruction now going forward in Palestine.23

The Great Revolt

While Labour renewed its commitment to Zionism, the Tory-dominated National Government found itself having to grapple with the problems that Zionism was causing for the British Empire. The rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1930s revitalised the Zionist movement. The Nazi regime’s policy of forced emigration, in particular, dramatically increased the number of Jewish immigrants into Palestine, up from 12,553 in 1932 to 33,337 in 1933, 45,267 in 1934 and 66,472 in 1935. What drove these numbers up was not just the Nazi policy of driving German Jews out of the country, but also the anti-Semitic exclusionary policies followed by Britain and the United States with the intention of keeping Jewish refugees out. For the Palestinians, the rise in Jewish immigration created a crisis whereby an eventual Zionist takeover of the whole country began to look increasingly likely if nothing was done.

Confronted with this situation, the National Government decided that concessions had to be made to the Palestinians if an explosion was to be avoided. Proposals for a Legislative Assembly were revived, and were once again regarded as a potential disaster by the Zionists: the Palestinians would never voluntarily agree to the takeover of their country and so had to be denied effective representation until there was a Zionist majority. What is remarkable is that the opposition to establishing representative institutions in a British colony was led by the Labour Party. Understandably, the episode is pretty much written out of Labour Party history.

On 25 November 1935, a Palestinian delegation, led by the Mufti of Jerusalem, met with the High Commissioner for Palestine, Arthur Wauchope, to demand self-government. Weizmann hoped to defeat the move by back-room pressure, but the Labour opposition, very much against his wishes, raised it in parliament. On 26 February 1936, the Labour leader in the Lords, Lord Snell, proposed a motion opposing any measure of self-government for Palestine, a motion that was supported by every speaker except the government spokesman. The debate was a humiliating setback, constituting “an expression of no confidence in the government”. Having succeeded in the Lords, Labour decided to attack the government in the Commons once again, very much against Weizmann’s wishes. This was “a striking illustration of how the Gentile Zionists often outpaced the Zionist leadership”.24 On 16 March, Labour initiated a debate in the Commons where the attack was orchestrated by Josiah Wedgwood. He enlisted the support of a number of senior Conservatives, Winston Churchill, Leo Amery and Austen Chamberlain, and the government was once again comprehensively humiliated. The proposals for a Legislative Assembly were dropped. Wedgwood boasted of how he had “slain the Palestine Constitution” and had reduced the Colonial Secretary, J H Thomas, to “tears”.25 It was this Labour victory that provoked the Great Revolt—the great Palestinian rebellion that began with the proclamation of a general strike on 20 April 1936—once again something that is generally written out of Labour Party history.

This is not the place for a history of the revolt.26 The struggle continued into 1939 with at least 5,000 Palestinians killed. Eventually a large proportion of the British Army’s fighting strength had to be deployed effectively to reconquer the country, a task that was carried out with considerable violence and great brutality. The use of torture and summary execution was widespread, collective punishment of Palestinian towns and villages was routine, with houses wrecked or demolished altogether leaving thousands homeless and destitute, and thousands of Palestinians were interned without trial in appalling conditions. The RAF bombed and machine-gunned defenceless Palestinian villages. As George Antonius put it at the time, British repression had turned Palestine “into a shambles”.27 And the Zionist settlers gave the British campaign their full support, providing strike-breakers and taking the opportunity to extend the Jewish labour only policy, volunteering as police and providing armed patrols, the Special Night Squads, that were themselves involved in torture and summary executions. The Revisionists actually launched a terrorist campaign against the Palestinians in 1938, exploding bombs in crowded markets without any warning and causing dozens of fatalities.

How did the Labour Party respond to this brutal colonial war? At a time when Labour MPs loudly condemned fascist aerial bombing of civilian targets in Spain, they were completely silent about British bombing of civilian targets in Palestine. Indeed, far from opposing or even criticising the repression, Labour urged the government on. Herbert Morrison, for example, could not understand why “the ringleaders of the strike and the murders” had not been rounded up. He was outraged by the “brutal murders and shootings” that were threatening “one of the finest moral efforts in the history of mankind”, and claimed that the whole thing was got up by “the agents of Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini”. Indeed, rather than any concessions to the Arabs being necessary, Morrison went on to recommend that Transjordan (today’s Jordan), be opened up for Zionist settlement.28 Inevitably the most extreme stance was taken by Wedgwood, who in October 1938 urged “the exemplary destruction of the Arab town of Jaffa”. This would have a wholly beneficial effect throughout the Middle East:

The awful fate of Jaffa will be advertised throughout the East by thousands of refugees; the chain-gangs will advertise it in Palestine. Respect for the angry Englishmen would restore our prestige; Baghdad, Alexandria and Beyrout would fear a like fate; and Palestine would coo like a sucking dove. In a world which respects only Hitlers, we must show that we too can if necessary behave in the same way.29

There were hardly any voices raised on behalf of the Palestinians within the Labour Party. When George Mansur of the Arab Labour Federation complained to the Labour Party’s Imperial Advisory Committee about the conduct of British troops and police, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl by soldiers, he was ignored. There was no investigation of his allegations and no evidence that he even received a reply.30 The coverage of the Great Revolt in the Daily Herald was written by a Zionist, A L Easterman, who went on to become political director of the World Jewish Congress. He told the paper’s readers that the Palestinian struggle was the work of feudal landlords and fascist agents and that the Palestinian people had no genuine grievances but were being misled.31 This was the way the Great Revolt was presented at the time. As the pacificist writer Reg Reynolds wrote, in words with a somewhat contemporary ring to them, all this was accompanied by “the hysterical denunciations of all opponents of Zionism as ‘fascists’”, including those like himself “who had done what we could to help Jewish refugees”.32

“A capitulation to violence”

With the danger of European war approaching, the government felt the need to make concessions to the Palestinians. The troops garrisoning the country might soon be needed elsewhere so in May 1939 the Neville Chamberlain government issued a White Paper that effectively repudiated the Balfour Declaration. For the next five years Jewish immigration was limited to 75,000 and thereafter would only be resumed with Palestinian agreement. Once again the strategic needs of the Empire prevailed.

This turn was bitterly opposed by the Labour Party. At the May-June 1939 Party conference a resolution, with only two delegates against, was carried condemning the White Paper as “a further surrender to aggression” that placed “a premium on violence and terror” and was “a setback to the progressive forces among both Arabs and Jews”. The resolution stated that “considerable benefits have accrued to the Arab masses as a result of Jewish immigration and settlement”. A succession of speeches condemned the government for capitulating to “fascist” terror in Palestine. Arthur Creech Jones, a future colonial secretary, for example, complained that the Revolt was the work of “fascist imperialism”, that there was “no clash between the Arab and Jewish interests”, but that “the ignorance of the Arabs” was being exploited. The Zionists were being “asked to end their experiment because our own government is unable to secure good order, is unable to restrain the fascists, is unable to check the bandits who come in from outside”. The White Paper was “a capitulation to violence”.33 This was the overwhelmingly dominant view inside the Labour Party.

This stance continued into the war. In 1940 the Labour Party published a volume, Labour’s Aims in War and Peace. While it contains contributions by Attlee, Morrison, Arthur Greenwood, Leonard Woolf, Harold Laski, Hugh Dalton and others, what stands out here is the section on “The British Labour Party and the Jewish Problem” with its condemnation of the 1939 White Paper and its declaration of support for the Balfour Declaration and for “the continued growth of the Jewish national home in Palestine by immigration and settlement”.34

Labour and the fight against anti-Semitism

British society was permeated by anti-Semitic prejudice between the World Wars. While never as virulent as anti-black racism, it was nevertheless widespread, infecting sections of the left as well as the Conservative right. In the 1920s, for example, George Orwell sometimes made use of vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes in his writing, a practice that he only abandoned with the rise of Nazism.35 And there is the liberal economist Maynard Keynes who, after a visit to Berlin in 1926, could write: “if I lived there, I felt I might turn anti-Semite… It is not agreeable to see civilisation so under the ugly thumbs of its impure Jews who have all the money and the power and the brains”.36

While Keynes never abandoned his anti-Semitic prejudices, the realities of Nazi rule saw him become a champion of the cause of Jewish refugees.37 It is important to emphasise here that the most virulent anti-Semitism existed on the right and, as Josiah Wedgwood insisted, in the 1930s, the Conservative Party had grafted onto itself “a degree of anti-Semitism which would have been inconceivable in Britain before 1919”. Moreover, when Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists made their attempt to build a mass fascist movement founded on a violent exclusionary anti-Semitism in Britain, it was the left that opposed him and defeated him. What part though did the Labour Party play in the fight against the BUF?

Without any doubt, thousands of rank and file Labour Party members and supporters took an active part in opposing and defeating the BUF, but this was expressly against the wishes of the Party leadership. When the BUF held a rally in Hyde Park on 9 September 1934, the 3,000 fascists were confronted by a counter-demonstration 120,000 strong. The Labour leadership had urged people to stay away. John Strachey condemned Labour’s tactics at the rally: “stay away from the fascist demonstration; ignore fascism; it will all blow over. I believe it true to say that the Labour Party have not yet issued a single leaflet or pamphlet on the subject, and definitely tried to prevent all members of the Labour Party from taking part in a demonstration of this sort”.38 The Labour leadership took the same line when the BUF attempted to march through the East End and were stopped at Cable Street on 4 October 1936. Perhaps as many as 300,000 people took to the streets to stop the march, putting up barricades and fighting the police, many of whom made no secret of their fascist sympathies. This was a great working class victory.

The Labour Party conference was meeting at the same time as the Battle of Cable Street was taking place. Herbert Morrison, speaking on behalf of the leadership, condemned the violence which he blamed equally on the Communists and the BUF and called for new public order legislation to strengthen police powers. That was the Labour leadership’s solution. When the National Government introduced its Public Order Act Labour supported it, even though many people warned it would be used against the left; indeed the first prosecutions resulted in the imprisonment of Durham miners fighting for union recognition. Even Morrison’s over-sympathetic biographers admit that his stance resulted in him being “hated by many active in the Labour movement” and his advocacy of “lectures and leaflets” to fight the fascists was regarded as “laughable” by those “in the thick of the disturbances”.39 This is not to say that the Labour leadership did nothing. It initiated steps to close down those party organisations that had actively participated in the fight against the BUF. The left-wing Socialist League was disaffiliated and the Party’s youth organisation, the League of Youth, was purged.

Less well known is the Labour Party’s acquiescence in the Tories’ determination to keep Jewish refugees out of Britain during the Second World War. Labour was a party to one of the most shameful wartime episodes: the refusal of the British government to attempt any rescue of European Jews. Indeed, both Attlee and Morrison were full partners in this as senior members of Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition government. This is not to argue that a majority of European Jews could have been rescued, indeed, given the ferocity of the Nazis this is quite unlikely. But rather that the British government set its face against any rescue attempt, involving even small numbers. As Pamela Shatzkes puts it: “The annihilation of European Jewry was a central German war aim; preventing it was not an Allied war aim”.40 Indeed, rescue was seen as a positive hindrance by the Churchill government.

It is worth, at this point, making clear what the socialist position would have been at this time: an unrelenting and uncompromising fight against anti-Semitism in all its manifestations and a welcoming open door policy to refugees from Nazi rule. If this had been the approach of the British and US governments then hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of European Jews would have been saved. Instead, only “several thousands” found refuge in Britain during the war, and this was “despite rather than because of government policy”.41 The Nazis did not prohibit emigration from the territories they had occupied until August 1941 or from Germany itself until October 1941. The problem was, as Bernard Wasserstein puts it, less the Nazis than “the extreme reluctance of all countries to admit them”. There can be little doubt that as far as Britain was concerned, the government’s policy with regard to refugees was anti-Semitic. While every effort was made to deny entry to Jewish refugees, in the spring of 1940 the government was ready to receive as many as 300,000 refugees, who never materialised, from Holland and Belgium.42

The rescue of the Jews

Growing awareness of the policy of genocide that the Nazis adopted after the invasion of the Soviet Union actually led to increasing pressure on the Churchill government to make some sort of response. On 25 June 1942, the Daily Telegraph reported that over 700,000 Jewish men, women and children had been killed “in the greatest massacre in the world’s history”. Five days later on 30 June it carried the headline, “More Than 1,000,000 Jews Killed in Europe” and informed its readers that it was the Nazi’s intention “to wipe the race from the European continent”. That same day similar reports were carried in “most British newspapers”.43

Soon after, the government came under pressure to offer sanctuary to refugee Jewish children and old people living in Vichy France. On 2 September, Morrison, by now Home Secretary, spoke at a Labour Party rally in London where he condemned “the infamous cruelties practised upon the men, women and children of Europe” and on the 23 September in a Home Office memorandum he made clear that his policy was “not to admit during the war additional refugees…unless in some quite rare and exceptional cases it can be shown that the admission of the refugees will be directly advantageous to our war effort”.44 As for the Vichy refugees, the government decided not to admit the elderly and imposed conditions of entry that reduced the number of children eligible to between 300 and 350, and then to only 20, even though the Jewish Refugee Committee promised to meet the costs of their upkeep. As Morrison explained to his Cabinet colleagues, letting them in would “stir up an unpleasant degree of anti-Semitism”.45 Government prevarication saw this even limited opportunity for rescue pass when the Germans occupied Vichy in November 1942.

Pressure continued to build up, with Labour MP Sydney Silverman warning the government that if something was not done, “the Jewish East End would explode with anger and frustration”.46 Ministers realised they had to be at least seen to be doing something. On 17 December 1942, the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, responded in the Commons to a prepared question from Silverman with a statement condemning the unfolding Holocaust and promising retribution against those involved. As Shatzkes points out, however, this statement was “issued in the hope that a rhetorical flourish without direct commitment to action would serve to fob off the pressure groups’ agitation. Unfortunately from Eden’s point of view, ‘it had a far greater dramatic effect than I intended’”.47 He complained that his statement’s “main effect…had been to stimulate complaints that the government was not doing enough to help the victims of the Nazi regime”.48

In an attempt to head off the pressure the government established a Cabinet committee, the Committee on the Reception and Accommodation of Jewish Refugees, chaired by Attlee (effectively deputy prime minister), who was joined by Morrison, Eden and the Tory colonial secretary, Oliver Stanley. Its job was to defend “the British policy of inaction”.49 At the first meeting on 31 December 1942, Morrison made clear that Britain would only “take a limited number of refugees, say from 1,000 to 2,000 but certainly not more” and they would be held on the Isle of Man “as long as he thought necessary”.50

When the committee met for a second time on 7 January 1943, it had a new concern. Stanley is actually minuted as warning that if more Jewish refugees were allowed into Britain or Palestine then this might lead “certain Axis countries, notably Rumania, to extrude Jews from their territories, as an alternative to the policy of extermination”. Consequently, it was absolutely vital that the policy of accepting “only the limited number of Jewish children with a small number of accompanying women from Eastern Europe should be firmly adhered to”. This prompted a telegram to the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Halifax, warning him of the danger that the Nazis might change “from a policy of extermination to one of extrusion” with the intention of embarrassing the Allies “by flooding them with alien immigrants”.

Soon after Attlee told the Commons (19 January 1943) that there would be no change in the exclusionary policy because the government believed that “the only real remedy for the consistent Nazi policy of racial and religious persecution lies in an Allied victory”. In his account of this episode, the late Martin Gilbert, very much an Establishment historian, nevertheless could not keep his incredulity and outrage out of his prose. As Gilbert sarcastically points out, Attlee made no mention of the fear that the Nazis and their allies might “‘extrude’ their Jews instead of killing them” in his statement.51 Needless to say the Committee’s deliberations do not figure in any of the biographies of Clement Attlee.

The Committee faced serious problems, however. Over the Christmas of 1942, Victor Gollancz, the left-wing publisher and founder of the Left Book Club, wrote a pamphlet, LET MY PEOPLE GO: Some practical proposals for dealing with Hitler’s MASSACRE OF THE JEWS and an appeal to THE BRITISH PUBLIC, a tremendous indictment of Nazi crimes and British government inaction. He rushed it into print before the end of the year.52 This 32-page pamphlet, which cost 3d (about 59p today), sold an astonishing 250,000 copies in three months, prompting “hundreds of petitions and letters offering money, accommodation and food”. The flood of letters was so great that the government took the unprecedented decision to stop replying to them. In March 1943 the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror (NCRNT) was formed by Eleanor Rathbone MP, Gollancz, William Beveridge, Francis Meynall and others to campaign for rescue. Under Meynall’s prompting the NCRNT commissioned a Gallup poll which found strong support for rescue: 78 percent of those questioned supported allowing refugees into the country, 68 percent temporarily and 10 percent on a permanent basis.53

Even the Oxford Union debating society came out in favour of rescue: when Gollancz proposed a motion “that a more energetic and practical policy be pursued by the government towards the rescue of Jews in Europe” early in 1943, the opposing speakers unprecedentedly crossed the floor to vote with him, and the resolution passed with an overwhelming majority.54

The Churchill government successfully resisted this massive pressure for rescue, appearing to promise action but with every intention of doing as little as possible. One other point worth making here concerns Morrison’s repeated claims that allowing Jewish refugees into the country would stoke up anti-Semitism. This almost certainly reflected his own prejudices as much as any real fear, because although a strong Zionist who enthusiastically supported Jewish emigration to Palestine, he certainly did not want European Jews coming to settle in Britain.55 What he argued was that in effect capitulation to anti-Semitism was the best way to fight it.

But this was compounded by the government’s decision to do nothing whatsoever to fight anti-Semitism on the Home Front. As Tony Kushner observes, the government would not “allow any official discussion or attacks on anti-Semitism. The subject was banned from the popular Brains Trust and efforts to air the subject on other BBC programmes were constantly thwarted”.56 The Home Office even refused to do anything to curb the publication of anti-Semitic propaganda during the War. Morrison, for example, refused to take any action against the Scottish ultra-Protestant Nazi sympathiser Alexander Ratcliffe when, in 1943, he brought out what was probably the first British Holocaust denial publication, The Truth about the Jews. Attempts to revive British fascism in the form of the British National Party and the British People’s Party were allowed by the government despite protests.

Under intense Tory pressure, including from Churchill himself, Morrison released Oswald Mosley from prison on 20 November 1943, despite a tremendous wave of protest. According to Angus Calder, “nine people out of ten felt that Mosley should not have been released, and a wave of angry demonstrations followed the announcement”.57 At factory meetings across the country resolutions demanding Mosley be re-imprisoned were overwhelmingly passed. When Morrison made his announcement of Mosley’s release in the Commons, delegations from over 300 factories demonstrated outside, chanting “Mosley In, Morrison Out”. In the Commons, the Communist MP Willie Gallacher asked why Mosley had been released while Gandhi was still imprisoned.58

Not only was the Labour Party wholeheartedly involved in the Churchill government’s policy towards Jewish refugees and the question of rescue, but it continued aspects of this policy once it came to power in 1945. Once again this is something that has been pretty much written out of Labour Party history, but the 1945-51 Labour government refused to let Holocaust survivors into Britain. This was at the same time as the government brought over 200,000 Eastern European workers, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Ukrainians, into Britain to remedy a shortage of labour. As David Cesarani pointed out, “it is all but impossible to avoid the conclusion that racism was at work”. Even more disgraceful, however, was the fact that among those allowed into the country were many former members of the Waffen SS from the Baltic states and, absolutely incredibly, an entire surrendered Ukrainian Waffen SS Division, over 8,000 strong. This was not an accident but, as Cesarani shows, deliberate policy. The problem involved in putting Latvian SS men down the mines was actually the subject of official discussions because of concern at the response of British miners to their “Waffen SS blood-group tattoos” which the British miners would see when they were showering. The Home Office reluctantly went along with barring men with SS tattoos from mining, but they were considered suitable “for other occupations in Britain for which they were not obliged to remove their outer clothing”.59 The decision to bring the Ukrainian Waffen SS Division into the country had, a Home Office minute notes, been made “with the Prime Minister’s approval”.60

There were protests at the time with a number of newspapers objecting, but let us leave the last word on this with a letter to his MP from M L Hyams of Coventry that was passed to the Foreign office in June 1947:

While denying asylum to thousands of displaced persons and having no compassion on these poor, homeless, starving creatures, the British government brought into the country 8,000 bloodthirsty cut-throats, part of a German force which was guilty of the most brutal atrocities against defenceless people during the war. One can’t help feeling there is something wrong with the mentality of a government, especially a socialist government which on the one hand refuses to give succour to so many helpless creatures whose only crime was they were either Jews or defied the Nazi hordes, and on the other hand opens the door of this country to scoundrels whose entry is an insult.

The Foreign Office “scurried to find a reply… Several versions were drafted, each of them evasive and confusing”.61 The one thing that is clear from this sorry narrative is that despite the support of thousands of its members for the fight against anti-Semitism, the Labour Party was and is not a reliable participant in that fight.

Putting the Empire first

Labour remained committed to the Zionist cause in Palestine throughout the war, although the 1939 White Paper was never withdrawn by the Churchill Coalition government. This commitment was decisively reaffirmed in a party statement on “The International Post-War Settlement”, drawn up by Hugh Dalton, and issued in the spring of 1944. The section on Palestine stated quite bluntly that a future Labour government had “to let Jews, if they wish, enter this tiny land in such numbers as to become a majority”. There was a necessity in Palestine “for transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out, as the Jews move in”. They should be “compensated handsomely for their land” and their “settlement elsewhere…generously financed”. Indeed, “we should re-examine also the possibility of extending the present Palestinian boundaries by agreement with Egypt, Syria or Transjordan”. Dalton decided to leave out a recommendation for “throwing open Libya or Eritrea to Jewish settlement as satellites or colonies to Palestine”.62

The whole document was adopted as policy at the December 1944 Labour Party conference. According to Weizmann, in this statement “the British Labourites, in their pro-Zionist enthusiasm, went beyond our intentions”.63 Not even the Revisionists had “advocated so extreme a political solution”.64 The Tory Oliver Stanley warned him that the policy was “Zionism plus plus” and risked “encouraging the Jews to believe that the next British Government…will do everything for them”.65 At its May 1945 conference Labour restated its commitment yet again with Dalton looking forward to “a happy, free and prosperous Jewish state in Palestine”.66 The commitment was Labour Party policy during the 1945 general election and was included in the party’s 1945 Speaker’s Handbook where it was stated once again that Zionist settlers should be allowed into Palestine “in such numbers as to become a majority” and that “the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in”.67

It was abandoned immediately the party took office. The interests of the Empire took priority over any commitment to the Zionist cause. Ministers were made aware that any attempt to implement this commitment would seriously, perhaps fatally, undermine the British position throughout the Middle East which required Arab collaboration. For Weizmann, the Churchill government had “already failed us” by its refusal to scrap the 1939 White Paper, but:

If ever a political party had gone unequivocally on the record with regard to a problem, it was the British Labour Party with regard to the Jewish National Home; [but] within three months of taking office, the British Labour Government repudiated the pledge so often and clearly—even vehemently—repeated to the Jewish people.68

This precipitated an armed Zionist revolt against British rule in Palestine, a revolt supported by both the Soviet Union and the United States, as a way of weakening the British position in the Middle East; it was to end with the British effectively forced out of the country.69

At the time and subsequently, the claim was made that the Labour government’s Palestine policy was dictated by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s anti-Semitism. For Labour MP Ian Mikardo, for example, it went as far back as the Whitechapel by-election when Bevin blamed the Jews for Labour’s reduced vote. Mikardo goes on to write of Bevin’s “fanatical hatred…for the Jews in Palestine”.70 It is certainly true that Bevin responded to the Zionists’ defiance of the British Empire in anti-Semitic language and on other occasions gave voice to vicious anti-Semitic prejudices. But this was not the mainspring of the policy he followed. Indeed throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, he had been regarded as one of Zionism’s most reliable supporters inside the Labour Party. Now the interests of the British Empire came first.

And his use of anti-Semitic abuse was not unique among the labour leadership. In their biography of Harold Laski, Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sheerman refer to him having to put up with not just “the bullying anti-Semitism of Ernest Bevin”, but also “the more cultivated sarcasm of the economics don Hugh Dalton, who…persistently referred to his fellow socialist Laski as the ‘under-sized Semite’ while also ridiculing his far-left ‘yideology’”.71 Dalton was, as we have seen, an extreme Zionist. He also routinely referred to Africans as “niggers” and Arabs as “wogs”. The prime minister Clement Attlee was himself not free of anti-Semitic prejudice. On one occasion in March 1951, when he was considering a number of junior appointments to the government, he rejected Ian Mikardo and Austen Albu even though they were both highly recommended because they were Jews: “they both belonged to the chosen people, and he didn’t think he wanted any more of them”.72

While the Labour government had reneged on the Party’s Zionist commitment, the Labour left rallied to the cause. Inside the government, Aneurin Bevan continued urging a pro-Zionist stance and actually considered resigning over the issue early in 1947. He argued in Cabinet that “it was not necessarily true that we must avoid estranging Arab states. A friendly Jewish state would be a safer military base than any we should find in any Arab state”.73 This, needless to say, was not an anti-imperialist position, but rather a different understanding of what was the best policy for British imperialism. For Bevan and the so-called Tribunite left, the alliance with Zionism, complete with British military bases, remained the best way to sustain Britain’s strategic position in the Middle East. Outside the government, Richard Crossman, Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo, Woodrow Wyatt, Sidney Silverman and others maintained a hostile opposition to government policy both in the Commons and outside. In 1946, Foot and Crossman co-authored a pamphlet, A Palestine Munich?, savagely attacking the government for its betrayal of Zionism (there was a third unacknowledged co-author: Arthur Koestler, who received 25 percent of the royalties, and was a supporter of the right-wing terrorist Stern group at the time).74 It was published in time for the Labour Party conference. The pamphlet emphasised Labour’s longstanding commitment to Zionism, condemned the government’s betrayal, apologised for Zionist terrorism and argued that a “Judean state” would ally with Britain and “leave in British hands the port of Haifa and such airfields and installations as we require”.75 At the same time, Tribune maintained a constant pro-Zionist critique. On 8 August 1947, it solemnly proclaimed that the truth had to be told: “the Palestine tragedy represents a breakdown of social democracy. For the British forces operating against the Palestine Jews are under the orders of a British Labour Government”.76

The most determined advocate of Zionism on the Labour left was Richard Crossman MP and it is worth briefly considering his views for the light they throw on the Labour left’s thinking at the time and after. As far as Crossman was concerned, Zionism was “an important part of the Socialist creed”. Even though he was a supporter of the removal of the Palestinians, he still acknowledged that what was involved was a choice of evils. He convinced himself that the injustice done to the Palestinians was the lesser evil because the fact was “that no western colonist in any other country had done so little harm, or disturbed so little the life of the indigenous people”. Indeed, the Zionists were bringing “social progress” to the Middle East, “which, in the long run, would benefit the Arab”. He wrote this in 1947.77 His fury against the government’s Palestine policy was extreme to say the least. As far as he was concerned Attlee and Bevin were “murderers” who had “plotted to destroy the Jews in Palestine, and then encouraged the Arabs to murder the lot”. He could never “forgive them for genocide”. This was written in 1954.78

Looking back on these events in 1959, when he delivered that year’s Chaim Weizmann Memorial Lectures at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, Crossman pondered what he considered the great Zionist misfortune: their colonising effort came too late to be respectable. In the 19th century and before it had been “assumed that civilisation would be spread by the white man settling overseas”. In South America, North America and South Africa, white settlers had brought civilisation. “No one”, he writes, at least until the 20th century, had “seriously challenged their right, or indeed, their duty, to civilise these continents by physically occupying them, even at the cost of wiping out the aboriginal population”. If only the Zionist settlers had “achieved their majority before 1914, they would have been accepted without any compunction of any kind”. Instead, “they had the misfortune to come after Woodrow Wilson and Lenin had proclaimed self-determination a principle”. He actually complained, quite unfairly, about Attlee and Bevin having had a “prejudice in favour of the native and against the white settler”.79

Crossman, it is worth remembering, passed as a serious intellectual both inside and outside the Labour Party. “No one” objected to the civilising of countries by wiping out their aboriginal populations! The principle of self-determination was to be regretted! This reactionary nonsense was written by a senior Labour MP, still on the left of the Party, who was to go on to be Minister of Housing, Leader of the Commons, Minister of Health and then editor of the New Statesman. Obviously the objections of the subjected or even wiped out populations counted for nothing in his intellectual universe.

Crossman had been converted to Zionism by Weizmann himself who persuaded him that all gentiles carried the anti-Semitic bacillus and that while it might lie dormant for years, there were conditions in which it would inevitably become active. Weizmann told him that anti-Semitism became virulent when “the number of Jews should rise beyond the safety level for that particular nation”. The only cure for anti-Semitism was “the creation of the Jewish State”.80 Coming from anyone other than a Zionist, this argument would, of course, be considered viciously anti-Semitic. Crossman accepted it completely: anti-Semitism was caused by there being too many Jews and the answer was for them to be resettled in Palestine. Weizmann went out of his way to cultivate Crossman, telling him he was the British Émile Zola,81 something that Crossman tried to live up to with his attack on Bevin’s policy: “I Accuse Bevin”, which appeared on the front page of the Sunday Pictorial newspaper on 14 February 1949, a week after the Israelis had shot down five British aircraft.82 For Crossman, Zionism remained his ­political touchstone: he cried when Weizmann, his “spiritual father” died and in 1972 started to write Weizmann’s biography, something he never completed.83

The British defeat in Palestine and the subsequent establishment of the state of Israel were enthusiastically celebrated by the Labour left. The expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians from their homeland, referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba or catastrophe, was either ignored or played down in exactly the same way that the brutal repression of the Great Revolt had been ignored in the late 1930s. Indeed, far from driving the Palestinians out, according to Sydney Silverman, the Zionists “did their utmost to persuade them to stay”. Similarly, Crossman argued that they were never driven out but left on the orders of their leaders who he accused of unjustified scaremongering. And anyway, as he told the Commons, their homes were “only mud huts…terribly bad villages full of vermin”.84 The Palestinians were disregarded as a non-people, whose fate was of no account whatsoever, compared with the establishment of Israel, “a country which was both socialist and freedom-loving”.85 Alongside this rhetoric though, left spokesmen also argued that an alliance with Israel was the best way to sustain British influence in the Middle East.

In 1950, Woodrow Wyatt visited Israel where he saw “democratic socialism”, inspired, he believed, by “the achievements of British socialism”. He also regretted Bevin’s “prejudice against Zionism”, because “Israel might easily have been a member state of the British Commonwealth” and, if it had been, “action might have been taken in time to prevent the loss of Abadan oil”.86 By action, he meant military intervention. Even the Labour left saw the world through a British imperial lens.

Labour reconciled with Zionism

The Labour government’s reconciliation with Zionism was quickly accomplished. By January 1950, Morrison was publicly proclaiming that Israel was “one of the greatest experiments in the modern world”. And in March 1950, the Labour government formally recognised the state of Israel. As June Edmunds argues, it was the concern to maintain “a strong alliance” with the United States that produced this turnaround with Bevin himself telling the Israelis “that his Palestine policy had been a failure”.87 This concern with the “special relationship” with the US continues to underpin Labour’s attachment to Israel today; the more the US came to regard Israel as strategically important, so the more pro-Zionist became the Labour leadership.

There were still difficulties. In 1956, the Labour opposition condemned British collusion in the Israeli attack on Egypt and the subsequent Anglo-French Suez invasion. Labour’s opposition was not motivated by any principled objection to invasion, but rather to an invasion that was not supported by the United States. Both the then Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell and the shadow foreign secretary, Aneurin Bevan, were strong Zionists, but whereas it was once the interests of British imperialism that came first, now it was the interests of US imperialism. Even so, when Edward Short MP proposed an Early Day Motion supporting Israel, 81 Labour MPs signed it. The likes of Morrison described Israeli military success as “wonderful” while a drunken Dalton celebrated it by “cursing the wogs”.88 The year after the Suez invasion, the Labour Friends of Israel was established, as a demonstration that the party’s condemnation of the British and French governments did not extend to Israel. And with the succession of Harold Wilson to the Labour leadership in 1963, the party now had one of its most committed Zionists ever at the helm, a man who in retirement was to write a history of Zionism and modern Israel, The Chariot of Israel!

There was overwhelming support for Israel within Labour ranks during the 1967 Israeli-Arab War with the left-wing Labour MP Eric Heffer urging the Israelis to hold on to their conquests. As one of the handful of opponents of Zionism within the Parliamentary Labour Party Christopher Mayhew later observed the strength of the Zionist commitment at this time led “to a uniquely close friendship with a foreign government which was occupying large areas of its neighbours’ territory, was exercising, through measures of military government, colonial rule over a million subjects, and was openly practising racial discrimination in its immigration and housing policies”.89

Actions that Labour would have condemned if carried out by any other government were either condoned, supported or ignored. At the same time, those within the party who tried to raise concerns about the plight of the Palestinians were subject to what one of their number, David Watkins MP, described as a “fascist-like reaction”. They were effectively prevented from speaking in the Commons by constant barracking from their own side. One particular left MP, Margaret McKay, a former Communist, union organiser and from 1951 to 1962, the TUC’s chief women’s officer, had a replica Palestinian refugee camp erected in Parliament Square. The Party leadership was outraged. For her pains, she was inundated with “obscene hate mail…which included packets of excreta”. Far from taking steps to protect her, the party allowed her opponents within her constituency party, who ran a “scurrilous campaign” against her (she was inevitably accused of anti-Semitism), to begin a de-selection process. She stood down as an MP in disgust in the run up to the 1970 general election.90

While the Labour leadership’s commitment to Israel became stronger and stronger, after 1967 there was a growing realisation among many members and supporters that far from being a socialist enclave surrounded by menacing fascist Arabs, Israel was a powerful, militarily aggressive state, intent on the further conquest of Arab land and either the removal of the Arab population or their reduction to colonial status. By the time of the 1973 “Yom Kippur” War, there was enough dissatisfaction with Labour’s continued support for Israel to provoke a significant revolt. David Watkins, one of the rebel leaders in the Commons, describes it as “a major turning point…epoch-making”.91 When the fighting broke out, the Heath government imposed an arms embargo on the combatants. Wilson demanded that arms supplies to Israel should be continued, to show British support for both Israel and the United States. According to Wilson:

As soon as news of the invasion became known I telephoned the Israeli Ambassador…Michael Comay, and made an immediate appointment to see him and be briefed. Thereafter I was in contact with him every day to hear of developments. The first thing he told me was that Mr Heath’s government had placed an embargo on the shipment of spares and ammunition to Israel for the Centurion tanks Britain had supplied when Labour had been in power.92

Wilson proposed attacking the embargo on Israel with a three-line whip in operation. But it soon became clear that there was too much opposition for this to be carried off; in the event 15 Labour MPs voted to support the embargo and more than 70 abstained. Somewhat over-optimistically, Watkins describes “that historic vote on 18 October 1973” as having ended “50 years of Zionist domination of Labour attitudes… Nothing would ever be the same again”.93 The coming to power in Israel of the Likud Party in 1977 continued the disenchantment that more and more Labour members, including a number of MPs, felt.

The 1982 invasion of Lebanon with the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps was a further blow. Even Wilson was to describe Ariel Sharon as “the most evil man I have come across in Israeli politics”.94 When the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock visited Israel in 1988 during the Intifada, he condemned one of the refugee camps he visited as “a vast slum. It is hell”. He publicly complained about the shooting of young Palestinians, many of them “when they are going in the opposite direction”, ie, running away. Nevertheless, according to his biographer, the Israelis “knew that Kinnock had consistently defended them” in the past and an empty joint statement calling for reconciliation was issued with the leaders of the Israeli Labour Party.95 Even this limited criticism of Israeli brutality was to be abandoned when Tony Blair became Labour leader.

Blair and beyond

Under Blair the party leadership’s support for the US and for Israel became once again unquestioning and total regardless of the complexion of the Israeli government. Indeed, according to one recent study, it became commonplace for the Labour Friends of Israel “to be chaired by rising Blairite backbench MPs…on their way into ministerial ranks…Kim Howells, Jim Murphy, Jane Kennedy, Stephen Twigg, James Purnell”. The Labour Friends of Israel reception at party conferences “became one of the largest and most well-attended events”.96 There was still more criticism of Israel than would have been conceivable in the 1950s and 1960s, and, of course, Blair’s eventual downfall was to be triggered by his uncritical support for Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006. However, this episode provides a distorted picture of the strength of opposition to Israel; many of Gordon Brown’s supporters, themselves members of the Labour Friends of Israel, joined in calling for Blair to go over this issue, even though their concerns were factional rather than critical of Israel. Even so, while the Labour right has remained wholly committed to Zionism, the voices on the left that oppose it have been strengthened by the great movement that was provoked by the Iraq invasion. The growth of anti-imperialism as a force in British politics contributed massively to the radical critique of Zionism. The contemporary Labour left has to be seen as, at least in part, a product of that anti-imperialist movement.

How have the Zionists responded to increased criticism of Israel? Over the years we have seen a determined effort made to label anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic. While this is nothing new in itself—such abuse has a long history—the scale and intensity of the attack has dramatically increased in recent years. And even more recently it has become bound up with the campaign the Labour right has waged against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. There has been a sustained attempt made to discredit the Corbynites by alleging that they are somehow responsible for the Labour Party having a serious problem with anti-Semitism, that the Labour left and the left outside the Labour Party is, in fact, anti-Semitic. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are being deliberately conflated. The most recent example of this is David Rich’s truly appalling book, The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism.97 The title says it all. That a work of such profound intellectual dishonesty has been so widely welcomed shows the determination with which this particular smear is being propagated. The smear has to be fought.

There are two points worth making here: first that the allegations are politically motivated smears, perpetrated by people completely without shame, and second that they do considerable damage to the real fight against anti-Semitism. For socialists the fight against anti-Semitism is of vital importance both because of the crimes against Jewish people that it has been responsible for but also because it has been anti-Semitism that has legitimised Zionism and that made possible the dispossession of the Palestinian people. The left in the broadest sense, certainly not the Labour right, has always been the mainstay of the fight against anti-Semitism in Britain. At a time when there are powerful right-wing campaigns underway in Britain, Europe and the United States to mobilise prejudice, racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, the attempt to label the British left as anti-Semitic is a shameful travesty that can only help the forces of reaction.

John Newsinger is a member of Brighton SWP. He is joint editor, with Richard Lance Keeble, of the George Orwell Studies journal.


1 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp70-71. As Webb himself put it: “The best safeguard against ‘Bolshevism’ is a strong Labour Party in Parliament.”

2 Kelemen, 2012, p11.

3 Stansky, 1969, pp318-322.

4 Woolf, 1968, p236. Woolf was for many years Secretary of the Labour Party’s Advisory Committee on Imperial Questions.

5 Kelemen, 2012, p20.

6 Wilson, 1981, p123.

7 Levenberg, 1945, pp207, 215-216. Paole Zion became the Jewish Labour Movement in 2004 and is still affiliated to the Labour Party.

8 MacDonald, 1922, pp2, 6, 11 and 19.

9 Brustein and Roberts, 2015, p158. They argue convincingly that “left-wing anti-Semitism in Britain reached what might be considered its height during the Boer War”. Although they refer to the left, in fact the anti-Semitism within both the Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation was vigorously opposed by the left in those organisations.

10 Wedgwood, 1941, pp132 and 194.

11 Rose, 1973, p74.

12 Stein, 1992, p37.

13 Keleman, 2000, p147.

14 MacKenzie and Mackenzie, 1985, pp230-231.

15 Kelemen, 2012, p24.

16 Gorny, 1983, p88.

17 Radice, 1984, pp280-281.

18 Weizmann, 1949, pp335-336.

19 Gorny, 1983, p125. Gorny writes of Morrison displaying “a tinge of prejudice” here which, as we shall see, is something of an understatement.

20 Donoughue and Jones, 2001, p256.

21 Gorny, 1983, pp125, 128.

22 Kelemen, 2012, p31.

23 Levenberg, 1945, p209.

24 Rose, 1973, p62.

25 Wedgwood, 1951, p191.

26 See Newsinger, 2010, pp140-149.

27 Boyle, 2001, p225.

28 Levenberg, 1945, pp279, 281, 295; Kelemen, 2012, p91.

29 Mulvey, 2010, p187. In a letter urging the Zionist settlers to greater militancy that he allowed to be made public, he opposed the settlers carrying out “reprisals in the form of murdering innocent Arabs”, but was all in favour of “lynch law”. He even endorsed the use of violence against the British authorities when they tried to interfere with illegal immigration—Wedgwood, 1951, p192.

30 Collette, 2000, p81.

31 According to Francis Nicosia, “German arms were never provided to Arab insurgents in Palestine”—see Nicosia, 1985, p181. As for the Italians, while they undoubtedly encouraged Arab revolt against their British rivals, even providing small quantities of arms, at the same time they also made approaches to the Zionists, urging them to switch their allegiance to Italy, a country that “was not afraid of the Arabs and knew how to deal with them”. The Italian government also offered the Zionists the Gajjam area in recently conquered Abyssinia as a subsidiary settlement—Rose, 1973, p105. And, of course, the Zionist leadership in Palestine was well aware that it was confronting a mass popular revolt; indeed David Ben Gurion actually remarked that if he was an Arab, he “would rise up against an immigration liable some time in the future to hand the country and all of its Arab inhabitants over to Jewish rule. What Arab cannot do his math”—see Teveth, 1985, pp167-168.

32 Reynolds, 1956, p165.

33 Levenberg, 1945, pp229, 234-235.

34 Attlee, 1940, p94.

35 See Newsinger, 2007.

36 Hession, 1984, p226.

37 According to one of his biographers, as late as December 1945, Keynes gave expression to his hostility to the Labour government by veering off “into his facile anti-Semitism as aroused by its ‘socialist advisors…who like so many Jews are either Nazi or Communist at least’”—Felix, 1999, p288.

38 Copsey, 2010, p61.

39 Donoughue and Jones, 2001, p225.

40 Shatzkes, 2002, p5.

41 Kushner, 1989, p152.

42 Wasserstein, 1999, pp41 and 118.

43 Bolchover, 2003, pp8-9.

44 London, 2000, p200.

45 Kushner, 1989, p77.

46 Cesarani, 2016, p577.

47 Shatzkes, 2002, p117.

48 Bolchover, 2003, pxxv.

49 London, 2000, p206.

50 Gilbert, 2001, p109.

51 Gilbert, 2001, pp110-112.

52 Gollancz, 1942. At the back of the pamphlet Gollancz urged readers to pass it on when they had read it so the likelihood is that its readership was substantially higher than 250,000.

53 Wasserstein, 1999, p117.

54 Dudley Edwards, 1987, pp375-376.

55 Certainly as far as Eleanor Rathbone was concerned, in her dealings with Morrison, he showed a “barely concealed dislike of Jews and open hostility towards refugees”—Cohen, 2010, p169.

56 Kushner, 1989, p139.

57 Calder, 1979, p636.

58 Srebrnik, 1990, p86.

59 Cesarani, 1992, pp80-81 and 99-100. As Cesarani points out, the Labour government also expedited the removal from the country of black and Asian soldiers and workers recruited in the Caribbean for war work at the same time.

60 Khromeychuk, 2013, p119.

61 Littman, 2003, p133.

62 Pimlott, 1985, pp389-390.

63 Weizmann, 1949, p436.

64 Gorny, 1983, p179.

65 Dalton, 1986a, p739.

66 Penkower, 2002, p348.

67 Labour Party, 1945, p189.

68 Weizmann, 1949, p439.

69 See Newsinger, 2015, pp5-32.

70 Mikardo, 1988, pp98-99.

71 Kramnick and Sheerman, 1993, pp206-207. They also tell of an occasion in 1944 when Bevin was asked to meet with three members of Labour’s NEC, who happened to be Jewish, to discuss post-war reconstruction with them (Laski was one of the them). He supposedly responded that “he could spend his time better than in discussing Britain’s future with three yids” (p552).

72 Dalton, 1986b, p508. Dalton records himself as responding: “Don’t touch either of them”.

73 Wilson, 1981, p187.

74 Koestler’s relations with the Stern group are explored in Scammell, 2009, pp252, 255, 276, 280-281, 328, 333.

75 Crossman and Foot, 1946, p31.

76 Vaughan, 2013, p9.

77 Crossman, 1947, pp61 and 176.

78 Crossman, 1981, p326.

79 Crossman, 1960, pp58, 59, 67.

80 Crossman, 1960, pp21-22.

81 Zola had played a major role in the defence of Alfred Dreyfus.

82 Howard, 1991, p146. Crossman was staying with Weizmann in Palestine when news of the shooting down of the RAF planes was given to him and assured him on his own testimony that it was “good news”—Crossman, 1960, p72.

83 Dalyell, 1989, p68.

84 Kelemen, 2012, pp128 and 132.

85 Martin, 1953, p219.

86 Wyatt, 1952, pp167 and 177. For the Labour government and the Abadan crisis see Newsinger, 2015, pp174-177.

87 Edmunds, 2000, pp38 and 39.

88 Edmunds, 2000, p48; Adams, 2011, p125.

89 Mayhew and Adams, 1975, p27.

90 Watkins, 1996, pp114-115. Margaret McKay had earlier published an autobiography as Margaret McCarthy, Generation in Revolt (1953), that is still well worth reading. It covers her experiences as a Communist and her reasons for breaking with the Communist Party.

91 Watkins, 1996, p118. The book was published before Blair became Prime Minister.

92 Wilson, 1981, p365.

93 Watkins, 1996, p119.

94 Kelemen, 2012, p174.

95 Westlake, 2001, p463.

96 Greene, 2013, p49.

97 See Rich, 2016.


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