LONDON — The curtain will come down this weekend on Jeremy Corbyn’s hugely controversial leadership of Britain’s Labour party, which has been rocked by allegations of anti-Semitism under his watch. The party’s heavy defeat in December’s general election triggered Corbyn’s resignation and the race for new leader of the opposition. The result of that contest — expected to be won by moderate candidate Sir Keir Starmer — will be announced on Saturday.
All of those campaigning to succeed Corbyn have pledged to rid the party of anti-Semitism and rebuild relations with Britain’s Jewish community.
But that task may be more challenging than many assume, as journalist Ian Hernon outlines in his recently published book, “Anti-Semitism and the Left.”
It details a paradox. On the one hand, Labour was historically strongly pro-Zionist and supportive of Israel, and many Jewish voters saw it as their natural home. On the other, there is also a dark seam of anti-Semitism running through both Labour’s history and that of the wider British left. That seam, Hernon argues, existed long before the rise of anti-Zionism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The roots of that anti-Semitism, he writes, stem from a “populist pursuit of power, bigotry, ignorance or a twisted understanding of history and socialist ideals.”
Hernon is, though, no enemy of the Labour party. The former deputy editor of the left-wing weekly Tribune, he is a self-professed “lifelong socialist and supporter of the Labour party.” In December’s general election, Hernon voted Labour “despite Jeremy Corbyn, not because of him,” he said.
“As a product of generations of coal miners, car workers and footballers, I could never vote anything other than Labour, but I was tempted to spoil my ballot paper,” he told The Times of Israel.
The shock, anger and disorientation many British Jews felt as the Labour anti-Semitism crisis unfolded over the past four years stems from two factors. Historically, a strain of hostility towards Jews among sections of the Establishment had once led many Jewish voters to see Labour as their natural home. This was buttressed by Labour’s decades-old support for Zionism. Indeed, Hernon argues, “the most virulent anti-Semitism” in the UK over the past century has come from “the far right, the British Establishment, [and] the aristocracy.”
Although that is best symbolized by Sir Oswald Mosley, the interwar leader of the British Union of Fascists, the Conservative party has hardly been immune from anti-Semitism, either. It was Tory backbenchers, for instance, who in the early 20th century pressured prime minister Arthur Balfour’s government to introduce the anti-immigration 1905 Aliens Act. Although not explicitly anti-Semitic, its primary purpose was to stem the tide of Jewish immigration into Britain from Eastern Europe.
Indeed, an upper-class genteel form of anti-Semitism was still evident in the Tory party late into the 20th century, with the number of Jews in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinets, for instance, attracting disdainful comment from some quarters.
The Tories’ apparent hostility — and the overwhelmingly working-class nature of the Jewish community — led many Jews into the ranks of the fledgling Labour party in the early 20th century. Citing the example of labor activists and agitators such as William Wess and Lewis Lyons, Hernon notes that “Jewish first- and second-generation immigrants had taken a lead in the trade union movement and they would again be at the forefront of the struggle which created the Labour party.”
Among their ranks was the legendary “Manny” Shinwell. Born into a large East End family of Jewish immigrants, Shinwell became a hero of the left. A trade union organizer in Glasgow’s “Red Clydeside,” he was imprisoned after World War I before becoming a long-serving Labour MP, a minister during the party’s first spell in government in 1924, and Defense Minister in Clement Attlee’s postwar government. (The breakdown of Labour’s once-close relationship with the Jewish community was encapsulated by the fact that former MP Luciana Berger, who became one of Corbyn’s sharpest critics and eventually quit the party over anti-Semitism, is Shinwell’s great-niece).
Pro-Zionism versus anti-imperialism
Labour’s support in the community was complemented by its longstanding commitment to a Jewish state. Three months before the British government signaled its support in the Balfour Declaration, the party debated the first draft of its War Aims Memorandum which advocated that Palestine become a “Free State under international guarantee… 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 or religion.”
As successive interwar governments attempted to renege on the pledge given by Balfour, Labour repeatedly reiterated its commitment. With Britain victorious in World War II and a general election pending, Labour in May 1945 underlined its support for a “happy, free and prosperous Jewish state in Palestine,” stating that Jews should be allowed into the country “in such numbers as to become a majority.”
And when Attlee’s newly elected government then executed its inglorious u-turn, many Labour parliamentarians, including members of the cabinet, were appalled by the “betrayal” of Zionism. Tribune, the newspaper on which Hernon would later rise to a senior position, bemoaned the fact that “the British forces operating against the Palestine Jews are under the orders of a British Labour Government.”
In a similar vein, Michael Foot and Richard Crossman, both Labour Cabinet ministers in the 1960s and 1970s, co-authored a pamphlet, “A Palestine Munich?” which savaged Attlee’s position.
But, as Hernon details, alongside this proud record there exists a darker history; one which involves some of the party’s most revered figures. That history — which, he writes, is “difficult for the modern left to acknowledge” — throws new light on both the Corbyn era and the task his successor will encounter.
Founded in 1900 by the trade unions and a network of left-wing parties and socialist societies, Labour came into being against the backdrop of the Boer War. The conflict saw British forces engaged in a bitter colonial struggle against the Boers in South Africa, one entangled with the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in the late 1880s.
Many in the new Labour party, reflecting a wider disquiet in the country and in the opposition Liberal party, were bitterly opposed to this “imperial” adventure and the jingoism whipped up by the Conservatives and their allies in the right-wing press.
But the manner in which some expressed that opposition was ugly, and would later find an echo in the “anti-imperialist” politics of Corbyn and his hard-left supporters; a politics which is expressed most virulently in its opposition to Israel.
A tarred founding father
The “now-sainted” Keir Hardie, as Hernon describes him, was Labour’s founding figure and its first parliamentary leader. In the very month that the party was established, Hardie asserted that “half a dozen financial houses, many of them Jewish, to whom politics is a counter in the game of buying and selling securities” had led Britain into war in South Africa. At times, Hardie adopted dog-whistle rhetoric. Referring to one of London’s wealthiest areas, he attacked “men living in Park Lane, some of whom are unable to speak the English tongue” who were enriching themselves.
The Labour Leader newspaper, of which Hardie was both editor and publisher, exhibited even more rabidly anti-Semitic language. “Wherever there is trouble in Europe,” it said, “wherever rumours of war circulate and men’s minds are distraught with fear of change and calamity, you may be sure that a hook-nosed Rothschild is at his games somewhere near the region of the disturbances.”
Such language and sentiments were not uncommon. As Hernon writes: “Much of the early Labour party antipathy towards the Jews was a result of its anti-capitalist worldview.”
In 1900, for instance, the Trade Union Congress, which played an instrumental part in the founding of the Labour party, passed a resolution arguing that the Boer War was being fought “to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country.” Such arguments, writes Hernon, were “transparent nonsense even at the time”
Other anti-Semitic Labour grandparents
The Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Britain’s first socialist political party, was part of the coalition of groups which came together to establish Labour. Its leader, H.M. Hyndman, adopted a similarly vituperative stance, sarcastically blaming “such true-born Britons as Beit, Eckstein, Rothschild, Joel, Adler, Goldberg, Israel, Isaac and Co” for the conflict and expressing his “detestation for those aliens” who “under the guise of patriotism” were pushing Britain into a “criminal war of aggression.”
The rhetoric of Hyndman epitomized the conspiracy theories and tropes which were peddled by some on the left. For Hyndman, Jews were the key players in a “sinister ‘gold international’ opposed to the ‘red international’ of socialism.” He repeatedly drew attention to the alleged power of “capitalist Jews on the London Press” — the “Semitic lords of the press” who had led the country into war. Such attitudes spilled out into the SDF’s newspaper. “Jew moneylenders now control every Foreign Office in Europe,” articles in Justice proclaimed.
Opposition to the war also led some — such as the socialist poet and SDF activist Edward Carpenter — to idealize Britain’s opponents, the Boers, despite, as Hernon points out, “that society’s inherently racist structure and the post-war history of repression and apartheid.”
He contrasted their idyllic farming lives with the “hell of Jews, financiers, greedy speculators, adventurers, prostitutes… and every invention of the devil” which accompanied the South African gold rush. The British political class, he said, had been led “by the nose” into war, while only the working class remained “uncorrupted” by Jewish ideas.
Jew moneylenders now control every Foreign Office in Europe
The parallels between the some of the language and attitudes deployed by opponents of the Boer War and those adopted by the modern-day “anti-imperialists” on the hard left are “uncannily similar,” believes Hernon. “Both the Boers and the likes of Saddam Hussein were treated as downtrodden or brave opponents of imperialism, while Jews were the despoilers, the profiteers, the epitome of capitalism,” he says.
Anti-Semitic attitudes were not confined to the Boer War but, Hernon shows, were apparent in views expressed by some of Labour’s other early leading lights. Beatrice and Sidney Webb — pioneering social reformers who played a crucial role in founding the party’s intellectual power-house, the Fabian Society — described Jews as a “constant influence for degradation” in their 1897 book “Industrial Democracy.”
Sidney Webb, who later served as a cabinet minister in the 1929 Labour government, inaccurately suggested that there were “no Jews in the British Labour Party,” stating that “French, German, Russian Socialism is Jew-ridden. We, thank heaven are free.” This alleged absence of Jews from the Labour party he attributed to the fact that there was “no money in it.”
The views of Ramsay MacDonald, who led the first Labour government, demonstrate how, for some, the party’s opposition to capitalism easily bled into anti-Semitism. They also show the bizarre contradictions which peppered the attitudes of some of the party’s founders.
In 1921, three years before he became prime minister, MacDonald visited Palestine and returned home to wax lyrical about the “Israelites returning to Zion.” In a pamphlet published by Poale Zion, a Jewish socialist society affiliated to the Labour party, he praised the Jews he had met in Palestine for building a future in the “home of their fathers… in socialist fashion and upon the foundations of communal idealism.” Their work, he added, would “rebuild Palestine and fence it against capitalism.”
But despite his Zionist sympathies, Hernon writes, MacDonald was “still gripped by an inclination towards vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes.” MacDonald contrasted the Jews he had met in Palestine with “the rich plutocratic Jew” whose “views upon life make one anti-Semitic.”
“He has no country, no kindred,” MacDonald said. “Whether as a sweater or a financier, he is an exploiter of everything he can squeeze. He is behind every evil that governments do, and his political authority, always exercised in the dark, is greater than that of Parliamentary majorities.”
Such Jews, he continued, despised Zionism because it “revives the idealism of his race, and has political implications which threaten his economic interests.”
Equal opportunity Jew hatred
It is important, as Hernon notes, to remember that British society was “rife” with anti-Semitic prejudice during this time and this was expressed on both the left and right of the political spectrum. It was, furthermore, thousands of ordinary Labour party members who fought the most potent threat to British Jews in the 1930s — Mosley’s fascist blackshirts.
Nonetheless, the “socialist double-think over comradeship and capitalism,” as Hernon calls it, remains striking. “It is always problematical to impose on past societies the values of the modern age,” he writes. “But it is also difficult to understand, or condone, how a movement with the honourable aims of equality of opportunity… could condemn one set of prejudices and replace them with another.”
Even after the horrors of the death camps were revealed in 1945, some in the post-war Labour government at times displayed the same prejudices as both their predecessors and their Conservative opponents across the chamber.
Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, for instance, told the Labour party conference during the traumatic final months of the British Mandate in Palestine: “There has been agitation in the United States, and particularly in New York, for 100,000 Jews to be put in Palestine. I hope I will not be understood in America if I say that this was proposed by the purest of motives. They did not want too many Jews in New York.”
Bevin, a former trade union leader who hailed from the right of the party, also made remarks linking Jews to both finance and communism, complained about European Jews “pushing to the front of the queue,” and during the 1947 fuel crisis quipped about “Israelites” being engaged in the black market.
As the British Mandate came to an end, Richard Crossman, an arch-Zionist and future Labour Cabinet minister, labeled the views of the notoriously cantankerous and plain-speaking Bevin as “corresponding roughly with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The Foreign Secretary’s discourse, he argued, suggested that “the Jews has successfully organised a conspiracy against Britain and against him personally.” (Hernon believes Bevin’s comments to have been “ill-judged” but doesn’t think him to have been “brazenly anti-Semitic.”)
Bevin’s cabinet colleague, Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton, was, if anything, more blatant in his anti-Semitic utterances, calling the Labour party chairman, Harold Laski, an “under-sized Semite” and attacking his left-wing attitudes as “yideology.” As Hernon notes, Dalton also used grotesquely racist language to describe Africans and Arabs.
But the youngest member of Attlee’s administration, Harold Wilson, went on to become Labour leader in the 1960s and 1970s and was arguably the most strongly pro-Israel prime minister Britain has seen. Wilson’s biographer, Philip Ziegler, has argued that in office Wilson sought to “expiate Bevin’s sins” and wipe away the stain on Labour’s record caused by its handling of the end of the Mandate.
Wilson’s trenchant Zionism and the close ties to, and solid support from, the Jewish community which he maintained throughout his 16 years at the helm of the party reflected a long and deep tradition which stretches back through Labour’s history. It is one in which Wilson’s Labour successors in Downing Street — Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — firmly stand.
But alongside that tradition is another. It is a noxious fusion of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and anti-Semitism — replete with tropes and conspiracy theories — which Corbyn’s leadership unearthed and brought to the surface once again. Burying it will the biggest challenge of the new Labour leader.