LONDON — Avi Gabbay’s decision last week to break links with Jeremy Corbyn may have little practical effect – the British Labour leader’s contemptuous brush off indicates how little he cares about the relationship – but it has huge symbolic value.
As Gabbay correctly noted, Labor and its British sister party have “a long history of friendship” based on the latter’s close ties to the Jewish community and traditionally strong support for the state of Israel.
But his warm references to the former British prime ministers Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both diplomatically skated over some awkward history and failed to capture the length and depth of Labour’s Zionist credentials.
By the time the British government formally committed itself to the cause of a Jewish homeland in Palestine in November 1917, the fledgling Labour party had already stolen a march on it.
Three months prior to the publication of the Balfour Declaration, the party issued the first draft of the War Aims Memorandum, its vision for the post-war world. Written by Arthur Henderson, the Labour leader, and Sydney Webb, the party’s intellectual driving force, it declared: “The British Labour Movement expresses the opinion that Palestine should be set free from the harsh and oppressive government of the Turk, in order that the country may form a free state, under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish People as desired to do so may return, and may work out their salvation.”
It was, as Dr. Ronnie Fraser, the director of Academic Friends of Israel, has shown, a critical turning point in the relationship between Labour and Britain’s Jews, igniting the party’s “enthusiasm for Zionism.”
It was also the moment which cemented the alliance between Poale Zion — a Jewish workers’ movement founded in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century which preached a blend of socialism and Zionism — and the Labour party.
A year later, on the eve of the 1918 general election, Poale Zion, which had established its first branches in Britain in 1903, urged Jewish voters to back Labour.
It was a call that many Jews heeded, establishing a relationship which – though not without its twists and turns – would last for many decades to come.
Jewish backing for Labour was not just a function of the party’s position on Zionism – a belief which did not as yet command universal backing in the community – but was also driven by socio-economic factors. Moreover, the all too common mix of snobbery and anti-Semitism which dominated the pre-war Conservative Party’s upper echelons led to a mutual antagonism between the Tories and many Jews.
Thus, as the foremost expert on the political attitudes of British Jewry, Professor Geoffrey Alderman, has suggested, “by the mid-1930s, the Labour party had become the normal political home of the mass of poor working-class Jews in Britain and, one suspects, of a significant number of middle-class Jews.”
Labour friends and frenemies
Labour proved itself a steadfast supporter of the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Its own annual conferences, and those of its allies in the trade union movement, repeatedly endorsed this principle during the 1930s. In May 1939, Labour opposed the Conservative government’s White Paper, which sought to halt Jewish immigration to Palestine and effectively reneged on the undertakings made by Arthur Balfour nearly 20 years before.
In 1944, the party declared that the case for large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine was “irresistible” in the face of the “unspeakable atrocities” perpetuated by the Nazis
The horrors which were to unfold in Europe over the following six years only served to strengthen Labour’s conviction. In 1944, the party declared that the case for large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine was “irresistible” in the face of the “unspeakable atrocities” perpetuated by the Nazis.
Shortly after Germany’s surrender and as Britain prepared for its first general election in a decade, Labour nailed its colors firmly to the Zionist mast. Addressing its annual conference in May 1945, Hugh Dalton, who two months later would become Chancellor of the Exchequer following the party’s landslide win, declared it “morally wrong and politically indefensible to restrict the entry into Palestine of Jews desiring to go there.”
It was, though, no accident that Gabbay omitted from his list of Labour friends of Israel Clement Attlee, who led Labour to victory in July 1945 and is often regarded as the party’s greatest ever prime minister.
Just months after Attlee’s government assumed office, the new Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, betrayed the Zionist cause which Labour had consistently advocated for nearly three decades. The party, he announced, would honor the terms of the 1939 White Paper it had voted against six years previously.
The decision provoked understandable fury among British Jews, who had voted for Labour in huge numbers in July’s general election.
“There cannot have been in 20th century British history,” Harold Wilson later wrote, “a greater contrast between promise and performance than was shown by the incoming government over Middle East issues.”
This anger was compounded by the rejection of a proposal to outlaw anti-Semitism by Labour’s annual conference in 1946, the failure in 1948 of a parliamentary bill along similar lines, and the government’s decision, following the ending of the British Mandate in Palestine in May 1948, to withhold de facto recognition from Israel until February 1949, and de jure recognition for a further year.
Nonetheless, back in opposition after 1951 and with Bevin now dead, Labour’s support for the new Israeli state was re-established.
At its annual conference in 1955, the party demanded a military pact with Israel. Speaking for the National Executive Committee, Sam Watson saluted the young socialist state which contained “some of the finest creative impulses mankind has ever seen.”
Crossroads at the Suez canal
Within a year, the Suez crisis provoked a serious deterioration in relations between Labour and the many British Jews who felt that – whatever the rights and wrongs of Britain and France’s actions – Israel’s October 1956 invasion of Sinai had been more than justified by Egypt’s use of the Gaza Strip as a base to launch raids by Palestinian fedayeen. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s likening of prime minister Anthony Eden to a policeman who had decided to “go in and help the burglar [Israel] shoot the householder [Egypt]” provoked dismay.
Harold Lever, a Jewish Cabinet minister under Wilson, believed that, alongside growing affluence, Labour’s attitude to Suez was the factor which began the shift of traditional Jewish allegiances from left to right.
However, there was nothing linear about this process. Gaitskell’s untimely death in 1963 led to Wilson becoming Labour leader and prime minister a year later. His philo-Semitism did much to repair the party’s battered reputation among the Jewish community.
Wilson’s support for Israel and his determination, in the words of his biographer Philip Ziegler, to “expiate Bevin’s sins” was in many ways at odds with his famously pragmatic political persona. As the strongly Zionist Labour MP Ian Mikardo later commented, “I don’t think Harold … [had] any doctrinal beliefs at all. Except for one, which I find utterly incomprehensible, which is his devotion to the cause of Israel.”
That devotion was evident in both 1967 and 1973 when he angrily slapped down those in his own party who did not share his determination to stand with the imperiled Jewish state in its hour of need.
When Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser declared the Straits of Tiran closed in May 1967, Wilson pledged to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol to “promote and secure free passage.” In Cabinet, Wilson batted away the objections of his defense secretary and chancellor that such an exercise would be costly and militarily difficult. As Abba Eban, then Israel’s ambassador to the US, later recalled, Wilson was prepared “for the maximum degree of commitment compatible with his country’s real strength and responsibility.”
Six years later, Wilson was back as the leader of Opposition, having been ejected from Downing Street by Ted Heath in 1970. The new Conservative prime minister did not share his predecessor’s Zionist sympathies, as became all too apparent when Israel was attacked in October 1973. Seeking to appease the oil-producing Arab states, Heath imposed an arms embargo on both sides. Despite his claims of even-handedness, the action hit the Jewish state hardest, with Britain denying Israel spare parts for weapons it had previously sold to it.
Wilson, who spoke daily to the Israeli ambassador to London, kept abreast of the fighting, and was determined to overturn the embargo in parliament. Despite the protests of some of his Shadow Cabinet, he imposed a three-line whip upon his backbenchers. The strength of his feelings was clear, as he stormed at one dissenting colleague: “I’ve accommodated your f–ing conscience for years. Now you’re going to have to take account of mine.”
Harold Wilson: I’ve accommodated your f–ing conscience for years. Now you’re going to have to take account of mine
With pro-Israeli Tories revolting against their government, Wilson attempted to quell a pro-Arab revolt on Labour’s backbenches. In the debate, he pushed the left’s buttons to buttress the Israeli cause: raising the specter of appeasement in the 1930s and likening the government’s position to the policy of non-intervention in the Spanish civil war, while arguing that Britain should not give into blackmail by “oil-rich monarchs and presidents,” but should stand instead stand with “democratic socialist” Israel.
The government’s majority remained in tact and Wilson lost the vote. Still, he would not brook any hint of anti-Semitism in his ranks, sacking one frontbencher for his “uncomradely behavior” in suggesting that Jewish MPs had dual loyalties.
Wilson was no lone voice within the party. Leading Labour politicians of the 1960s and 1970s such as Richard Crossman, Ted Short and Barbara Castle all shared his strongly pro-Israel stance, as did many others in the parliamentary party. In June 1975, the Labour Middle East Council launched a bid to free the party from what it termed “Zionist infiltration,” but the group’s membership was barely one-quarter of that of Labour Friends of Israel.
Margaret Thatcher, who drove Labour from office in 1979, shared Wilson’s affinity for the Jewish community and his support for Israel (as a member of his Cabinet, she had vigorously opposed Heath’s approach in 1973 and publicly distanced herself from it). As I describe in my new book, on her watch, the traditional sympathies and affiliations of Britain’s two main parties were upended.
Labour’s growing hostility towards Israel was intertwined with its dramatic lurch to the left after Thatcher’s victory. Where it took control of local constituency parties, the hard left passed resolutions condemning the “Zionist State of Israel” and endorsing the “struggle of the Palestinian people for the liberation of their homeland.” Its supporters denounced Israel as a “racist, theocratic state” which had “no right to exist” and had only come about because of the world’s “guilty conscience” following the Holocaust.
Jewish Labour MPs who stood up to such attacks were labelled “racist” and efforts were made to deselect them and disaffiliate Poale Zion, the Jewish socialist society affiliated to the party. Dark insinuations were made about the “secret and overwhelming” Jewish control of the media and politics. In some areas, moderate Labour councilors were forced from the party.
At a national level, too, pro-Israel voices struggled to make themselves heard. In the wake of 1982’s First Lebanon War, Labour’s biggest union backer, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, called for a boycott of Israel. The party itself passed a resolution at its 1982 annual conference recognizing the PLO and backing the establishment of a “democratic secular state” – widely viewed as ill-disguised code for Israel’s destruction.
The Labour leadership swiftly buried the undertaking but among the party’s candidates for the following year’s general election who publicly endorsed the motion was a young local organizer named Jeremy Corbyn.
The unknown backbencher who could
Even after his election to parliament, Corbyn was, though, a largely unknown backbencher who wielded little power.
By contrast, Ken Livingstone, the leader of the Greater London Council, was one of the most prominent Labour politicians in the country. He soon came to embody all that many Jews most disliked most about the hard left.
The cause of those fears was not hard to discern. In 1982, for instance, the Labour Herald, a newspaper of which Livingstone was an editor, published a cartoon of prime minister Menachem Begin dressed in a Gestapo uniform amidst the skulls and corpses of Palestinians with the caption “The Final Solution.” The Board of Deputies unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the Attorney General to prosecute under the Race Relations Act. Nor was this an isolated incident in the Herald: Elsewhere in its pages, Israel was labelled “a State entirely built on the blood of Europe’s Jews, whom the Zionists deserted in their hour of greatest need.”
Even at the height of its power in the early 1980s, the hard left was no more than a noisy, disruptive and electorally toxic minority in Labour. Today, its power is deeply entrenched
Livingstone would later suggest to the Israeli magazine Davar that the Board of Deputies had been “taken over by Jews who hold extreme right-wing views” and offered the bizarre pronouncement that Jews “have been organizing here in London, and throughout Britain, into paramilitary groups which resemble fascist organizations.” The Jewish Chronicle condemned Livingstone’s “sweeping vilification of the community,” warning that it threatened to make “Labour-supporting movements ‘judenrein.’”
As if on cue, shortly afterwards the hard left forced out Reg Freeson, a Jewish Labour MP and leading figure in Poale Zion, and replaced him with Livingstone. His public support for Israel, Freeson said afterwards, meant that some had branded him “that bloody Zionist and Jew.”
It is striking that, three decades on, similar scenes – sometimes with a cast featuring the same characters – are being replayed in the Labour Party. For Britain’s Jews, and their moderate allies within the party, the past provides grounds for both optimism and despair.
The hard left’s ascendancy was rapid but also short-lived. By the mid-1980s, the tide had turned decisively against it. Labour’s new leader, Neil Kinnock, suppressed anti-Zionist rhetoric, struck up a warm relationship with Shimon Peres, and worked to win back the trust of the Jewish community and roll back what his deputy described as “creeping anti-Semitism operating in the party.”
The road back to electability was a long one but, within a decade, Tony Blair was heading to Downing Street, his party now purged of what one former aide dismissively termed its “anti-Israelism.”
In 1997, constituencies with large Jewish populations – including Thatcher’s own former seat – fell to Labour with greater than average swings.
It wasn’t, of course, all about Blair’s strong support for Israel. His commitment to education, emphasis on the values of community and reciprocal responsibilities, and attempt to place Labour on the side of entrepreneurs resonated with many Jews, as it did in the UK as a whole.
But the parallels between Labour’s position today and 30 years ago are by no means exact. Even at the height of its power in the early 1980s, the hard left was no more than a noisy, disruptive and electorally toxic minority. Today, its power is deeply entrenched: it has elected one of its own to the leadership, controls the Labour Party machine and key trade unions, and its attitudes have become ingrained among the membership. Only the parliamentary party remains unconquered, although it is largely quiescent.
Avi Gabbay and his successors may thus have a long wait before anything resembling normality is restored to the relationship between Israeli Labor and their British comrades.
Journalist and writer Robert Philpot is the former editor of Progress magazine and is now a contributing editor to it. His articles have appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and History Today. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.