‘Labour has a long and complex history with both Zionism and anti-Zionism’

Jon Lansman
© Nick Brundle Photography/ shutter stock.com
© Nick Brundle Photography/ shutter stock.com

Louise Ellman, in her recent polemic about Zionism and anti-Zionism, presents her view that “elements of the far-left” have adopted a myth “that the state of Israel is somehow symbolic of, and central to, all the world’s ills”. The picture she paints is an inaccurate picture of any significant part of the current Labour left – though it may be a valid representation of parts of the far left outside the Labour Party. 

The existence of any form of racism in the Labour Party is of course troubling and merits a disciplinary response, and care is always needed about the language we use in emotive debates. That needn’t prevent discussion of the worsening conflict in Israel/Palestine nor of the changing face of “Zionism” and making legitimate contributions to such discussion is not conditional on support for Zionism.

Some expressions of anti-Zionism are racist, just as are the views of Israeli far-right self-proclaimed Religious Zionists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, members of the current Israeli government. You can support the existence of a Jewish state from a non-Zionist perspective and you can also legitimately oppose Zionism without being antisemitic as many Haredi Jews do.

Louise’s approach is, I would suggest, rooted in her recent experience of antisemitism from some former members in the local party she represented more than the historical experience and interests of Jews and Palestinians or the prospects for resolution anytime soon of their 75 year conflict. Her account reflects neither the full range of views of Jews on these issues nor the rightward shift of the Zionist movement in that time. 

For example, two Jewish perspectives on Zionism were available at Labour’s Scarborough conference in 1947 – a year before Israel’s birth – when two Jewish delegates spoke in the debate on Palestine, then administered by the British Labour Government. The motion called for more open immigration to Palestine and supported the creation of a Jewish state within Palestine. 

In moving the motion, Maurice Rosettè of Poale Zion covered most ground: the positive achievements of the (mainly Jewish) Labour and trade union movement in Palestine; the plight of Holocaust survivors who had nowhere else to go; and in condemnation of the acts of terrorism by the Irgun and Lehi (led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir respectively) including the very recent murder of 13 people in a British officers club in Jerusalem.  

Henry Solomons from Hammersmith, opposing, praised Rosettè’s speech but warned that “there cannot be peace and tranquillity in Palestine unless there is cooperation between the Arab, the Jewish and the Christian inhabitants”. That potential conflict prompted not only Solomons’ caution, but Ernest Bevin’s response to the debate and the conference’s decision the motion not be put to a vote, in spite of Louise Ellman’s claim that Labour “has a long and proud history of support for Zionism; in spite of the fact that more than 250,000 Jewish displaced persons were then living in camps and urban centres in former Axis countries; and in spite of the recent pogrom in Kielce, Poland, which had killed 42 Jews and injured 40 others. 

The state of Israel was born a year later, but not because the Zionist movement won their argument with the US and Britain – both the US State Department and Britain’s Labour government  remained actively opposed to it. It happened because of support of Stalin and the Soviet Union as meticulously explained in a recent book by Jeffrey Herf, Israel’s Moment: International Support and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945-1949. 

The truth is that the relationship between the Labour Party and Zionism was never as simple and clear cut as Louise Ellman suggests. Antagonism to the Labour Government’s policy on Israel/Palestine was widespread within the party in that period because it was seen as insufficiently supportive of the Zionist cause – exemplified by the title of a 1946 pamphlet by Michael Foot and Richard Crossman – A Palestine Munich? – hardly a flattering comparison of the Attlee government with that of Chamberlain!

Back then, it was the left that supported Zionism more than the right: not just the Labour left but also the Communist Party, which then had a Jewish section as well as a Jewish MP. The Labour left remained pro-Zionist until the 1980s: Tony Benn, for example, recorded in his diary on 30 June 1980 that he was against PLO recognition “not because I am anti-Palestinian but because the annihilation of Israel is the PLO objective.”  

His view like Labour attitudes began gradually to change with the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 with the election of Revisionist Zionists and former terrorists, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, as Prime Ministers of Israel. They turned an illegal occupation into creeping annexation, undermining or destroying everything positive that the Israeli Labour Party created. 

At the last Israeli election, Meretz, our more left-wing Israeli sister party, lost its representation in the Knesset. Ha’avodah, the Israeli Labor Party, has just 4 but realistically cannot be expected to retain any at the next election unless it reaches and agreement with Meretz and perhaps also with Hadash, the Israeli Communist Party, whose Joint List is supported mainly by Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

The Labour movement that created the Israeli state and dominated its politics has all but disappeared. The is no peace process nor any prospect of another Labour government anytime soon. Israel now has its first government that includes fascists but not its last. Annexation is now openly and brutally pursued and the current movement for “Democracy” in Israel is concerned exclusively with Jewish rights, not those of Palestinians, whether or not they are Israeli citizens. 

This is unlikely to improve. Meretz and Ha’avodah draw their support primarily from the wealthiest in Israel. The poorest Jews in Israel are the most orthodox Jews who mostly vote for religious parties and Mizrachi Jews whose heritage is Middle Eastern or Maghrebi, who vote for Right-wing parties since they widely and understandably see the left parties as non-religious, Eurocentric or just plain racist. And they have far more children. Especially the anti-Zionists. There is no happy ending to this story.

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