Paul Kelemen, The British Left and Zionism: History of a Divorce. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Paul Kelemen (PK): I am of the generation, coming to adulthood in the late 1960s, which was deeply influenced by the Vietnamese struggle and by national liberation movements in Africa. Yet most of us knew next to nothing of what the clashes between Israel and Palestinian guerrilla fighters along its borders represented. The 1967 war and Israel’s subsequent occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights was a wakeup call. But there had to be several further such calls before we could talk about an organized move to question the orthodoxies of the mainstream British left regarding how Israel came about and the implications of building a state on land forcibly taken from its inhabitants. Among the most cherished of orthodoxies was that Israel, with its trade union and kibbutzim, represented some kind of socialism. Even the Communist party, despite its anti-colonial campaigning and earlier criticisms of Zionism, had supported the setting up of Israel and then fell silent on the Palestinians’ fate.
On a more personal note I should add that I, too, was only sporadically involved in discussions and political activity on Palestine until the Israeli siege of Beirut and the Sabra and Shatila massacres. As a Jew, however, I felt implicated. Zionism never had the slightest attraction for me, but the history of East European Jewry, and particularly of Hungarian Jews—my father was a survivor of Mauthausen concentration camp—was part of my family’s history. I only became aware of just how deeply this history mattered to me when I started studying the history of Palestine. It is repulsive to see Zionists use the Holocaust to fuel their ethnic nationalism.
J: What particular issues does the book address?
PK: It examines the attraction of Zionism, and later of the state of Israel, to the left. In the 1930s, the idea of a European population claiming to bring social progress and trade unionism to the Arab world was a colonialism with a “socialist” face, which appealed to the British Labour party and other European social democratic parties. While Labour Zionists were telling the international labour movement that they were building socialism in Palestine and helping to raise the living standards of the Palestinians, Chaim Weizmann was lobbying the British political elite on the basis that a Jewish Palestine would be a useful asset for British imperialism. But this is only part of the story. Zionist influence on the British left was facilitated by the political and financial resources it was able to draw on from the Jewish community in the UK and elsewhere. This was achieved through what Theodor Herzl had called the “conquest of community,” which the Zionist movement carried out in parallel with the “conquest of land” and “conquest of labor” in Palestine.
In the book, I look at the process by which the Zionist movement gained dominance over Anglo-Jewry. It was achieved mainly through a philanthropic mobilization for the refugees from Nazism and later for Israel. The expansion of Jewish schools from the 1960s, which tapped into middle-class anxieties about the state of inner-city education, also proved to be effective instruments of Zionist indoctrination. Over the past decade, however, with Israel’s accelerating rightward drift, a growing number of British Jews have distanced themselves from Zionism.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
PK: I began with an interest in British colonialism, and particularly in East Africa. The British began settling white people in the Kenyan highlands only a decade or so before the Balfour Declaration allocated another part of the imperial estate to another set of Europeans. Volumes have been written detailing in admiring terms every move by Weizmann and his colleagues to persuade the British elite of the Zionist objective. But the British agonized over it remarkably little, considering it their prerogative to give the land of a people they considered to be of an inferior race to people that Balfour and his colleagues believed formed an inassimilable race. It is revealing that Lord Balfour, the architect of the anti-Semitic 1905 Aliens Act, devised to keep Britain closed to Jews fleeing from Russian pogroms, is honored by having a street in Tel Aviv named after him.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PK: The Arab nationalist cause had no voice in Britain and, more broadly, in Western Europe during 1947-48 when the Nakba occurred. The French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, a founding figure of the study of collective memory, made the point that if an event is not fixed in the public consciousness when it occurs, it is unlikely to be recalled in later years. In 1948, the left, which usually championed the cause of the victims of imperialism, was silent on the Palestinians; the refugees were largely forgotten until the New Left began to recall what had happened and to develop solidarity with the Palestinian national movement.
I hope my book contributes to critical reflections on Israel, on the Palestinian struggle, and on the left’s own history. The pro-Israeli lobby would like to make people believe that to focus on Israel is itself anti-Semitic because many other states also commit injustices. But this ignores the special connection that the West has with the Israeli state and therefore the possibility for us to do something about it. Israel is an integral part of the US-EU power bloc and it is a link where we can be effective.
Western governments have imposed sanctions against Russia for its occupation of the Crimea, and earlier against Iraq and Iran, but these governments allow Israel to occupy others’ land, bomb civilians, flout international law, and arm itself with atomic weapons, and yet far from being sanctioned, it receives increased support. It is not pro-Palestinian campaigners who have made Israel into a special case, when Israel enjoys impunity even under the international laws that have been drafted mainly by the Western powers.
J: How do you see your focus on the history of the relationship between the British Left and Zionism as potentially contributing to current debates in Britain and beyond?
PK: The Israel/Palestine issue cannot be separated from the Islamophobia that is stoked daily by mainstream politicians and media. It would not be possible for Israel to bomb the people of Gaza if they were white Christians. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, the struggle to defeat South African apartheid developed in tandem with the American civil rights movement and anti-racist struggles throughout Western capitalist societies. At stake in these struggles was how black and white peoples were to relate to each other in the post-colonial world order. White superiority in South Africa was intimately linked to maintaining the white man’s world. Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher felt this keenly. Now, too, the anti-racist struggle has to battle on two principal and connected fronts: on the one hand, against Islamophobia, the dominant form of racism in the world because it is promoted by the most powerful states; and, on the other, against Western imperial power, in which Israel plays a front-line role in the Middle East.
What happens in Palestine will be important in defining relations between the Muslim and Western worlds for many decades. The anti-apartheid movement helped to dismantle the Bantustans of South Africa and establish equality in principle, though its implementation is incomplete, and now progressive people around the world have to build a pro-Palestinian movement that will dismantle the apartheid system being developed by Israel.
J: Do you foresee any change coming from the British Labour party in terms of its attitude to Israel and Palestinian self-determination?
PK: Among the party membership, sympathy has decisively swung from Israel to the Palestinians, but part of the New Labour project was to reverse this trend. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown whittled down the membership’s influence over deciding policies and were also active in rebuilding the Labour Friends of Israel, which by the mid-1980s had become practically defunct. They believed that good relations with the leadership of the Jewish community would help their broader ambition of improving their standing in the City and the wider business world. Their other reason was that they saw support for Israel as necessary to signal New Labour’s desire to be close allies with the US. This seemed at first to be merely froth for electoral purposes, and the real thrust of New Labour’s foreign policy was claimed to reside in Robin Cooke’s “ethical” foreign policy. But it proved to be the reverse. The much-touted “ethical” dimension was the froth, and the Blair government backed US foreign policy to the hilt.
A Miliband government will also seek to please the US. What could, however, decisively change British and EU Middle East policy, irrespective of which parties are in power, is strong public pressure for imposing sanctions on Israel. The BDS campaign is important. It is building popular support for sanctions without which Israel will not change and more wars will follow.
Excerpts from The British Left and Zionism
Despite the fact that Hope Simpson’s report had made reference to the Histadrut’s sectarian conduct, the issue was rarely raised in Britain. The picketers achieved a certain amount of international attention, however, in 1934, when their action directed against orange groves north of Jaffa led to violent clashes with Palestinian workers. The Jewish Chronicle reported: “The entire Jewish population in the neighborhood of Kfar Saba has voluntarily mobilized for the purpose of picketing Jewish orange groves in Kfar Saba in which Arab labor is employed…The employers argue that they were compelled to use Arab labor because of the shortage of Jewish workers.” By one of the bitter ironies of which the history of the Palestine conflict is replete, this coincided with the Nazi initiatives in Germany to boycott Jewish businesses and to exclude Jews from public places. In Bavaria “the local branch of the Union of German clothing manufacturers has refused to accept any business offers from ‘non-Aryan’ agents or factory owners unless they were wounded in the war…Jews hardly dare to enter any public place, even a restaurant or café. The last remaining garden restaurant that has been open to Jews has now been closed to them. Jews are not admitted to the swimming baths.”
For the Zionist movement, the Nazi measures against Jews in Germany were further justification for ensuring the availability of employment for Jews in Palestine though it also involved discrimination on the basis of ethnicity. Defending its use in Palestine, Selig Brodetsky, a professor of mathematics at Leeds University, who would later become the first Zionist president of the Board of Jewish Deputies, declared: “just as the English working men had a right to expect the English employer to employ English working men, so the Jewish working men had the right to expect the Jewish employer to employ Jewish working men.” This argument would not have been out of place, at the time, in the propaganda of the British Union of Fascists (BUF).
In the year leading up to the war, the sympathy generated by the events of 1938 for the Jewish victims of Nazism was fragile and did not give rise to a coalition of forces in favor of the mass immigration of Jews into Britain. Over the course of 1938, in response to pressure from humanitarians and public opinion, the government did, however, relax its entry controls. It also speeded up the admission procedures: it admitted 10,000 unaccompanied children from Germany and took over the funding of refugee settlement and re-emigration from voluntary organizations. Entry to the UK was authorized for up to about 50,000 refugees between May 1938 and the end of January 1939. Louise London estimates that even then only “perhaps one applicant in ten succeeded in gaining entry”. The political groups which might have influenced the government to allow the entry of a much larger number allied themselves with the policy of “individual infiltration”. This was the stance, each for its own reasons, of most of the humanitarian lobby, the Labor Party, the trade union movement, the Communist Party and of the Zionist and non-Zionist organizations in the Jewish community. The only other political solution on which, with the exception of the communists, they were in agreement was that the refugees be allowed to go to Palestine. They paid little heed to the Arab viewpoint and were either indifferent to the refugees’ impact on Palestine or blithely assumed that it would be beneficial. Eleanor Rathbone, an independent MP and a leading women’s rights campaigner, who was moved by the persecution of the Jews to become one of the leading humanitarian advocates for the refugees exclaimed: “Would it matter to the progress of civilization if all the Arabs were drowned in the Mediterranean?”
The expansion of Jewish voluntary schools from the 1950s provided one of the means by which middle-class aspirations could be delivered through religious and nationalist indoctrination. The new “Other” in the form of the black immigrant population encouraged the Jewish middle class to emphasize a Jewishness that was also English. Bermant described how an initiative to persuade the Zionist organization to set up the Clapton Jewish Day School was “helped by local circumstances”: “There is a sizeable colored population in the area, and this tends to encourage families to take their children out of State schools and into the private ones. Once the colored families begin to move out of their ghettoes into the suburbs, the other Jewish day schools may enjoy a similar boost.” The head of a primary school in northwest London expressed dismay in 1978, over “Jewish parents who only a couple of generations ago were themselves immigrants refusing to agree to send their children to this or that school simply because they don’t want their children to mix with those of colored immigrants”.
…In 1971, the Zionist Federation claimed that 4,500 children were taught in Zionist schools. In almost all the Jewish schools children were immersed in Zionist ideas for which, in addition to the Hebrew language classes, visit to Israel came to form an increasingly important supportive role. Tours organized for youth as the “Israel Experience” were described by the head of the Youth and Pioneer Department of the WZO [World Zionist Organization], in 1966, as “an educational tool, a hands-on experience, aimed first and foremost at bringing individuals closer to the historic heritage, which has Israel at its center, and in this way to tie them to Judaism, to Israel and to Zionism.”
In June 1946, when the British responded to attacks by Zionist militia by carrying out searches and mass arrests, a statement by the CPGB’s [Communist Party of Great Britain] Central Committee pointed to the arrest without charge of some 2,000 Jews, “including leaders of the Palestine Jewish community, Jewish Agency, Trade Union and Co-operative.” These leaders characterized by the party in the past as reactionaries seeking to turn the Jews of Palestine into the tools of British imperialism, were now described as men and women who “occupy the same positions and command the same respect, in Palestine, as the leaders of similar organizations do in Britain.” A shift in position was also evident in the resolution on colonial affairs that the CPGB leadership proposed to the Nineteenth Party Congress, held in February 1947. The previous Congress had called for a joint struggle by Arabs and Jews “to end the Zionist policy of Jewish exclusiveness in industry and agriculture” and for Jewish immigration to be subject to Arab-Jewish agreement. By contrast, the Central Committee’s resolution pointed to imperialism as the source of oppression but made no reference to Zionism. It provoked a party member to complain that it was “vague”: “No mention is made in the resolution as to our view on Jewish immigration, Zionism and the question appertaining to the problem.”
The 1973 Yom Kippur War widened the circle of sceptics over Israel’s policies towards the Arab world. From the ranks of the Labour Party, too, Israel’s victory this time elicited nothing like the enthusiasm that had greeted it in 1967. “In the past six years, since her spectacular victory,” wrote Labour Weekly, the party’s official newspaper, “Israel has been warned time and again that if she held on to all the occupied territories an Arab attack was inevitable.” Eric Heffer, one of the standard bearers of the Tribune group of MPs, maintained that Israel’s political leaders did not want to expand the country’s borders but a Tribune report contradicted him: “The overwhelming feeling of the period immediately after the June war was that most of the newly occupied territories would be returned. The atmosphere now is such that parts of these territories are being settled by Israelis almost automatically.”
In the post-Cold War era, the Muslim Other has come to be projected as Europe’s external and internal threat. On the external front, this has turned Israel, once the frontline state in the battle against radical Arab nationalism, into a key ally in the battle against Islam. On the internal front, the immigrant population from Europe’s former colonies has transformed the politics of race and nationalist discourse. As the left-liberal commitment to a multi-ethnic civil society has deepened, the right has sought to redraw the boundaries of national belonging. The “new racism” by attributing the danger of the Other to cultural rather than biological difference has shifted its main target of attack from Jews to immigrants from the former colonies and their descendent. They are the new aliens, and none more than the Muslims depicted as undermining the shared tastes, traditions and values which bind communities and the nations in liberal democracies.
The political context of the invention of a “new anti-Semitism” is the decline of anti-Semitism and the rise of Islamophobia. It is a rallying cry in defense of Israel, exploiting both the historically rooted insecurity of Jewish communities and the post-9/11 mistrust and enmity towards Muslims, who along with the left are arraigned as the new anti-Semites.
[Excerpted from The British Left and Zionism: History of a Divorce (p. 29, 61, 77-78, 102, 163, 193), by Paul Kelemen, by permission of the author. © 2012 by Manchester University Press. For more information, or to buy this book, click here.]