The British Labour Party & Palestine-Israel in the Past, 1919-49
This is my third contribution to the debate on anti-Semitism and Zionism in the Labour Party with reference to the documentary evidence of the early twentieth century. The Proclamation of Independence of the state of Israel was published on 14 May, 1948, almost exactly 68 years ago. The Provisional State Council was the forerunner of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The British Mandate was terminated the following day, which was also the day on which the armed forces of Transjordan, Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries entered Palestine. The Proclamation began with the Biblical claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, though it is worth noting that a state, or kingdom of Israel only existed in the northern part of these lands for about four centuries before the Roman occupation of the time of Christ, Judea and Samaria being the other main territories in which the Jewish people lived. The diaspora of the Jews around the Mediterranean had also begun well before the first century, although it accelerated following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in circa 70 A.D. The Proclamation went on to trace the development of the Zionist movement from the First Zionist Congress of 1897, which was inspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of The Jewish State, which proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national revival in their own country. This right was acknowledged by the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, and re-affirmed by the Mandate of the League of Nations following the post-World War One peace treaties which established the League. The Mandate, given over to British administration in 1920, gave explicit international recognition to the historic connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and the right to reconstitute their National Home.
Above: Faisal IBN-Hussein, King of Greater Syria, 1920 & Iraq, 1921-33 (on the left with the Arab delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, including T E Lawrence, third from right).
During the Paris Peace Conference, which commenced in the Spring of 1919, relations between the Arab Delegation, led by Faisal IBN-Hussein, and the Zionists, led by Felix Frankfurter, were very cordial. Feisal wrote to Frankfurter at the beginning of March to reiterate what he had often been able to say to Dr Weizmann in Arabia and Europe:
We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in race, having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.
We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted… by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home… The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist… neither can be a real success without the other.
People less informed and less responsible than our leaders and yours, ignoring the need for cooperation of the Arabs and Zionists have been trying to exploit the local difficulties that must necessarily arise in Palestine in the early stages of our movements. Some of them have… misrepresented your aims to the Arab peasantry, and our aims to the Jewish peasantry, with the result that interested parties have been able to make capital out of what they call our differences… these differences are not on questions of principle, but on matters of detail such as must inevitably occur in every contact of neighbouring peoples, and are easily adjusted by mutual goodwill.
Felix Frankfurter adopted a similarly conciliatory tone in his reply on behalf of the Zionist Organisation:
We knew… that the aspirations of the Arab and the Jewish peoples were parallel, that each aspired to reestablish its nationality in its own homeland, each making its own distinctive contribution to civilisation, each seeking its own peaceful mode of life.
The Zionist leaders and the Jewish people for whom they speak have watched with satisfaction the spiritual vigour of the Arab movement. Themselves seeking justice, they are anxious that the national aims of the Arab people be confirmed and safeguarded by the Peace Conference.
We know from your acts and your past utterances that the Zionist movement – in other words the aims of the Jewish people – had your support and the support of the Arab people for whom you speak. These aims are now before the Peace Conference as definite proposals of the Zionist Organisation. We are happy indeed that you consider these proposals “moderate and proper,” and that we have in you a staunch supporter for their realisation. For both the Arab and the Jewish peoples there are difficulties ahead – difficulties that challenge the united statesmanship of Arab and Jewish leaders. For it is no easy task to rebuild two great civilisations that have been suffering oppression and misrule for centuries… The Arabs and Jews are neighbours in territory; we cannot but live side by side as friends…
Above: Chaim Weizmann & Felix Frankfurter
As an essential part of their quest for a homeland in Palestine the Jews sought the active support of the British Government delegation and, in particular, that of the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur J Balfour, author of the 1917 Declaration which had given them hope that this would become a reality. In a memo by Felix Frankfurter of an interview with him and Justice Brandeis in Balfour’s Paris apartment on 24 June, 1919, the Foreign Secretary is recorded as expressing entire agreement with three conditions that stated:
First that Palestine should be the Jewish homeland and not merely that there should be a Jewish homeland in Palestine… Secondly there must be economic elbow room for a Jewish Palestine… That meant adequate boundaries, not merely a small garden within Palestine… Thirdly… that the future Jewish Palestine must have control of the land and the natural resources which are at the heart of a sound economic life.
However, Balfour pointed out the difficulties which confronted the British, especially the fact that Faisal was a ‘comrade in arms’ and that he interpreted British action and words as a promise of either Arab independence or Arab rule under British protection. Nevertheless, he added:
No statesman could have been more sympathetic… with the underlying philosophy and aims of Zionism as they were stated… , nor more eager that the necessary conditions should be secured at the hands of the Peace Conference and of Great Britain to assure the realisation of the Zionist programme.
However, as opposition to Zionism grew among the Arab population under British rule in the early 1920s, a new policy was drafted by Winston Churchill, then the British Colonial Secretary, which, while not explicitly opposing the idea of a Jewish state, redeemed the Balfour promise in depreciated currency, to quote a contemporary British source. Churchill’s White Paper of June 1922 made it clear that The Balfour Declaration had been subjected to exaggerated interpretations such as given in the phrase “as Jewish as England is English” in connection with the intentions of the British government. This, Churchill stated flatly, was not the aim of HM’s Government, which was neither contemplating the disappearance or subordination of the Arabic population, language, or culture in Palestine. He reminded those who suggested this to be the case, among both Arabs and Jews, that the Declaration did not state that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be found in Palestine. This clearly contradicted the conditions set down in Frankfurter’s memo of Balfour’s Paris interview, but Churchill went on to quote the resolution of the Zionist Organisation’s Congress held at Carlsbad in September 1921, which had expressed…
… the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of unity and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community, the upbuilding of which may assure to each of its peoples an undisturbed national development.
Churchill also clarified that the Zionist Organisation was to have no special role in the running of the administration of Palestine under the British Mandate and that the citizens of Palestine, whatever their ethnicity or religion, would remain Palestinian. Jewish immigration was to continue in keeping with the economic capacity of the country. The immigrants should not be a burden to the people of Palestine as a whole, nor should they deprive any section of the current population of their employment. Against this background, by the mid-twenties, there were those within the Labour Party, like Beatrice Webb, who began to question the aims of the Zionist movement:
… I admire Jews and dislike Arabs. But the Zionist movement seems to me a gross violation of the right of the native to remain where he was born and his father and grandfather were born – if there is such a right. To talk about the return of the Jew to the land of his inheritance after an absence of two thousand years seems to me sheer… hypocritical nonsense. From whom were descended those Russian and Polish Jews? The principle which is really being asserted is the principle of selecting races for particular territories according to some ‘peculiar needs or particular fitness’. Or it may be some ideal of communal life to be realised by subsidised migration. But this process of artificially creating new communities of immigrants, brought from any parts of the world, is rather hard on the indigenous natives!
Clearly, Sidney Webb (above) shared views of his wife, Beatrice (pictured together, above top) on Zionism, as five years later he was in the first majority Labour government of 1929-31, Sidney Webb as Colonial Secretary, by then under the title ‘Lord Passfield’. Following the Arab riots of 1929, the ‘Passfield White Paper’ was published in 1930, urging restrictions on immigration of Jews, and on land sales to them. When this was bitterly denounced by the Zionist leaders as a violation of the Mandate, Ramsay MacDonald wrote to Chaim Weizmann in February 1931 to reassure him of the good faith of HM’s Government. Although it did not openly repudiate the Passfield Report, the PM’s letter was rejected by the Arabs as the “Black Paper” as it clearly defined the mainstream Labour view of Zionism. The Report had been widely criticised for making ‘injurious allegations’ against the Jewish people and Jewish labour organisations. Today, we might describe these as being anti-Semitic. Quite clearly, as leader of the party and PM, MacDonald felt he had to act quickly to allay these concerns. In his speech in the House of Commons on 3 April 1930, MacDonald had given his ‘double undertaking’ to the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of Palestine (see my previous post) which contained a promise to ‘do equal justice’ to both. This, he now declared, was the most effectual means of furthering the establishment of a national home for the Jews. He emphasised that the government did not contemplate immigration controls beyond those introduced by Churchill in 1922, governed purely by economic considerations. There was to be a continuation of labour scheduling of Jewish wage-earning immigrants for private works which depended mainly on Jewish capital and the availability of Jewish labour. Public works were to be organised on the basis of private Jewish contributions to public revenue, to allow for a ‘due share’ of employment for Jewish workers. Otherwise, account was to be taken of unemployment among both Jews and Arabs. However, The Jewish Agency insisted that, as a matter of principle, asserted the policy that only Jewish labour would be employed by Jewish organisations. MacDonald asserted that the British government would seek to amend this policy if Arab unemployment became ‘aggravated.’ In words which could still be applied to the Labour Party policy today, MacDonald concluded his letter by reaffirming the government’s ‘unqualified recognition’ that no solution can be satisfactory or permanent which is not based upon justice, both to the Jewish people and to the non-Jewish communities of Palestine.
The MacDonald letter aimed to placate the Zionists while disturbing as the Arabs as little as possible. When many Zionists took the letter as a withdrawal of the white paper, however, it became labelled the ‘black paper’ by Arabs. By confirming that the policy of the Palestine Mandate was to continue to support Jewish immigration, the Letter in effect negated some of the implications of the White Paper and facilitated increasing immigration during the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s. Of course, the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism had already become a blurred one in British politics, as the Passfield White Paper shows. Webb was not the only baronet in the Labour Cabinet. Sir Oswald Moseley, sixth baronet, stuck out like a sore thumb in the House of Commons. At first he was a Conservative, but fell foul of the Tory establishment and joined the Labour Party. When he failed to get J H Thomas, the useless Minister of Labour, to do something about the unemployed, Mosley produced his plan for increased allowances and public works, but it was rejected in the crisis of 1931. Mosley walked out to form his ‘New Party’, taking with him some of the more left-wing Labour MPs like John Strachey. When the government fell in August 1931, Strachey and Webb wrote Marxist books and seemed to hover between Mosley’s growing support for National Socialism, which culminated in the founding of the British Union of Fascists, and becoming apologists for Stalin’s USSR which, in the early thirties, was at least as anti-Semitic as Germany. There was little the Labour Party could do to resist the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain, either on the streets of the East End of London, or within its own ultra-left ranks. In fact, in trying to formulate a clear-cut alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’ it strengthened its own left-wing and, for a time, its links with Soviet communism. It also took the British left until at least 1934 to realise that the title of Hitler’s National Socialist Party was extremely misleading, and that what Hitler himself stood for was paranoid nationalism, racialism and militarism , with the Jews as the internal scapegoats. Similarly, Mosley’s powerful corporatist ideas attracted considerable support among the middle and working classes in 1932, including from Labour and Conservative MPs, from Aneurin Bevan to Harold Macmillan. Even after his New Party merged with the BUF in that year, his protectionist policies continued to attract support until they were overshadowed by the thuggish actions of his blackshirts at the Olympia rally in June 1934, soon followed by the Night of the Long Knives in Germany, in which the Nazi Party clearly ‘purged’ itself of its socialist faction. This confusion between right-wing and left-wing politics is evident in journalist Rene Cutforth’s eye-witness accounts of the period from both the British and German capitals:
It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny? They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming.
The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it was in Berlin in the early Thirties, when it was extremely easy for anybody, particularly at night, to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.
Nonetheless, this confusion of extreme, authoritarian politics of the right and left in British politics in the early thirties was, undoubtedly, a significant factor in the failure of the mainstream Labour movement to stem the growth of anti-Semitism among its own traditional supporters and voters. Similarly, much of the international socialist reaction to Zionism throughout the decade meant that, although the British people were very welcoming to the Kindertransport and to Jewish refugees in general, the National government was able to finally wriggle free from the terms of its Palestine mandate. Another White Paper was published in May 1939 giving into Arab demands and limiting Jewish immigration to fifteen thousand for the next five years. I have referred to this in more detail in my previous post, together with the furious reaction of the Jewish Agency, but this was a fury which did not abate during the following three years. During a visit to the United States by David Ben Gurion, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Zionist policy was reformulated. At a conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York in May 1942, the establishment of a Jewish state was envisaged to open the doors of Palestine to Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi terror and to lay the foundations for the future settlement of a Jewish majority. The Declaration adopted by the Extraordinary Zionist Conference affirmed its rejection of the 1939 White Paper and denied its moral or legal validity. It quoted Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons from May 1939, in which he claimed that the Paper constituted a breach and repudiation of the Balfour Declaration. Furthermore, it stated,
The policy of the White Paper is cruel and indefensible in its denial of sanctuary to Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution…
The Conference urges that the gates of Palestine be opened: that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for upbuilding the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands: and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.
Then and only then will the age-old wrong to the Jewish people be righted.
Following the war, and the holocaust, an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry was appointed in November 1945 to examine the status of the Jews in the former Axis-occupied countries (see my previous post). The Labour Government decided to invite US participation in finding a solution. Prime Minister Clement Attlee, perhaps mindful of the reservations about abandoning the immigration controls of 1939, of his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, declared that the report would have to be considered as a whole for its implications. The report recommended that a hundred thousand Jewish refugees should immediately be awarded settlement papers in 1946, commenting that the actual number of Nazi and Fascist persecutions was well in excess of this:
Indeed, there are more than that number in Germany, Austria and Italy alone. Although nearly a year has passed since their liberation, the majority of those in Germany and Austria are still living in assembly centres, the so-called “camps,” island communities in the midst of those at whose hands they suffered so much.
In their interests and the interests of Europe, the centres should be closed and their camp life ended. Most of them have cogent reasons for wishing to leave Europe. Many are the sole survivors of their families and few have any ties binding them to the countries in which they used to live.
Since the end of hostilities, little has been done to provide for their resettlement elsewhere. Immigration laws and restrictions bar their entry to most countries and much time must pass before such laws and restrictions can be altered and effect given to the alterations.
Some may go to countries where they have relatives; others may secure inclusion in certain quotas. Their number is comparatively small.
We know of no country to which the great majority can go in the immediate future other than Palestine. Furthermore, that is where almost all of them want to go. There they are sure that they will receive a welcome denied them elsewhere. There they hope to enjoy peace and rebuild their lives.
From this report we can clearly see that Ken Livingstone’s recent assertion that the post-war refugees could all have been absorbed by European countries flies in the face of all the contemporary evidence revealing the reality of their predicament, even had they wanted to be resettled in these countries. Immigration to and settlement within Palestine was the only realistic option to spending years in camps. Thus, apart from their historic connection with the country, and their right of access, shared with Christians and Muslims, to its holy places, the Jewish people had, the report concluded, also secured the right to continued existence, protection and development.
Various models were considered in the report for the future state(s) of Palestine, including a bi-national state, a federation of states, and partition into two or more states. Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary (pictured below), eventually announced on 14 February 1947 that the British government had decided to refer the problem to the United Nations. Bevin himself was against partition since, he said, the Arabs would never agree to two states being formed, so they would be unviable from the beginning. The United Nations duly set up a special committee of eleven member states (UNSCOP), which reported on 31 August 1947. The Jewish Agency accepted its partition plan as the indispensable minimum, but, as Bevin had predicted, the Arab governments rejected it. The UN General Assembly approved the recommendation in November 1947, by a two-thirds majority which included both the USA and the USSR, but not Britain. The British Mandate ended on 15 May 1948, the day after the Proclamation of the State of Israel, and on the same day as the armed forces of neighbouring Arab states entered Palestine.
In these immediate post-war years, Ernest Bevin had been regarded by many Jews in Britain, the United States and Israel as an ‘arch-enemy’ of the Jewish people; and his action on the report of the Anglo-American Commission, and again on the resolution of the United Nations Assembly in 1947, his delay in recognising the State of Israel until February 1949, and some bitter remarks he made in the House of Commons’ debates on Palestine, seemed to justify that contemporary view. However, Lord Strang, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office for the greater part of Bevin’s term as Foreign Secretary, has suggested that his opposition to the State of Israel was due to his preoccupation with longer-term political, economic and strategic considerations:
He was disturbed by fear of active Soviet involvement in Middle East affairs, and foresaw that the persisting Arab-Jewish antagonism would be exploited by Moscow to the detriment of vital Western interests.
In this respect, Bevin’s analysis was correct, but this did not make him anti-Zionist, or by extension, anti-Semitic. Norman Leftwich, writing in 1962 about his Seventy Seven Years as a diplomat, argued that his talks with Bevin in London and Paris between 1946 and 1948, confirmed Strang’s judgement:
He was, I believe, anxious at the outset to find a solution to the conflict, and confident that he would succeed, as he had many bitter Labour disputes… But at least, when he did recognise the State in 1949, he did his best to foster afresh good relations between Great Britain and Israel; and he made a vain attempt to bring Jews and Arabs together.
A Summary and Some Conclusions:
What lessons can we learn from these thirty years, which can inform the attitude and policy of the Labour Party today towards the Israel-Palestine question, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? Firstly, it does not serve the party’s needs to try to relate anti-Semitism to other forms of discrimination on either racial or religious grounds. If we want to deal will these evils, or diseases, at root, then we need to understand the distinct historical nature of those roots. We need to understand that Jews and Arabs are both Semites, in ethnicity and language, and that until 1919 they had both suffered equally at the hands of an imperial regime in Palestine, as Palestinians, and that the Jews had also suffered both formal and informal discrimination in a variety of European countries, while also being well-integrated into some, e.g. Austria-Hungary. Zionism, the determination to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was the ambition of a minority of Jews in Europe and America until a policy of ethnic cleansing was adopted by some of the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s. For a time, the determination of Zionists to emigrate to Palestine suited many within the NSDAP in Germany, but there is no evidence to suggest that Hitler himself did more than temporarily to tolerate Zionist emigration schemes. To suggest that he actively supported Zionists or Zionism is not only factually wrong, but insulting to those Jews who saved many Jewish lives. In fact, it is a deliberate anti-Semitic distortion, with the aim of devaluing the brave role played by these people during the time of the Third Reich.
During the time of the second Labour government of 1929-31, Ramsay MacDonald upheld the right of the Jewish people to their own homeland in Palestine, as originally set out in the Balfour Declaration, while at the same time affirming the need for ‘equal justice’ for Jews and Arabs. He also sought to guarantee continuing Jewish immigration to Palestine, against the wills of anti-Zionists in his own party, ensuring an escape route for many thousands of refugees until this was all but ended by the National government in 1939. At the end of the war, the Labour government, led by Attlee and Bevin, eased the restrictions on immigration while seeking a permanent solution to the problem of Palestine. Unable to get the Arab representatives to agree to either a ‘bi-national’ state, or to partition, in conjunction with the US, they then handed over the question to the United Nations. They opposed partition, the solution pased by resolution in the General Assembly, because they feared its strategic exploitation by the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. However, in 1949, they recognised the State of Israel. Despite all that has happened since then in the Arab-Israeli conflict, I believe that, with the Cold War now over, the Labour Party has no obstacle to continuing to recognise Israel, to uphold MacDonald’s principle of ‘equal justice’ for the Jews and Palestnian Arabs and to support freedom of conscience and religious practice throughout Israel-Palestine. The best means of achieving these ends at present would seem to be through a two-state solution. Acts of terrorist violence or excessive use of force by any of the current governments within the territories are open to international scrutiny, critism and condemnation, as necessary, under the terms of UN resolutions passed since 1947. However, it should be clear that the Labour Party also opposes those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel, which would involve a further genocide against the Jewish people. Such statements are, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic. It is also anti-Semitic to hold, by word or action, Jewish people generically responsible for the actions of the Israeli government of any particular day, whether they are citizens of Israel or live elsewhere in the world. In our dealings with our sister party and Labour organisations in Israel, we also need to affirm the democratic nature of the country and its constitution.
Finally, the Labour Party’s history in the 1930s should perhaps be read as a warning as to what happens when it splits into wings and factions. In the 1930s, the collapse of the party as the constitutional means for working-class representation left a vacuum in which the extremists on the left and right were able to gain support, leading to attacks on Jews and other minorities. The party was no there to defend them against unemployment and discrimination. Added to which many who started on the left ended up on the right because of their support for the corporativist or collectivist solutions demonstrated in Berlin and Moscow. Following a backward path of statist centralisation in the diverse economy and society of the twenty-first century could be even more disastrous for the broad cross-section of society that Labour has always sought to represent.
René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.
Walter Lacqueur (1976), The Arab-Israeli Reader. New York: Bantam Books.
Michael Clark & Peter Tweed, Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.