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Conscience little stirred

It took many decades and much bitter argument before the British left embraced the Palestinian cause, writes Mike Marqusee

February 17, 2014
8 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


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Today the left is attacked for ‘singling out’ Israel for criticism but historically its record is the opposite, as demonstrated in Paul Kelemen’s invaluable recent book The British Left and Zionism. Although subtitled ‘History of a Divorce’, it is very much a history of the marriage that preceded the divorce, a chilling chronicle of the making of that terrible error.

In August 1917, two and a half months before the Balfour Declaration, the Labour Party issued a ‘War Aims Memorandum’, which included a commitment to a ‘free state’ in Palestine ‘to which such of the Jews as desire to do so may return’. Later that year, the New Statesman called for a ‘Zionist restoration’ to make Palestine ‘once more prosperous and populous, with a population attached to the British empire’.

After visiting Palestine in 1934, Herbert Morrison, one of the most powerful figures in the Labour Party, assured the Commons that the Jews there had shown themselves to be ‘first-class colonisers, to have the real, good, old empire-building qualities’.

The Arab Revolt of 1936–39 coincided with the Spanish Civil War. But whereas all sections of the British left rallied to the Spanish Republican cause, the Palestinians were disregarded or condemned. Labour, virulently opposed to the Revolt, fully supported the government’s brutal counter-insurgency. Harold Laski dismissed the Arab struggle as the work of ‘the effendi and such trouble-makers as the Grand Mufti.’ A front-page headline in the TUC-owned Daily Herald declared: ‘Italy Stirs Up Arab Revolt’. The paper assured readers that it was not ‘the masses of the Arab people’ but Hitler and Mussolini who were attacking British rule and Jewish colonisation.

In Britain, only the Communist Party gave any kind of support to the Arab cause. ‘Their struggle is not anti-semitic but anti-imperialist,’ declared the Daily Worker, which was alone in reporting British atrocities: RAF bombings, burnings of villages, mass executions.

The CP had long opposed Zionism as a ‘bourgeois nationalist’ ideology that distracted from the class struggle, but it also characterised Arab workers as misled by ‘treacherous feudal-bourgeois leaders… in alliance with imperialism’. The remedy in Palestine, as elsewhere, lay in working class unity, while disunity was blamed exclusively on the machinations of imperialism. As late as 1936, the Daily Worker reported that Jewish and Arab workers were finding themselves ‘more and more drawn together in the common struggle against bellicose Zionism and Arab feudalism and against the arch enemy, British imperialism’ – even as the Histadrut (the Jewish union federation) broke the Arab general strike and Jewish commandos joined British units in night-time murder raids on Arab villages.

Strange reversals

The Zionist military campaign against the British in 1945–46 witnessed some strange reversals. Labour was now in power and the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, supervised a tough British response, much to the ire of the Labour left. When British authorities arrested 2,000 leading Jewish activists in Jerusalem an aggrieved Michael Foot told the Commons, ‘The people who are accused by the government of instituting violence against law and order are men we know well, men who have come to our socialist conferences, and who are colleagues of ours.’ Meanwhile, the Communist Party welcomed Jewish attacks on the British as part of the anti-colonial struggle. The party ignored the simultaneous attacks on the Arab population, thereby preserving its mirage of class unity against imperialism.

However, changes in the Communist view of Palestine were underway. In 1947, Soviet ambassador Andrei Gromyko told the UN that while the USSR’s preferred solution remained an ‘integral Arab-Jewish democratic state’, it recognised that partition was now the only alternative to continued imperial rule. At this stage, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq were British client states and Lebanon and Syria controlled by the French, while the Saudis were linked to the Americans. Stalin hoped an independent, left-leaning Jewish state would offset this block. This proved a false hope as within a few years Israel was promoting itself to the McCarthy-era USA as a regional bulwark in the anti‑Soviet camp.

In Britain (and the US) this particular Soviet u-turn caused few ripples among party members and allies. (In the Arab world, it was experienced as a great betrayal.) When war began in late 1947, the Daily Worker described Arab resistance to ethnic cleansing as an ‘offensive . . . being waged by the Arabs, who are using armaments supplied by the British for that purpose’. It demanded that ‘the shedding of Jewish blood must cease’, but made no mention of the Arab blood being shed at that moment in greater quantities. When Arab regimes entered the conflict after the withdrawal of the British on 15 May 1948, the paper declared that the ‘reactionary war conducted by the chieftains of the Arab League under British control is entirely against the interest of the Arab masses’.

On the Nakba, the creation of 700,000 Palestinian refugees, the left was worse than silent. The Daily Worker blamed the refugee crisis exclusively on the Arabs and British. Even as a humanitarian crisis, the Palestinian plight elicited little support, partly because those on the left who usually formed the backbone of refugee relief campaigns were absent.

In January 1949, Bevin defended his attempt at a more balanced middle east policy to a hostile Commons. ‘I think it is sometimes forgotten that the Arabs are in the world,’ he observed. For the Arabs ‘to be turned out of their homes and lands to make way for another race is a profound injustice… The marvel to me is that the conscience of the world has been so little stirred over that tragedy.’ In the New Statesman, Labour intellectual Richard Crossman took a different view: ‘After all, these villages were only mud huts anyway. They were terrible villages full of vermin.’

Roots of error

What were the roots of this historic error? Was it down, as some would argue, to the influence of Jews within the left?

It should be remembered that British Jews made up less than one per cent of the population and unlike their counterparts in the US had little electoral clout. Sections of the Jewish elite certainly lobbied hard for the Zionist cause, but they were Tories and put pressure on the British establishment, not the labour movement. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Communist Party had more Jewish members than all the Zionist organisations put together. The CP was sometimes anxious about a Zionist appeal to their Jewish members but there is no evidence of any clamour from these members on the Palestine issue.

As ever, we should be wary of explanations based on the notion that ‘ethnicity will out’. Jews on the left were an integral part of the left, shaped by the same factors that shaped the rest of the left. Explanations for the left’s error on Palestine must therefore be sought elsewhere.

Primarily, I suspect, they lie with the eurocentrism and orientalism pervasive in the west in this era and from which the left was far from immune. In the civilisational hierarchy, European Jews ranked above indigenous Arabs. Keleman chronicles the evolution of the left version of this ideology, a paternalist Fabianism by no means confined to the Labour right. What was widely shared across the left spectrum was a linear model of social progress in which the Jewish colonisers appeared as a modernising vanguard. This, in turn, was related to a wider left error, shared by social democrats and communists alike, of equating ‘progress’ and ‘development’ with material productivity.

In 1948 the left adhered to a false paradigm, backed up by false analogies (Arabs as ‘fascists’, etc). Blinded by a schema, it denied the suffering and agency of Arab Palestinians. It failed to listen, to observe, to think.

That began to change only with the war of 1967. Keleman shows how, in this context, a new left, influenced by anti-colonial and anti-racist ideologies, finally began a reassessment of the issue. Crucially, at the same time, the Palestinians acquired a voice and presence through the PLO. But it was to take many decades and much bitter argument before the wider British left came to embrace the Palestinian cause.

Zionists like to paint that left as in thrall to a ‘new anti-semitism’. Their primary evidence for that accusation, however, is simply that the British left’s position on Palestine has, at long last, become consistent with its commitments to freedom, equality and solidarity.

The British Left and Zionism: History of a divorce by Paul Kelemen, Manchester University Press

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Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


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