Labour Politics through Jewish Eyes



An Interview with Gerald Kaufman MP 5 August 1992


CS: I believe that you apologized to your constituents shortly after Labour’s defeat in the 1992 elections for not being in a position to do more to help eradicate their poverty.

GK: I didn’t apologize. What I said was that those of my constituents who were in a condition of dire poverty could look forward to no improvement in their plight now that the Conservatives had been re-elected. The defeat of the Labour Party was a dreadful blow for so many people. They can hope for nothing from this government. They are not relevant to the government’s considerations-it doesn’t need their votes. The government has, in fact, taken enormous sums of money away from them and handed it over to better-off people in tax bribes. This is probably the biggest ever redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich that has taken place in any developed country.

CS. But don’t you feel that in a sense it was a personal failure because, despite everything you had tried to accomplish within the Labour Party in the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher’s political bandwagon was still moving forward.

GK: I don’t think that I’d say that it was a personal failure. I share in the responsibility for the defeat of the Labour Party. We did our best. We did make the Party very much more electable, but we couldn’t break through that fmal crust of mistrust amongst a small segment of the electorate.

CS: Do you yearn for the 1960s when, for a time, it did really seem that Labour was the staple party of government?

GK: I am not sure that I yearn for the 1960s, but I do yearn for that situation in which it did begin to look that Labour could become the natural party of government.


CS: You began your political career in earnest during Harold Wilson’s halcyon days and worked closely with him. In the 1970s, Wilson’s reputation took a nose-dive; he was portrayed as the ultimate schemer, the man with the shifty eyes. How did that compare with the reality at the time and, in hindsight, with the political doldrums of the 1990s?

GK: There are always two views of Harold Wilson. One was that he was a good, solid hard-working, left-wing politician. The other was that he was an opportunist. I have never yet come across any politician of any party who is not an opportunist of some kind. They wouldn’t be where they are if they were not. Margaret Thatcher was an opportunist when she stood against Heath. Major was an opportunist when he stood in the second ballot, following Margaret Thatcher’s failure to be re-elected. Even saintly figures in politics like George Lansbury must have been opportunists to some extent because they did reach Parliament-and, in Lansbury’s case, he became the leader of the Party. The notion that politicians have got to be pure, self-denying and unambitious is a curious one which would separate them from the rest of the community-apart from a few saints of the equivalent of Mother Theresa. Harold Wilson was an exceptional politician. One of the few politicians-certainly in the Labour Party-who could speak in easy and non-condescending terms to the generality of the voters but could also communicate with the much smaller intellectual community. Look at Harold Wilson’s record. He fought five elections and won four. He was Prime Minister for eight years and enabled the Labour Party to be in power for eleven years. For the first time, educational expenditure exceeded defence expenditure, a great many social service improvements were launched, large segments of British industry were saved and, of course, the Open University was founded. He was possibly the most important figure in Labour politics until Neil Kinnock.

CS: You acted as Wilson’s intermediary with the Israeli Ambassador during the Six Day War and indeed on many other occasions. Wilson always seemed to be almost embarrassingly pro-Israel and publicly a zealous Zionist. Was this really the case? Or is this an example of my cynicism about politicians? For example, Dick Crossman was a formidable advocate of Israel. Yet, according to the Crossman Diaries, he opposed firm British action in the run-up to the Six Day War.

GK: Dick Crossman was a member of the Anglo-American Commission for Palestine where he was put by Attlee to get him out of the way. He was intellectually convinced of the case for a Jewish state and became an extraordinary and formidable advocate for Israel. I knew Dick very well. I was his assistant on the Daily Mirror for several years. He was a questing intellectual and a sceptical philosopher. He was never a down-the-line man on anything. There is no doubt, from my own knowledge of him, that one of his great allegiances was to Israel. I remember when the Cabinet was wracked with conflict over “In Place of Strife”, Dick together with Harold was pushing hard for supplies of tanks to Israel. A strong advocate of Israel, but not an unquestioning one-he could never be an unquestioning advocate of anything. Harold became an absolutely passionate advocate of Israel. He even sent his son there, to Kibbutz Yagur. I arranged that. It went right through his politics as I knew them during that period. He felt very strongly about it indeed.

CS: And what was the basis for it? I heard that it was primarily religious.

GK: Yes, I think that it was just that. Biblical.

CS: You have been to Israel probably more than fifty times. How did your involvement with Israel and the Zionist experiment begin?

GK: That’s hard to pin down. I came from a very strongly Zionist household. We had the blue box on the shelf in the kitchen. The Zionist aspect of politics was what dominated my father. He was a good socialist, but he was also a member of Poale Zion, as I am today. I wasn’t as ardently Zionist as my parents, but I decided when I was about thirty-one years old to take a look at Israel. I had letters of introduction from Dick Crossman which permitted me to meet a lot of people in Israeli politics.

CS: Your hero was Yigal Allon, I believe.

GK: Yigal Allon was my greatest friend in Israel. A great international socialist who should have become Prime Minister. Dick introduced me to him and I went to see him at Kibbutz Ginossar. It was therefore more or less as a tourist that I first went to Israel and came to know figures like Teddy Kollek, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir-Golda Meir was very fond of me.

CS: Your formative years were marked by extraordinary events, the revelations of the Shoah, the Attlee government, the rise of the State of Israel –  did those few short years after the war have a considerable impact upon you?

GK: If you are brought up in an orthodox, Zionist household, as part of a warm, close family, then you are undoubtedly going to be affected by those events. I certainly was.

CS: I don’t know if you have read the autobiography of Leopold Trepper who masterminded the “Red Orchestra” spy network in Nazi-occupied Europe. He explained his motivation by exclaiming “I am a Communist because I am a Jew”. While this was a different scenario, are there clear connections between your socialism and your Jewishness?

GK: I think that such connections are inevitable. The compassionate aspect of Judaism and its search for social justice send a great many of us to the left.

CS: Because Chaim Weizmann’s home was in your Gorton constituency, you have said that you are “posthumously Weizmann’s Member of Parliament”.

GK: Yes, 57 Birchfields Road. About five minutes away from where I now live in Manchester.

CS: It seems to me that this is more than a purely factual statement. It has an underlying symbolism. After all, you have done things that no Jewish communal leader would ever do, such as attacking Princess Margaret for visiting Egypt and condemning her omission of a visit to Israel.

GK: I have never seen it like that, but you may well be right. It is interesting that Israel has existed for forty-four years but there has never been a royal visit.

CS: Your two books on Israel, one published in 1973, the other in 1986, offer a remarkable contrast. Was your odyssey towards a vociferous criticism of Israeli government policy similar to that taken by many Jews of a liberal disposition? Was there an incubation period during which you said things which simply paid lip-service to the dreams of the past?

GK: The central cause was the change in government. Obviously, the Labour-dominated governments were not perfect, but they adhered to some basic Zionist objectives. Under Likud, Israel began to change for the worse. For example, there was a growing emphasis on materialism and a driving expansionism in the Occupied Territories. Four and a half years ago, I asked Yitzhak Rabin: “You were the Chief of Staff who won the Six Day War. Did you think that, more than twenty years later, Israel would still be in occupation of the territories that you conquered?” He replied, “I didn’t think it and I didn’t want it”. The Likud government facilitated the spread of the settlements and offered no hope to the Palestinians. Their policies sowed the seeds of the Intifada. Under its Labour government, I found it possible and pleasurable to praise Israel as it was at that time. When Likud took over, the best I could do – not that my opinion matters all that much – was to praise Israel for what it used to be.I found the suppression of the Palestinians intolerable – as a Jew. When I travelled around the West Bank and saw the contrast between the conditions of the Palestinians who had no civil rights whatsoever and the attitudes of those utterly repulsive people in the settlements, I just felt that this could not go on. It was my duty as a lover of Israel to state my opinion. I noticed a few months ago that Chaim Bermant in the Jewish Chronicle very generously said that he believed that I was more critical of Israeli policy than Douglas Hurd because I was a Zionist.

CS: You seem to have aligned yourself with the Labour Party rather than the broadly-based Peace Movement during this period. With Rabin and Peres rather than with Shulamit Aloni, yet all your pronouncements put you very much within the Peace Movement? Why was that?

GK: Because I’m Labour. Because they’re Labour. Because what Labour were advocating was good. Peres fought the 1988 election on a peace platform which called for an international conference on the Middle East under the auspices of the five permanent members of the Security Council. I agreed with Peres. Rabin took the same view, although it’s known that there were personal differences. I also believed that you needed to support a party that could form a government. I have a great respect for Shulamit Aloni and I am very pleased that she has been appointed Minister of Education-it will mark a crucial change in the direction of Israel. But I don’t believe in messing about with fringe groups. When Peace Now came to see me, I told them categorically that their schismatic approach would prevent the Labour Party from getting enough seats to form a government-and that they would never be able to push Israel in the direction of peace.

CS: But didn’t Peace Now influence the Labour Party? The new intake of Labour Knesset members are young and decidedly doveish. For example, Avrum Burg – number three on the Labour list – is Peace Now.

GK: I’ve got nothing against Peace Now, but it is a movement, it isn’t a political party with objectives and policies that could form a government. I also think that some of the Peace Now people are very wishy-washy. Some of them ran like hell when Arafat did what he did after the invasion of Kuwait. Whereas Yossi Beilin inside the Labour Party wasn’t affected in that way and he continued to advocate contacts with the PLO.

CS: How did you feel when you heard that Labour had finally been returned to power in Israel?

GK: Totally exhilarated. Very happy personally. I felt that the kind of thing that l – and others like me – had been fighting for had actually become possible. Whenever I met Palestinians, whether it was PLO leaders like Arafat or on the West Bank, like Faisal Husseini, Hanna Siniora or Sari Nusseibeh, I told them that their only hope was a Labour-led government. “They are the only ones you can deal with.”

CS: You were known to have been close to Shimon Peres throughout your period as Shadow Foreign Secretary. Would you have preferred to have seen Peres rather than Rabin as Prime Minister?

GK: It’s not really for me to say. I have known them both for many years. I always saw both of them and never distinguished between them whenever I visited Israel.

CS: Shortly after the election, Rabin said that the success or failure of his government would be determined in the next six months. Although it is within the realm of speculation, what do you think will happen?

GK: A lot has happened already – all of it to the good. I was in Israel last week and spent a day with Palestinians. They varied in their attitude towards what has already taken place, but all of them said that internal confidence-building measures were necessary. I think that great progress is possible. The Palestinians will be more ready to compromise with a Labour-led government simply because they had no possibility of compromising with Shamir – who said after he lost office that he had always intended to frustrate the talks.

CS: You have often mentioned your Jewish background in an appropriate parliamentary context. There are numerous Jews in Parliament who are not of an assimilationist disposition yet they seem to subsume their Jewish identity within a public persona. Moreover, the more senior the office, the deeper the submersion of their Jewish identity. For example, you once berated Leon Brittan, the then Home Secretary, for implementing rules that would have deported his own Lithuanian-born parents.

GK: I don’t wish to comment on them – what they do is their business. For myself, I served in a Labour government; I was elected twelve times to the Shadow Cabinet by the Parliamentary Labour Party – with a very small number of Jews in it – and to the National Executive Committee by the Party as a whole. I have also been returned with increasing majorities by a constituency where few Jews live. Why do I mention this? It is not bad for somebody who has never pretended that he was anything other than a Jew – and a committed one at that.

CS: Is it more difficult for a Jewish Jew to be a leading figure in the Conservative Party?

GK: I don’t know about that. There have been, and are, many Jews in Tory Cabinets. Neither Major nor Margaret Thatcher ever prevented Jews from reaching leadership positions. Whether any of them would have been elected to such positions by Conservative Members of Parliament is impossible to say.

CS: When you first attempted to put your name forward for Gorton in 1967, I believe that you were passed over because the constituency wanted “a local man with an English name”. Have you experienced slights and innuendoes in the Labour Party or in Parliament relating to your Jewishness?

GK: I dispute the accuracy of that quote from Roth. They certainly needed a local man to hold the seat at a time when the pound had been devalued. I reject entirely any implication that the then Gorton constituency had even the most minute scintilla of discrimination on its mind at the time. The only overt anti-Semitism that I’ve encountered in my political life – I can’t say that there hasn’t been covert anti-Semitism-was during the 1970-74 Parliament when Sir Charles Taylor, the Conservative member for Eastbourne, told Stanley Clinton Davis and myself to “get back to Israel where we came from”.

CS: You seem to have been particularly sensitive to the problems of ethnic minorities and specifically on questions of immigration. The Board of Deputies, I know, has made stringent representations to the government on the Asylum Bill. Do you feel that this Bill is all part and parcel of the general xenophobia sweeping Europe during the recession?

GK: I think that it is part and parcel of the racism which is inherent in this Conservative government. The Asylum Bill is a very objectionable Bill, but it is nothing compared to the institutionalized racism of the immigration process. Every day, I deal with such matters. At every constituency advice bureau I hold, there are cases of divided families and people kept out, all because of their colour and their ethnic origin. I think it is awful. I see it, the suffering and the hardship. And I do compare it to the experiences of the Jews.

CS: You see it through Jewish eyes?

GK: Of course, my eyes are Jewish eyes. As somebody who comes from a family of immigrants -I am first generation British-who saw where they came from, their problems of religion, diet, settlement and all the rest, I feel a great sense of identification with my constituents who are immigrants.

CS: Do they realize that?

GK: Yes, very much. It’s interesting that they are overwhelmingly Muslim, but they feel a sense of identity with me. I talk to them about it as a Jew.

CS: Despite your dislike of Communism, were you saddened to see the end of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a plethora of nation-states?

GK: I was always concerned about the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Not because I had any brief for the USSR, but because I don’t like instability unless you can replace it with something better. Yeltsin is what he is, but Gorbachev was a very great man – one of the truly great men I have met in my life. Although he was unsuccessful in that he was unable to drive through perestroika, he was one of the best things that has happened to the world this century.

CS: Did Gorbachev arrive too late?

GK: It is difficult to say. Gorbachev’s problem was that the world praised him for glasnost – and it was glasnost which revealed the failure of perestroika. The Soviet people were always going to judge him – not on glasnost, that was for a small number of intellectuals – but on perestroika. He failed on perestroika.

CS: Could the West have truly helped the Soviet Union under Gorbachev to reform their economy if they had wanted to?

GK: Yes, they could, they should and they didn’t. The West is profoundly culpable for that. It was the G-7 Conference in London in July 1991 that was the turning point. In the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock and I strongly advocated a new Marshall Plan. This was defeated at the London summit because, although Italy, France and Germany wanted it, the United States, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom were against it. If there had been a Labour government, it would have been 4-3 the other way. Neil and I saw Gorbachev on the day after the end of the G~ 7 summit and he was deeply despondent. Of course, he went home and almost immediately the coup took place. This, in turn, led to disintegration and Gorbachev’s departure. It was a turning point in history. Gorbachev’s vision was not matched by that of Bush and Major.

CS: Will Gorbachev come back?

GK: I doubt it. I am very sorry about it because I think that he is a very great man.

CS: After stepping down as Shadow Foreign Secretary, you are now Chairman of the Select Committee which would effectively monitor the Ministry of Fun. As a connoisseur of the silver screen, has commercialism and the profit motive become more important than the cultural quality and entertainment value of the product?

GK: The film industry has always been based on commercialism, since making a film is a costly business. It hasn’t prevented films of extraordinary quality being made, for example Citizen Kane. It isn’t the commercialism that worries me, but the fact that we don’t have a film industry in this country.

CS: But are there films of the quality of Citizen Kane today?

GK: Citizen Kane was an absolute masterpiece – there aren’t many masterpieces produced in any of the arts frequently. Over the last few years, I have seen films of extremely high quality. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is quite exceptional.

Jewish Quarterly Winter 1992-3


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