Old Lefts for New: Nye Bevan and Zion



What happened? Did Marianne take John Bull to an unknown rendezvous? Did Marianne say to John Bull that there was a forest fire going to start, and did John Bull then say, “We ought to put it out”, but Marianne said, “No, let us warm our hands by it. It is a nice fire”? Did Marianne deceive John Bull—or seduce him?

Aneurin Bevan, on the suspected Franco-British collusion over the Suez Affair, in a debate in the House of Commons, 5 December 1956

MENTION ANEURIN Bevan, the Welsh Labour politician, and Zionism in the same breath and the result can be explosive. “Well, he was an anti-Semite, wasn’t he?”, is the usual response. After untangling the common confusion between Bevan and Ernest Bevin, the trade union leader and Labour Foreign Secretary during the post-Second World War struggle for Jewish statehood, there is a painful silence before the comment: “Yes, you’re right, but he was a real extremist on the left.”

The implication is that Bevan, like his near namesake, must have been an anti-Semite, albeit a covert one, and an enemy of the Jewish people. Outside of Labour circles, academic specialists and particularly those of his generation who remember him, Nye Bevan’s support for Israel has been forgotten. Unfortunately, he wrote no memoirs and did not keep a diary. There is no mention of the Middle East conflict in his In Place of Fear. Bevan’s “disappearance” has come about through the current passion for trivializing Anglo-Zionist history and because the image of a man of the left espousing the Zionist cause is a non-starter in the breathless contest to promote Israel in the 1980s. Since there is little differentiation between public relations for non-Jews and information for Jews, it is not surprising that little is told about the role of the Labour left in the 1940s and 1950s. However, it is not simply the image makers and dream merchants within the community who are responsible. Both the hard and soft left within the Labour Party laud and idolize Nye Bevan. Nye has taken his place in the pantheon of dead socialist heroes and his spirit can thus be invoked when necessary. But on Bevan’s support for Zionism there is complete silence.

Developments on the far left of the Labour Party in recent years are not simply ideological, but also generational. For most of the far left in the Party, which includes many who did not live through the Holocaust period, the Jewish question is of secondary importance. The overwhelming majority on the far left in the Labour Party hold superficial views which stem from abysmal ignorance and lack of analysis. A small opportunist minority, personified by Ken Livingstone, purport to suggest that they understand the Jewish problem and proceed to wrap themselves in the cloak of socialist authority amidst a political cacophony of clichés, slogans, innuendoes, distortions and plain daftness. Theirs is not a genuine attempt to analyse but a calculated effort to denormalize the Jews as a people and to transform Israel into a pariah state. Livingstone’s crude interview in the Israeli Labour daily Davar, or the more carefully crafted yet insidious article which appeared under his name in New Socialist, were above all noteworthy for a projection of a Jewish stereotype for the ignorant and uninitiated on the left. It is significant to note that Tony Benn who has studied the legacy of Bevanism does not ally himself with either the opportunist Livingstone or the Labour left in general when it comes to Israel and the Jewish question. Recently interviewed in London Labour Briefing by the well-known anti-Zionist activist, Tony Greenstein, Benn dissociated himself from the views of the Labour movement campaign for Palestine and commented: “I am in favour of a Jewish state and I believe the Jews are entitled to have security in Israel. I don’t believe that a criticism of individual items of policy can be used to see Israel destroyed”.

TONY Benn’s approach, like Bevan’s, was moulded by the terrible events of the twentieth century. For the old left—as they are now termed—the demand for a Jewish state was a genuine quest to remedy the wrongs done when the floodgates of fascism were opened. For most of the old left, the Jewish problem and its Zionist solution was as important as overthrowing the Franco regime. Moreover, the commitment of large numbers of Jews to the Communist Party and to the Labour movement in the 1930s brought figures such as Nye Bevan into close proximity with the Jewish problem. It brought an understanding of Jewish history and provided the educational basis for the raison d’être of the Zionist movement. It was justifiably said at the time that the further left you went in the Labour Party, the more you became committed to Israel. It is fascinating to reflect today on some of the symbols of that commitment; for example, when Michael Foot, at the behest of Beaverbrook, wrote an article on Purim in the Daily Express and merged Hitler with Haman, or when Barbara Castle described the kibbutz as “true biblical communism”. A. J. P. Taylor even considered that the British people had turned against Germany as a result of Nazi treatment of the Jews. Or when Bevan was saved from expulsion from the Party through the last minute arrival of Ian Mikado from Israel, where his daughter had moved her wedding forward one day to enable him to return to London for the meeting.

The Labour left contained Zionist Jews such as Sydney Silverman and Ian Mikado—MPs whom the media termed “extremists” yet who passionately supported Israel. Indeed, at that time Jewish representation was proportionately greater on the left than in the party as a whole.

Not all look upon Nye, or indeed the left, with fond memories. In her recent affectionate portrait of Lord Barnett Janner,’ her late husband, Lady Elsie Janner recalls an alleged anti-Semitic remark made by Nye in the Members lobby of the House of Commons. According to Lady Janner, Nye had been drinking and was angry at Barnett Janner’s opposition to the provision of training facilities in the Welsh hills for German armed forces. She stipulates that this occurred after the Board of Deputies of British Jews (or more correctly its Foreign Affairs Committee) had passed a resolution on the issue in March 1960. At this time, Bevan was actually recovering from an operation for cancer. His last words in the chamber of the House were on 1 December 1959, when he raised a question about a British national imprisoned in Egypt. Ironically, at the time of the Board’s resolution, Nye was convalescing at the home of his friend Lewis Cohen in Brighton. Bevan never returned to speak in the House of Commons and died in July 1960. Moreover, Barnett Janner first raised the issue of German troops in Wales in the parliamentary arena on 8 February 1961—seven months after Bevan’s death. In addition, he was supported by left-wingers such as Frank Allaun. Although anti-Semitism is widespread, such an incident seems out of character. Moreover there are numerous personal reminiscences which testify to Bevan’s lack of prejudice where Jews were concerned.

Bevan’s respect for a person’s heritage is summed up in a private letter which Jennie Lee, his wife, sent to Michael Foot the day after Nye’s death:

Nye was never a hypocrite. No falsity must touch him once he is no longer able to defend his views. He was no calculating machine. He was a great humanist whose religion lay in loving his fellow men and trying to serve them. He could kneel reverently in chapel, synagogue, Eastern mosque, Catholic cathedral on occasions when friends called him there, for marriage or dedication or burial services. He knelt reverently in respect to a friend or to a friend’s faith, but he never pretended to be other than he was, a humanist.’

In Michael Foot’s biography, Bevan is referred to as “almost a Zionist”. 3 Indeed he points out that Nye was so incensed at British policy on the question of a Jewish state, and especially at the insensitive approach of Ernest Bevin, that he actually considered resigning from the Atlee government. Hugh Dalton advised Bevan “not to be too quick off the mark”.4 This occurred, it should be remembered, when Bevan was striving to make his cherished dream, the National Health Service, a concrete and permanent reality. Harold Wilson recalls 5 that Bevan was a “significant Cabinet malcontent” when it came to the Palestine question. Bevan argued that it would not necessarily be to Britain’s advantage to avoid an estrangement with the Arab states over Israel. Indeed at one stage in the drama, Bevan demanded an increase in the rate of Jewish immigration into Palestine. Wilson notes that only Bevan and Dalton stood firmly on the side of the Jews during Cabinet discussions during that historic period.

THE era in which the Bevanites operated was distinctly different from our own. Idealism was more common and Israel was free from the problems which emerged after 1967. Nye and Jennie Lee visited Israel for the first time in January 1954. On their return, Jennie Lee wrote in Tribune: “They gather in their own from every kind of area, none so humble, so diseased, so illiterate, so despised and downtrodden that they are not welcome. This is the kind of passion that socialist workers everywhere who have had their own experience of victimization and of exile through poverty, should particularly understand”.6 The Bevanites saw Israel as a dynamic and daring socialist experiment. Bevan himself, in a series of articles in the Daily Herald, wrote about Israel in glowing terms. He commented that there were “more social projects . . . and more diverse economic projects in Israel than exist in any other part of the world”:

Nye Bevan did not accept the struggle for liberation without critical analysis, as do so many today. Before visiting Israel, he spent time in Egypt where he met Neguib. Naturally, Nye supported the dissolution of the monarchy, but coupled this with a declaration that he advocated “respect for the independence of Egypt’s neighbours”. His opinion of the strongman in the new government became more negative with time. By 1956, he opposed the nationalization of the Suez Canal and accused Nasser of “stirring the pot of nationalist passions” to the detriment of bettering the lot of the Egyptian people. Bevan believed that no radical transformation of Egyptian society had taken place and that its structure remained essentially the same as under the monarchy. In an article in Tribune on 3 August 1956, Bevan wrote:

If a social movement elects to take the path of revolution, it must pursue it to the end and the end is a complete transformation of society accompanied by a transference of power from the old to the new social forces. Judged by this criterion, the movement first led by General Neguib and then by Nasser has not as yet added up to a social revolution or anything like it.

The development of the present far left in the Labour Party was highly influenced by the extra-parliamentary left. In turn, they owe their pedigree in part, to the evaporation of the Communist Party’s domination of the Marxist left following the Twentieth Party Congress in the USSR in 1956. Bevan was never a pro-Soviet apologist, nor did he adopt any of the neo-Stalinist techniques which are prevalent today amongst those who fervently proclaim their opposition to Stalinism. Writing while Stalin was still alive and before the human wreckage came back from the camps, he stated: “The existence of huge forced labour camps, the ruthless punishment meted out to political offenders, the disappearance without trace of people who offend against the ruling clique, the appalling doctrine of ‘associative crime’— all these are deeply offensive”.8

WHEN the Suez crisis erupted, the Labour Party, which opposed the nationalist mood in the country, instantly earned highly negative comment from pro-Israeli circles. Yet again, a simplified version of a complex situation is recalled today. Indeed, although many scholars and former politicians have written about Suez, perhaps a truer picture will emerge with the release of the Cabinet papers for 1956 next year.

When Britain attacked Egypt, most of the Jewish community supported the action. However, Britain’s invasion was in no way carried out as an ally of Israel or out of a desire to see her thrive and prosper. It should not be forgotten that despite the co-ordination of the separate campaigns during the Suez crisis, Sir Anthony Eden continued to pursue an Arabist foreign policy and kept Israel at arm’s length. If there was co-operation, it was between France and Israel. The original British plan was to capture Alexandria, topple Nasser in Cairo and then invade the Canal area without reference to Israeli action. In the separate campaign in Sinai, Ben-Gurion required the British RAF to obliterate Egyptian airfields, which could have inflicted terrible damage on Israeli cities. Ben-Gurion saw it as a necessary evil because the French did not have the necessary heavy bombing capacity. Significantly, Eden did not inform Gaitskell about his military intentions because, according to Professor Hugh Thomas,’ he believed the Labour leader would be duty bound to tell his colleagues on the shadow front bench, which included left-wing supporters of Israel.

Condemnation of Eden’s military adventure did not necessarily mean a blind anti-Israel policy. Gaitskell specified this when he asked Eden in the House how he could justify intervening militarily since the Israelis, having completed their elimination of fedayeen bases, were no longer near the Canal. Michael Foot further comments that “Bevan assimilated the new events in his previous thinking; he would not become overnight anti-Israeli, pro-Nasser, pro-Dulles”.’° However, support for Eden’s policy attracted strange bedfellows. When the Conservative MP, Sir Thomas Moore, a one -time admirer of the British Union of Fascists and a member of the Council of Anglo-German Fellowship, supported the British military action, the left wing Jewish Labour MP, Maurice Orbach derisively exclaimed: “Another friend of the Jews! Up the Blackshirts!”

Although Bevan conducted himself brilliantly in the parliamentary debates over Suez, privately he was uncertain about the meaning of Labour’s opposition and the manner in which it manifested itself. According to Michael Foot: “Partly his view was shaped by his strong sympathies for Israel; what he had seen and felt there of their inescapable necessities was never absent from his reckoning”.11 Richard Crossman later recalled” a private conversation with Bevan which also confirms his understanding of the realities of the Middle East conflict. Bevan told Crossman:

There’s no reason why in attacking the Tories we should commit ourselves to the view that all United Nations decisions must be accepted and that all recourse to force must be opposed as aggression. What makes the Labour Party go wrong in foreign affairs is that it takes its policies from middle class intellectuals, devoid of antennae and with a dreadful habit of falling down and worshipping abstractions. In fact, there is only one motto worse than “my country right or wrong” and that is “the United Nations right or wrong”.

Although this was undoubtedly a dig at Gaitskell, even the Conservatives noticed the subtle difference in approach between Gaitskell and Bevan. Macmillan later utilized this for political gain, terming Gaitskell’s attitude “hysterical”. The Labour leader’s comment that Eden was acting like a policeman who went in “to help the burglar and shoot the householder”—was paradoxically more of a Bevanite aside. No doubt it was resented coming from someone who, like many of them, was a product of the middle class and public school.

THE Bevanites qualified their reservations about the Israeli action by always referring to the terrorism of the provocative fedayeen attacks from Egyptian territory. Bevan’s target was Eden; he scarcely mentioned Israel. “If Sir Anthony Eden is sincere in what he’s saying”, he told a mass rally in Trafalgar Square, “then he is too stupid to be Prime Minister”. Whilst opposing the nationalization of the Canal, he wrote in Tribune:” “When Britain and France appeared to take upon themselves the role of champions of world rights over the Suez, they converted the crisis not into a conflict between Egyptian nationalism and the legitimate claims of world commerce, but into the old acid struggle between imperialism and the new nations”.

Bevan believed that the Suez operation, apart from confining Eden to the political graveyard, actually strengthened Nasser. It promoted his championship of the Arab world against Western imperialism and consolidated his leadership of the Arab struggle against Israel. Clearly the Suez campaign allowed Nasser to win a propaganda victory and to present the success of the Israeli advance as part and parcel of imperialist intrigue. In hindsight, some have suggested that Israel would have been in a better position if Britain and France had not intervened militarily. It is significant to note today that some revisionists on the left have contented themselves with a simple and ideologically palatable image of Suez rather than confront its complexities. In his book on the British left between 1956 and 1968, David Widgery14 mourns the fact that “leftist dissenters” opted for “Out with Eden” rather than solidarity with Nasser. Perhaps the disenchantment of the Labour left with Israel began with the detachment of the anti-Soviet Marxist left from the Communist Party concurrently with Israel’s apparent collaboration in the British military campaign. Moreover, the close juxtaposition of Suez, Hungary and Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes was unfortunate. Israel’s intention of pre-empting a possible Egyptian attack on her borders was viewed as secondary to her military co-ordination with Britain and France. Over the years, Arab propaganda and far left simplicity have omitted the former and promoted the latter.

Many Bevanites supported the moderate position of Moshe Sharett in pursuing peace through negotiations rather than through Ben-Gurion’s military victories. Richard Crossman and Maurice Orbach acted as intermediaries between Nasser and Sharett. The Suez campaign, following the Lavon affair, dealt a death blow to all such possibilities for peace. Sharett’s very different approach was obvious in a cryptic speech to the Knesset in 1957. “Security”, he said, “is the first and primary condition for the state and this is an axiom; but narrow-minded and short-sighted concentration on security problems along with the diversion of attention from seemingly different considerations is likely to have direct consequences on security itself.”‘ Indeed, although the overwhelming majority in Israel and in the Jewish world supported Ben-Gurion’s military policy, a small minority had reservations about its use as a panacea for all political evils. Some of these founded the authoritative magazine New Outlook, which today is the principal organ of the peace camp in Israel.

MANY supporters of Israel in the 1950s could well have pre-empted Golda Meir and asked “Who are the Palestinians?” The festering sore of Palestinian nationalism, ignored by Jew and Arab alike, was incubating under Jordanian occupation and pan-Arab adventurism. Even in Israel, the contradiction of an Arab minority within a culturally alien and politically progressive Jewish state was apparent to Bevan. After his first visit to Israel, he commented: “The semi-medieval institutions of the Arab nations are rocking before the comparison and it would be foolish merely to watch the outcome. The peace of the world may well be threatened by this collision between two incompatible ways of life”.’

Bevan was never confronted with the reality of Palestinian nationalism, which arose after 1967. Indeed, it was much easier to defend Israeli policies before the Six Day War than after it. Even so, it is clear that in his last years, Bevan was already thinking about ways of bringing peace to the Middle East. He was Shadow Foreign Secretary and his acceptance of that post in itself suggested a greater pragmatism. Bevan, it appears, believed that the world and the Labour Party were on the brink of destruction. He saw himself-without a hint of egocentricity-as the man who could bring rationality to an irrational world. He believed that the Soviet Union should be invited as a participant in discussions on settling the Middle East conflict. Despite his opposition to Nasser, the emergence of Arab nationalism in the 1950s was a powerful force which had to be reckoned with and interpreted partially in terms of the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist struggle. Bevan well understood how such politically potent and emotional forces could be directed into futile channels, such as the struggle against Israel, rather than the transformation of their own societies.

Bevan’s pragmatic approach during these years was evident in a letter he wrote in 1958 to the Ahdut Avoda leader, Yigal Allon, a close friend over many years:

In fact my capacity to be of service in improving relations between Israel and her neighbours has been to some extent weakened by [the] knowledge by the Arabs of my friendship with Israel. It seems to me that, at this time, the best course I can pursue is to try and adopt a posture that will enable me to have more influence with Arab opinion. Not that I propose to weaken in support of Israel in the slightest degree, but rather to avoid public expressions of opinion  which might make it impossible for the Arab ears to be ready to listen to what I have to say. I hope this does not sound too pompous, but I am most anxious to extend some influence from British Labour to nascent Socialist groups in the Arab world.

Bevan’s premature death denied Britain of an original mind. Israel Sieff was a close friend of Bevan’s though he did not agree with him politically, and in his memoirs he waxes eloquent about Nye’s many qualities. Specifically he brings out a quality, perhaps above and beyond Nye’s humanity, which has always captured the Jewish imagination: the inclination to be a prophet. His vision of what is and what could be contained a richness which attracted people of all views. Nye Bevan died twenty-five years ago this summer. Many have chosen to forget but judging by Israel Sieff’s words, Jews have good reason to remember:

He was profoundly committed in his attitude to human beings and society, he was empirical about arrangements and institutions. This, I think, would have shown if he had become Prime Minister. What a voice and vision would then have dominated the life of Britain! How many dark places would have been illuminated, how many doubts and dangers would have been dispelled. Our problems would not have been waved away by a magician’s wand overnight; but the attempt to solve them would have been rendered meaningful and more exciting. And I believe would have been solved. Wherever our proper realistic level in the modern world lies, Nye would have seen it, and could have led us there. We would have gone eyes open, tails up, ready to make it not a retreat but a triumph. Men must be led by men who above all can speak to them. There are the prophets whose reason for being is to point a way ahead and make man able and willing to tread it. What makes an Isaiah is an unconquerable faith that good is not only morally better than evil, but that it is socially stronger too, the ability to get ordinary men to think the same and act accordingly. The first task of political leadership is to get men to lift up their hearts. Churchill did it in 1940. Weizmann did it time and time again. Nye would have done it for Britain today.


1              Barnett Janner: A Personal Portrait (London 1984), p.147.

  1. Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan, 1945-1960 (London 1975), P. 653.
  2. Ibid., p. 416.
  3. Hugh Dalton, High Tide and After: Memoirs, 1945-1960 (London 1962), p. 199.
  4. The Chariot of Israel (London 1981), p. 187.
  5. 22 January 1954.
  6. Quoted in Jewish Vanguard, 29 January 19544.
  7. Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear (London 1952), p. 167.
  8. The Suez Affair (London 1967), p. 69.
  9. Aneurin Bevan, 1945-1960, p. 516.
  10. Ibid., P. 515.
  11. Manchester Guardian Weekly, 28 December 1961.
  12. 14 September 1956.
  13. The Left In Britain, 1956-1968 (Harmondsworth 1976), p. 51.
  14. Quoted in Aharon Cohen, Israel and the Arab World (London 1970), p. 520.
  15. Jewish Vanguard, 29 January 1954.
  16. Aneurin Bevan, 1945-1960, pp. 606-7.
  17. The Memoirs of Israel Sieff (London 1970), p. 194.

Jewish Quarterly vol. 32 no.2 1985

1 thought on “Old Lefts for New: Nye Bevan and Zion”

  1. Don’t know if this adds to the detailed research here but I have a Labour pamphlet of the era signed by both the great Aneurin Bevan and Ian Mikado. The pamphlet is Mr. Facingbothways a humorous criticism of conservatives at the time.


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.