On Hilary Benn’s Speech

Hilary Benn’s remarkable speech during the Syria debate in parliament last week did not please everyone. It did however align voting to bomb Daesh installations with past traditions of the Labour party which are rarely mentioned today. Benn spoke about internationalism and evoked the struggle against Franco during the Spanish Civil War – a struggle in which Jews were disproportionately represented in the International Brigades. However, it was the labelling of Daesh as “fascists” that really stunned many on the British left.

While it was OK to condemn them as beheaders and murderers, to toss out the epithet “fascist” was previously unheard of. Yet “fascist” has been utilised to tar many regimes – including Israel’s. Indeed, in the eyes of many, to implicitly compare these Islamists to the followers of Mussolini and Hitler seemed almost politically incorrect.

In doing so, Hilary Benn perhaps unintentionally pinpointed the ideological dissonance between the Old Left of Aneurin Bevan and his generation and the New Left of Corbyn, McDonnell and Livingstone.

The Old Left fought against Mosley in the East End, lived through the Shoah and bore witness to the rise of Israel. Bevan and his wife, Jennie Lee, on Labour’s Left thereby strongly identified with the Israel of 1948 and condemned Arab nationalism as reactionary and feudal.

Hilary’s father, then the Right Honourable Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, was an uber-Zionist during the 1950s. His regular contributions to the Poale Zion journal, Jewish Vanguard, and enthusiasm for Zionism make fascinating reading. Tony Benn, of course, moved cosmically to the Left and espoused the cause of the Palestinians. Yet even in his dotage he could not quite resolve his belief in a socialist Israel where the Jews had a right to national self-determination with his attendance at the Palestinian “right to return” rallies in Trafalgar Square.

The New Left, which the Corbynistas epitomise, had its genesis in the period of decolonisation. Corbyn, McDonnell and Livingstone all became politically aware during the 1960s – the period of the Vietnam war, the struggle against apartheid, the fight against military regimes in Latin America.

They felt closer to the embryonic struggle of the Palestinians than to the Israelis – and this was before the settlement drive on the West Bank after 1967. There was a virtual silence on the plight of Soviet Jewry. They had neither experience nor understanding of the Zionist experiment and reduced it to a Jewish form of colonialism. It was wrong – not different.

Corbyn, McDonnell and Livingstone have spoken about the need for peace in the Middle East, but they have done virtually nothing to bring it about. They have instead waxed lyrical for the highly peripheral far left in Israel while ignoring its mainstream peace camp and sister Labour party.

They did not live through the period when the British left fought fascism. Yet Jews who were born after 1945 know that, but for 20 miles of clear blue water, their parents and grandparents would have been rounded up and deported ”to the East” like their European cousins. In this sense, all Jews are survivors. It is this awareness that separates many leftist British Jews from the adherents of the far left. They connect the struggle against fascism with the birth of Israel while the Corbynistas separate them.

The identification with the oppressed under colonialism was deep and profound. Groups such as the Movement for Colonial Freedom had a long and courageous history under the guidance of Fenner Brockway. Yet, during the Second World War, there were some who fought against their colonial masters on the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend -and joined Hitler. This included the IRA Chief of Staff, Sean Russell, the Indian National Congress’s Subhas Chandra Bose – and of course the central guide of Palestinian nationalism, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. These collaborators believed that the path to national liberation ran through Hitler’s Chancellery. The struggle against fascism came second – and the fate of the Jews was unimportant to their immediate goals.

In the current debate, the debacle in Iraq has hung over any decision to attack Daesh. Although the intervention in Kosovo in 1999 is rarely mentioned, by extension the idea of military intervention nowadays in the developing world is frowned upon. The slaughter during the First World War similarly induced a trauma in militarily confronting Nazism in the late 1930s. Pacifism gained in strength- 100,000 belonged to the Peace Pledge Union in 1937. Membership of the Communist party increased by a third in the year before the outbreak of war. The circulation of its newspaper, the Daily Worker soared and was read widely by non-Communists. When the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed, British Communists argued against any war with Hitler and demanded instead a political accommodation with the Nazis. Why fight for British imperialism against German workers? In all this, the fate of the three million Jews in Poland was a secondary consideration.

Even as late as December 1940 – after the defeat of France when Britain had its back to the wall – the Independent Labour Party on the left of the Labour party itself tabled a motion in the House of Commons which called for a negotiated peace. It attracted the support of four votes.

On the outbreak of war in September 1939, Bevan and Stafford Cripps took a different approach. In their journal, Tribune, they wrote that “the policy of doing nothing and hoping for the best, which many have adopted, is now seen to be one of the prime factors in our tragedy”. The TUC also supported the use of force, calling for “the defeat of ruthless aggression”. Yet there were others on the Labour left who thought differently. In November 1939, 20 Labour MPs signed a “Memorandum on Peace Aims” which called for an immediate conference and a negotiated peace with Hitler.

It was this reclaiming of Labour defiance that made Hilary Benn’s speech so powerful. It produced a ripple of perception that related to Jewish history and the tragic odyssey of the Jews during the 20th century.

Tony Benn would have undoubtedly voted against any bombing, but he would have been tremendously proud of his son.

Jewish Chronicle 11 December 2015

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