The British Left and Israel

Why is the far left so antagonistic towards Israel? Such fixation is no doubt fuelled to a great degree by the forty-year long settlement drive on the West Bank and the political inanities of a succession of right-wing governments in the country. But its deeper roots lie in the age of decolonisation.

In 1945, there was a profound disillusionment amongst Jews worldwide. There had been no mass uprising of the workers during the second world war to stop the war and to halt the genocide of the Jews. In particular the left of the Labour Party in Britain understood that even if the Allies had won the war, the Jews had certainly lost it. Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, leading left-winger and architect of the post-war national health service, threatened to resign from Clement Attlee’s government over British government policy in Palestine. Michael Foot and Richard Crossman campaigned for a Jewish homeland within Palestine. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (decades before he became plain Tony Benn) wroteüber-Zionist articles in the Jewish Vanguard. Even numerous Trotskyist groups argued that the survivors of the Nazi genocide should be allowed to travel to any country where international socialism could be constructed.

The general sentiment on the left at the time was sympathy for Zionist aspirations and the construction of socialism in Palestine. It was common for the cause of Israel to be compared to that of the Spanish civil war. “Never again” was more than a slogan.

For their part, British Jews – traditionally stalwarts of the left – turned in their disillusioned and depressed condition after the war and the genocide to the Jewish left, which preferred auto-emancipation to emancipation by others.

In 1947, the Soviet Union temporarily reversed its policy of sending Zionists to the gulag and instead supported a two-state solution in Palestine. It hoped to expel British imperialism from the middle east, stop the Americans replacing it, and create the possibility of a warm deep-sea port for its own fleet in Haifa. Indeed, were it not for Stalin, Israel might never have come into existence. This mission, once accomplished, allowed the Kremlin to revert to its seduction of Arab nationalism in the name of Soviet national interests.

The test of experience

The period of late Stalinism reached its apogee with the trial of leading Czech communists in Prague (Rudolf Slánský being the most prominent) and the “doctors’ plot” in Moscow where physicians were accused of poisoning the Kremlin leadership. The overwhelming majority of those arrested were Jews. The interrogations and the show-trials were tainted by anti-semitism. Yet European communist parties repeatedly said that any accusations of anti-semitism were solely a means to deflect criticism from Israel, and French intellectuals such as Maxime Rodinson vehemently rebutted Zionist critics who argued that the doctors’ plot was riddled with anti-semitism.

The dramatic revelations after Stalin’s death that the defendants in these trials were completely innocent fortified the old left in Britain in its support for Israel. Many of its adherents had fought with the Jews against Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in London’s East End in the 1930s. They had then enlisted in the war against Nazism and were witnesses to the Holocaust, and welcomed the potential of a Hebrew socialist republic in 1948.

The succeeding post-war generation did not have such a life-moulding experience. It was formed in an epoch of decolonisation, when new states emerged out of European colonial empires in Africa and Asia. The establishment of Israel fitted uncertainly into this pattern and both Marxist and post-colonial frameworks faced difficulty in accommodating it theoretically. Were the Zionists akin to the white settlers in Kenya who annexed the land, or more like the Mau-Mau who fought the British to liberate the country? Such complexity did not sit happily on many a left-wing shoulder.

Anti-colonial struggles gained momentum in the 1960s with many “national-liberation movements” gaining independence for their countries. It was also a period when Palestinian nationalism began to coalesce and emerge from the shadows, with the Palestine Liberation Organisation being established in 1964. It was easier for many on the left to identify with the Palestinian national struggle in the 1960s than with the already established state of Israel. Such a mindset was prevalent before the six-day war in 1967 and before the settlement drive that followed it.

Moreover, the Israelis had been excluded from joining the non-aligned bloc in the 1950s. On the one hand, the Stalinist backlash and show-trials had pushed Israel closer to the United States. On the other, the Arab world demanded that Israel should not participate in the founding conference of the non-aligned states at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. If India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru permitted the inclusion of social-democratic Israel, then feudal states such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya would refuse to come – and the rest of the Arab world would follow. Nehru even travelled to Cairo to persuade an indifferent Gamal Abdel Nasser that a third-world bloc was worthwhile. But Nasser too would only attend if Israel stayed away – a stand supported by newly independent Muslim states such as Pakistan. In the end Nehru caved in and Israel was excluded.

The Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) catalysed the ideological rot that eventually devoured communist parties east and west. This process also created space for a third force, a “new left”, to emerge between communism and social democracy. This embraced an independent Marxism and a rediscovered Trotskyism.

Yet the new Trotskyists, like those of old, were more interested in theory than practice. Power was the prerogative of others, whether the Kremlin or the Labour party. The purity of theory appealed to many Jews and drew them towards the new left. Even for them, however, the Jewish question was insoluble and perplexing. The result, as in the past, was an ongoing attempt to bend the Jews to fit theory – and this manifested itself in a growing ideological frustration with a stubborn Israel (see Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimization [Continuum, 2012]).

A politics of choice

Into this bizarre cocktail was thrown the question of Jewish identity. It had already marked the evolution of the Bolshevik party in Russia and then the Soviet Union; the party’s upper echelons contained many highly assimilated Jews (such as Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev). As the Soviet regime became more established in the 1920s and 1930s they were joined by many former Zionists and Bundists who for a variety of reasons rushed to join the communist parties. Such “non-Jewish Jews” – to use Isaac Deutscher’s term – passionately embraced the idea of a socialist future. In contrast to the here and now of Lenin or Trotsky’s successful revolution, building Zion in Palestine seemed a distant and less enticing prospect.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 proved a test for such figures. The Soviet Union in 1939-41 compared the war in the west to that of 1914 when millions of workers had died effectively as pawns in an imperialist rivalry. Trotsky agreed with Stalin’s view that the conflict between Hitler and the Allies should be seen in these terms. Why should workers fight and die to serve capitalism? Trotsky put it this way shortly before his assassination:

“As victors, Britain and France would be no less fearful for the fate of mankind than Hitler and Mussolini. Bourgeois democracy is not to be saved. Lending aid to its own bourgeoisie against the foreign fascism, the workers would hasten the victory of fascism in their own country. The task set by history is not to support one part of the imperialist system against another but to cast the entire system over the precipice.”

Stalin’s neutrality in the war in the west meant – in addition to giving him room to devour half of Poland, the Baltic states, and part of Finland – that millions of Polish Jews were now at the mercy of the Nazi war machine. Once western Poland was devoured by the Nazis, and Hitler turned to attack Britain and France, would this not put the families of “non-Jewish Jews” in danger simply on account of their Jewish origin, no matter how marginal a part of their identity? Yet for some left-wing Jews – among them leaders of Trotskyist groupuscules such as Tony Cliff and Ted Grant, and the Communist Party intellectual Eric Hobsbawm – this danger was a secondary matter. They placed the revolutionary imperative and the survival of the Soviet Union before anything else.

A generation later, some of the same choices (or non-choices) were apparent when non-Jewish Jews were represented disproportionately in the anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s. Some did not want to be reminded of their former selves – and the condemnation of Israel per se became a convenient mechanism both to separate the present from the past and a means to vindicate their life-defining political stance.

Yet while some also found their Jewish voice when it came to Israel, Jean-Paul Sartre bypassed the psychological maelstrom. He remembered the round-up of Parisian Jews in 1942 and their deportation to the east. For that reason, he was pro-Israel. He also remembered the struggle of Algeria’s FLN against the French colons. For that reason, he was pro-Arab. This double legacy, he argued, meant that the responsibility of the left was to create space for dialogue and to facilitate negotiations between the two sides.

Sartre’s plea has been forgotten, to be replaced by an ideological checklist to determine which sort of Israeli a pro-Palestinian leftist can speak to. Talk not to your opponents, only to your fellow-travellers. It is an impoverishing regression.

Open Democracy 8 February 2012

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