By Geoffrey Alderman
Why is anti-Jewish prejudice tolerated – alive and well you might say – in the British Labour party? In the wake of the recent general election I held an impromptu seminar that addressed the election outcome, and I asked my audience to answer this particular question. All present, without exception, offered the same response: the British Labour party was not anti-Jewish; however, it was anti-Zionist, and this anti-Zionism was deliberately being interpreted by others as anti-Semitism. That is to say, my entire audience bought into the undeniable history of British-socialist opposition to colonialism in all its varied forms: the Balfour Declaration was a colonialist enterprise, and the establishment of a Jewish ‘homeland’ in Mandate Palestine was (so the argument went) inevitably condemned, therefore, by Labour in the 30 years that followed.
My audience then listened as I offered an humble critique of this explanation. I shall tell you what I told them.
Anti-Jewish prejudice is endemic in the Labour movement. It was there at its birth, and indeed at its conception. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with Zionism.
The Labour Party was established in 1906 and built on political foundations laid by the Labour Representation Committee that had been formed in 1899 to put more working men into Parliament. The LRC was a joint enterprise – a partnership between the trade union movement and a number of socialist societies, such as the Fabian Society and the so-called Independent Labour Party founded on the initiative of the Scottish socialist Keir Hardie in 1893.
British socialism in the 19th century had a strong anti-Semitic streak, stemming from the view that – rightly or wrongly- the capitalist industrial system that had enslaved the working man was a diabolical enterprise, in the launching and sponsorship of which international Jewry had played a leading part. I use the word ‘diabolical’ deliberately, because underlying this mindset was an undeniable religious imperative. It was not out of sheer cussedness that the prominent early 19th-century radical William Cobbett bracketed “blaspheming Jews,” along with Quakers and “usurers of every description,” as financial parasites “feeding and fattening on the vitals of the country.”
This mantra was taken up by the Chartist movement, which campaigned for working-class rights in the mid-19th century, but it also fused with the Methodism that was – and remains – such an important force within the Labour movement. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that Labour owed more to Methodism than to Karl Marx. He was right. Dating from the mid-18th century, Methodism was founded by John Wesley, an unashamed anti-Semite. And we might note that 21st-century Methodism regards Judaism as a racist religion. This palpable bigotry can be seen at work in – for example – the totally one-sided report on Israel that the Methodist annual conference infamously endorsed in 2010 and in the anti-Israel exhibitions controversially hosted by the Methodist church in Hinde Street, London.
In the very last decade of the 19th century these various strands knitted comfortably together. The Trades Union Congress called repeatedly upon the government to restrict the entry into the UK of “aliens” – by which they meant immigrant Jews, whom they wrongly accused of pushing down wages by agreeing to accept lower hourly rates of pay, working longer hours and tolerating inferior living conditions. We can see all these elements at work in the “pogrom” (the phrase was that of Churchill, then Home Secretary) that engulfed the minuscule Jewish communities of industrial South Wales in August 1911. Egged on by socialists and Christians, the miners of the “Western Valleys” turned violently against Jewish tradespeople. When the Monmouthshire Welsh Baptist Association, meeting a week or so after the riots, was asked to condemn the rioters it refused to do so: “Resolutions did more harm than good,” one delegate explained, “and they encouraged the Jews. There were about 100 Jews in Tredegar now, and if they had many more resolutions they would have 500 there.”
Seven years later the Labour Party adopted its first constitution, written largely by the early Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb. It was Sidney (as Lord Passfield) who was responsible for the infamous 1930 White Paper on Palestine, by which the then Labour government attempted, unsuccessfully, to bring to an end the promise to the Jewish people encapsulated in the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate (after worldwide Jewish protests the Paper was withdrawn). The previous year Jews had been massacred by Palestinian Islamists in Hebron. “I can’t understand why the Jews make such a fuss over a few dozen of their people killed in Palestine,” Beatrice lectured Chaim Weizmann!
This astonishing disdain found an echo in Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s ambivalent attitude towards Jewish suffering in the post-war Attlee government. It finds another echo in the attitude of the modern Labour Party towards Jews and Jewish rights. And it explains why that party and its present leadership is evidently willing to tolerate a renewed anti-Jewish rhetoric within Labour’s ranks, giving Jew-baiters like Ken Livingstone a slap on the wrist when they should be kicked out.
The impromptu seminar at which I recounted these facts listened intently. And then fell silent.