How the Left turned on Israel
Today’s antipathy towards the Jewish state unites liberals, Marxists and Islamists.
Lenin was only interested in Jewish nationalism in so far as it related to the Russian workers’ movement
Since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, an important feature in the debate on the Israel-Palestine imbroglio has been a questioning of the legitimacy of Israel as a nation-state by sections of the political Left and the liberal and cultural intelligentsia in Britain.
Such opinion has moved from passionately supporting the right of the Jews to self-determination in 1948 (by figures such as Aneurin Bevan, Bertrand Russell and Tony Benn) to questioning that right over 60 years later.
Today, Israel is often seen as troublesome on a good day and illegitimate on a bad one. Like many Israelis, many wish to roll the borders back to the 1967 boundaries, but there is also a growing number who wish to return to 1948.
This disillusionment with Israel began before the conquests of the Six-Day War and the settlement drive on the West Bank.
Whereas the Old Left had fought Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the East End with the Jews, and lived through the Holocaust and the rise of Israel, the New Left came of age during the era of decolonisation in the 1960s. While Jews disproportionately participated in those anti-colonial struggles, the Shoah and the rise of Israel was not simply another historical event. Even for those born long after the war, it was understood that all Jews are survivors. This level of consciousness separates a majority of the Jewish Left from the broader British Left.
In 2009, a state with a Jewish majority in the Middle East does not sit easily with Marxist doctrine, post-colonial theory and Islamist belief. It is this inability to define Zionism and to classify the Jews which has brought together liberals, social democrats, Trotskyists, Stalinists and the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood front organisations.
Together, they reaffirm the contention that “Everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation; everything must be granted to them as individuals.” Herzl’s chief associate, Max Nordau, understood this well when he remarked at the first Zionist Congress in 1897 that the great men of the French Revolution emancipated the Jews, not through a fraternal feeling for the Jews, but because logic demanded it.
It was not that Jews did not believe in social change or indeed in revolution; it was that they believed that the theory of emancipation did not reflect their own reality. Many regarded themselves as a nation with a culture, a literature, a history, a plethora of languages and a religion.
Much of current progressive thinking can be traced back to the success of the October Revolution in 1917. Lenin, of course, would have no truck with Jewish nationalism since it would divert Jewish workers from the primary task of class struggle and recommended the choice of assimilation for the Jewish future. The Jews had skipped the national stage in their historical development and became the pioneers of socialism by moving directly to assimilation.
On the one hand, the Jews were a national minority in the transitional process of assimilating which deserved protection against antisemitism, on the other they had to be denied the right to national recognition.
Anti-fascists attack Oswald Mosley’s followers in 1936: Communism was an answer to the far right for Jews
Moreover, Lenin wrote about the Jews in 1903 and 1913 when the question of Jewish nationality was related to larger issues confronting the Russian workers’ movement. He noticed only Jews under the control of Baron de Rothschild and not the Marxist Zionism of Ben-Gurion and Tabenkin of the second aliyah. Lenin’s analysis of Zionism was selective, partial and outdated. He never produced a general analysis of the Jewish question and never discussed the socialist Zionist experiment in Palestine.
He clearly knew little about Jews and Jewishness. Most of the Jews with whom he was acquainted in the revolutionary movement were assimilated and Russified. Their Jewishness was often defined by transcending Jewishness. The workers’ movement in capitalist Europe, he argued, would defend the Jews against antisemitism. He also believed that after a socialist revolution, workers’ states would automatically eradicate all forms of national prejudice. As history has cruelly demonstrated, on both counts, Lenin was wrong. Leninist theory did not reflect the reality in which the Jews found themselves.
There is a belief in this country that the Left has never been susceptible to antisemitic stereotypes. The spectacle of the wealth of the Rothschilds in the 19th century, however, merged with traditional anti-Jewish imagery, propagated by centuries of the Church’s teachings. JA Hobson, the well-known liberal economist, argued that the Boer war had been instigated by international Jewish bankers and East End Jews made good, such as Barney Barnato. Jews hiding behind English names were the true manipulators of the Boer War. The revered founder of the Social Democratic Federation, HM Hyndman, spoke of an “Imperialist Judaism in Africa” and the formation of an “Anglo-Hebraic Empire in the continent”. Significantly, the civilisations of the Zulus, Basutos and Matabele were spoken of in glowing terms, while the Jews were all merely greedy capitalists. The Jews were implicitly accused of the corruption of the innocent, a desecration of an unblemished utopia. The impoverished Jewish masses of Eastern Europe were invisible.
This imagery was further embellished by Jews who wished to demonstrate that their prime allegiance was to the cause of the revolution.
Many Jews fervently embraced the possibilities of destroying the old and building the new in Russia. They could escape antisemitism and the burden of Jewishness in an unsympathetic world. Many of those who worked for world revolution were former socialist Zionists who now looked upon the Zionist experiment as distant and utopian compared to the here and now of Bolshevik success.
The Jewish section of the party began to play on the suspicion and confusion about Zionism within the Bolshevik party. It argued that Zionism was one of the branches of the imperialist counter-revolution; that it was linked to the antisemitic Whites.
The Bolsheviks believed that world revolution depended on revolution in the industrialised countries of the West. Yet this socialist internationalism was balanced by an opposing quasi-nationalist aim. A Bolshevik interest after 1917 was to stabilise the Soviet regime. Extending the appeal of revolution beyond Russia’s borders would therefore create domestic problems for the imperialists and divert political and military attention away from Russia.
The utilisation of the Arab world’s resentment of the British therefore assisted the early Bolshevik state in its war of survival. Thus in 1926 the coming to power of Ibn Saud and Wahhabi Islam in Saudi Arabia was welcomed by the Kremlin and seen as liberating and progressive. The Jews who had established the Communist Party of Palestine were ditched by Moscow in the hope of cultivating Arab nationalism. Jews were allowed to advance in all the Communist parties of the world, but were denied this in Palestine.
The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was, in Lenin’s eyes, one of the most important parties. It could promote the anti-imperialist struggle from the heart of the empire and assist by undermining Britain, the leading force in the array of anti-Soviet states.
Lenin’s dream attracted many from the colonies and especially from the Indian subcontinent. Like many British Jews, they found in the Communist party a home free of racism and colonial paternalism. Rajani Palme Dutt, the son of a middle-class Indian doctor and a Swedish mother, joined the newly founded CPGB and was regarded as the foremost ideologist of the party for the next half century. He was regarded by the Kremlin as the safest pair of hands in Britain.
Dutt was the party’s foremost expert on the colonial question. His view of Jewish nationalism was conditioned by the vested interests of the Soviet Union. Zionism, moreover, was fitted into the conventional perception of anti-colonialism. It was examined in the context of the Indian struggle. Zionism was regarded as wrong and not as different. Marxist Zionist efforts in establishing the kibbutz collective and forging a command economy, based on the Soviet model, were glossed over.
However, the rise of Hitler to power in January 1933 and the threatening presence of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists introduced a new ingredient into the CPGB’s approach.
The CPGB wanted a solid base within a working-class community — the Jews offered this because they appreciated the party’s principled stand against antisemitism and were deeply drawn to the idea of creating a better world. The influx of Jews into the party created a situation whereby Jews were now disproportionately represented and particularly in the party’s hierarchy and leadership.
In the spring of 1936, the CPGB demanded a halt to Jewish immigration into Palestine from Nazi Germany. However, many Jewish Communists, while often not identifying with Zionism per se, understood the attacks against Jews in Palestine in the context of attacks against Jews in Europe generally. It raised the question of differentiating between Jewish national interests and the Kremlin’s line. Why should attacks on Jews be fought in Britain but not in Palestine? The simplistic party line was that Arab and Jewish workers should fight Zionism, Arab feudalism and British imperialism. The CPGB’s fight against fascism and antisemitism in Britain thereby clashed with the Kremlin’s anti-Zionist policy.
The Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 was a bombshell for the Communist Party of Great Britain. For its Jewish members, it was a challenge to their faith in the cause of revolution.
Did Stalin sign to buy time? Was the annexation of the Baltic states and half of Poland a means to construct a buffer territory against a future German invasion? Did Stalin, on the other hand, believe that this conflict between imperialist rivals — Germany on one side, Britain and France on the other — would end in mutually assured destruction such that the hitherto neutral USSR could then fulfil Lenin’s dream by advancing into Western Europe and imposing Communism?
Large amounts of war material was shipped to Germany from the USSR and Stalin congratulated Hitler on entering Paris. In the midst of this swirling vortex with its annihilationist consequences, were Jews now expected to sacrifice themselves in the cause of the greater revolutionary good?
In the Labour party rank and file and within the unions, there was a real anti-war sentiment, a stop the war sentiment. There was a deep fear of a repetition of the carnage of the First World War when ordinary people perished in their millions in a futile war between empires. The Communist Party’s stand attracted the attention of many on the British Left when no one else was opposing the war.
This line of argument opened the way to the belief that there could be an “understanding” for national liberation movements in the developing world to working with the Nazis if it ousted the British imperialists and secured independence. After all, “the enemy of my enemy” is my friend.
The former president of the Indian National Congress, Subhas Chandra Bose, arrived in Berlin in March 1941 and enlisted German assistance in training an Indian military force. These Indian soldiers fought British troops in Italy.
If Mussolini’s forces had been successful in September 1940 and entered Cairo, they would have been welcomed as liberators by the Egyptians. Had it not been for the victory at El Alamein, SS Obersturmbannführer Walter Rauff would have ordered his Einsatzkommando to liquidate the Jews of Palestine. Moreover, as in Eastern Europe, the Nazis expected local participation in their actions.
There was therefore a profound difference of choice for Jews and for anti-colonial freedom fighters. In both cases, vested interest overcame other considerations. For the Jews, it was often a matter of life and death, an escape from systematic extermination.
Trotsky had become sensitised to the prevalence and use of antisemitism in the USSR when he lost the power struggle to Stalin in the mid-1920s. Karl Radek, a strong supporter of Trotsky asked “What’s the difference between Moses and Stalin? Moses took the Jews out of Egypt; Stalin takes them out of the Communist Party.”
Rising antisemitism in Europe caused Trotsky to revise his attitude that assimilation was the answer to the Jewish problem and he became acutely aware of the Zionist answer. Trotsky used the term “Jewish nation” and was not seemingly opposed to the Jews moving en masse to Palestine once the victory of socialism had been achieved.
While Trotsky had predicted the Nazi-Soviet pact and condemned fascism, he also understood Stalin’s rationale for keeping the USSR out of any conflict for as long as possible. He too saw the war as a continuation of the First World War — a conflict between rival imperialisms.
There was little to choose in 1940 between the views of the Stalinist ideologue Rajani Palme Dutt and the sophisticated intellectual Leon Trotsky. This was the political dysfunction on the Left which faced the Jews on the eve of their greatest tragedy.
In the West, saving the Jews came to be seen as a consequence of winning the war. The question of what happens if there were no more Jews to save was addressed only marginally. In the East, saving the Soviet Union and exporting the revolution was paramount. Moreover, the international proletariat did not rise up against their masters. The circle of abandonment of the Jews was complete.
Soviet national interests ultimately trumped all other concerns including the meaning of socialism. Stalin’s desire to oust the British from the Middle East and to secure a Soviet presence there was a deciding factor in the Kremlin’s espousal of a Jewish state in the spring of 1947. Indeed without Stalin’s support, it is doubtful whether the UN would have voted by the mandatory two thirds majority for a two-state solution in November 1947. It is doubtful that without Stalin whether Israel would have come into existence in May 1948.
Yet Soviet Jews who applied to emigrate to Israel were quickly arrested and incarcerated for long years in the Gulag. The USSR’s external policy in Palestine dovetailed with Zionist interests. Its internal policies did not.
The Road to Utopia is paved with good intentions, but is accompanied by unexpected consequences. Today the Soviet Union no longer exists, consumed by its own contradictions.
Yet its legacy about Zionism lives on. These errors of history are carried on high while marching valiantly towards the new dawn of humanity. While the politics of virtue still attracts, many Jews remain idealists without illusions. It is this contradiction which both draws them near to and at the same time distances them from the British Left. The Road to Utopia remains open, everyone wishes to move forward, but the 20th century has taught that we do not all face in the same direction.
This article was based on Colin Shindler’s inaugural lecture at SOAS as the UK’s first Professor of Israeli Studies. His ‘The Triumph of Military Zionism: Nationalism and the Origins of the Israeli Right’ has just been published in paperback by IB Tauris