Geoffrey Levy’s Daily Mail article seemed like a family affair — only Jews were the main protagonists — Ralph Miliband, Eric Hobsbawm, Harold Laski.
Each grappled with their Jewishness and how to repair the world in dark times. Hobsbawm remained an unrepentant Stalinist, who, despite his Jewish origin, supported the Nazi-Soviet pact at a time when the Miliband family was fleeing from Hitler’s stormtroopers.
Laski became a passionate supporter of the Zionist cause and a scathing critic of anti-Jewish feeling within the Labour Party. His targets included Sidney Webb, Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin. In a broadcast from Germany in April 1943, the traitor William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw”, described Laski as “this detestable and wily Jew”. He became chairman of the Labour Party and mentor at LSE to the young Ralph Miliband.
Miliband’s family left Poland in the mid-1920s during a terrible economic crisis. The odyssey of the Milibands — from Poland to Belgium to Britain — indicates the fragility of existence for the wandering Jew during that period.
Many were torn between a universalism which supported the oppressed everywhere, and a particularism in following a national path. This was starkly depicted when the Balfour Declaration and the Russian Revolution occurred within days of each other in 1917.
One proclaimed a national home for the Jews in Palestine, the other declared that a new dawn would see the disappearance of injustice and evil in the world. Jews were attracted to both and had to make a choice.
Many Zionists joined the Soviet Communist party and turned on their former comrades to prove their conversion. Others utilised Marxism to guide their Zionism. Ben-Gurion, Tabenkin and even Jabotinsky used Marxism as a “diagnostic tool”.
Still others such as those in the Marxist-Zionist movement, Hashomer Hatzair, expressed an unrequited ideological love for the Soviet Union. Stalin’s collected works were translated into Hebrew and bound in red leather.
Ralph Miliband was a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Belgium. As the storm-clouds gathered over Europe in the late 1930s, many left the movement since Zionism at that time seemed no answer to the advance of Nazism. Many were also repelled by the show trials in the Soviet Union and Hashomer’s subservience to Stalinism.
At Cambridge in the 1940s, his friend and fellow Polish Jew, Yaakov Talmon, tried to persuade Miliband to emigrate to Palestine with him. Miliband remained; he was wedded to the intellectual socialist tradition of Orwell, rather than to the Marxism of the kibbutz. Talmon became one of Israel’s most revered historians.
On the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, Miliband entered into a ferocious correspondence with a fellow Belgian Jewish Marxist, Marcel Liebman, in which he strongly supported Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. Miliband sarcastically asked Liebman how many Arab protests about persecution of Jews in the Arab world had taken place.
Miliband further commented: “It is no duty of socialists to support pseudo-socialist revolutions unconditionally, they should do it in a nuanced way. But the rottenness of official Marxism in our time makes this kind of attitude impossible.”
Geoffrey Levy repeated the kind of ignorance that allowed the Daily Mail to flirt with home-grown fascism in the 1930s. One can certainly differ with the path that Ralph Miliband took, but nothing, as history records, is ever black or white.