Once upon a time, the British left believed in Israel. Socialists understood it as the land of the kibbutz and the moshav, two pioneering models of collective farming. They recognised it as a nation built by an oppressed, indigenous people who could trace their history in the land for more than 3,000 years, despite the efforts of successive empires to enslave, dispossess and displace them. Western students would flock each summer to work on Israel’s farms and explore the kibbutz experience. For a certain type of leftist activist, it was a rite of passage.
Readers of the JC will be familiar with this history. The British left, it seems, has erased it.
One person who hasn’t forgotten is the Olivier Award-winning actor Elliot Levey, whom I recently interviewed for the Sunday Times. In the interview, he makes a rare hint of criticism of his father-in-law, the film-maker Ken Loach.
It’s not easy to be one of the country’s leading Jewish actors, while also being the son-in-law of a man expelled from Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party following accusations of antisemitism. (Loach, like many others who were supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, describes the accusations as part of a “witch hunt and a purge”.) Levey was careful to avoid criticising Loach directly, and to call him “a compassionate, wonderful, loving, brilliant grandfather to three Jewish boys”. But what he was keen to talk about — at far more length than I could ever quote in full — was how and why antisemitic tropes took over the hard left.
Levey described the 1987 play Perdition, which was directed, promoted and championed by Loach. It repeats old smears, rooted in the trial of Rudolf Kasstner, that during the Holocaust, Budapest’s Jewish community leaders collaborated with Eichmann to allow some Jews to escape and found the state of Israel. “Israel was coined in the blood of Hungarian Jewry” reads a typical line of dialogue. Loach has previously responded to criticism of the play by writing: “The charge of antisemitism is the time-honoured way to deflect anti-Zionist arguments”.
What Levey finds interesting about Perdition, however, is that playwright Jim Allen draws his story from Lenni Brenner, a prominent Trotskyite leader born into an Orthodox Jewish family. Brenner, who is still alive, spent the 1980s as a leading conduit into the West of Soviet-nurtured narratives denouncing Zionist history. But as Levey points out, in the early years of Israel the Soviet Union hankered to draw the nation into its sphere of influence. “Stalin loved Israel – it had collective farms!”
Only once the US had won the battle to claim Israel as a Cold War ally did the Politburo decide to rewrite its own history of Zionism. Between 1969 and 1972 the Soviet Academy of Sciences established the study of “Zionology” within its Institute of Oriental Sciences. The British hard- left followed as directed; within 20 years it had pivoted from seeing Zionism as a project rooted in socialism, to a project rooted in Nazism. Others followed suit. In 1982, the Institute would award a PhD to the future Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, for a doctorate titled The Relationship Between Zionists and Nazis, 1933-1945. Perdition draws from the same well.
In Britain, this was a shift in attitudes that Levey claims to have observed close up. Levey spent his student days on the hard left: “You’d go round to somebody’s house and there’d be the great Jewish intellectuals: Eric Hobsbawm, Ralph Miliband doing the rounds, the Israeli Tony Cliff, effectively the founder of the Trotskyist movement.” (Cliff was born Yigael Glückstein, in 1917 in Zikhron Ya’akov.) As an intellectually precocious young man from a religious family, it felt like a natural progression: “I went from reading the Talmud for fun – I was that boy – to reading Gramsci for fun.” This was the world of the Socialist Workers Party, “but it all felt like an internal Jewish debate”.
Then things began to change in Levey’s circles. There were always disagreements about Israel, but Levey compares the tone to Jews telling Jewish jokes, affectionately. “And then somebody from the outside starts telling that Jewish joke, but without an ironic tone, or with a nasty tone. And it’s when that happens, you get that shiver down your spine. And I don’t know a Jew that doesn’t know it.”
Levey still seems to believe in the prospect of a Zionism deeply rooted in socialism. His adolescent summers were spent with the Hanoar Hatzioni, working on a kibbutz recently attacked by Hamas. “It was the only time I’ve ever seen socialism in action. There was no money, the money went into the kitty, and all the kids lived in a dorm. I never saw socialism in action in any posh Victorian townhouse.”
The days when Zionists marched in step with the British hard-left seem long gone. But this is recent political history; recently erased. Levey is right: the socialist left used to be at the forefront of making the case for Israel. The rest of us should do a better job of reminding them.