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Tony Benn, fierce Israel critic — but once an admirer?

    Tony Benn: “dissolve Zionism”
    Tony Benn: “dissolve Zionism”

    Tony Benn’s shifting views on Israel and the Palestinians have come under the spotlight following the veteran politician’s death.

    The former Labour cabinet minister, campaigner and diarist, who has died at the age of 88, was a strong supporter of Anglo-Jewry, but in recent years had taken a hard-line approach against Israel and called for an end to Zionism.

    A rarely-seen letter from his time as Technology Minister in Harold Wilson’s first government surfaced in the days after his death and was highlighted as evidence of his pro-Jewish credentials.

    In the document, dated 1968, Mr Benn wrote to Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart to ask whether he should accept an Israeli invitation to give the annual Balfour Lecture.

    He said he had been considering a visit to Israel to discuss technological collaborations but was also critical of “certain aspects of Israeli policy”.

    Mr Benn wrote: “I always feel sympathetic to the Jewish aspirations and would propose to devote my lecture to an examination of the contribution the Jews could make to the development of the world in the future.”

    Speaking at a Board of Deputies lunch in 1980, Mr Benn told of his “admiration and respect” for Anglo-Jewry, and praised the community’s efforts in promoting race relations.

    He said his mother, Lady Stansgate, had been active in the Council of Christians and Jews, and that “the tradition of defence of the Jewish community was ingrained in my father and made him a committed friend of the Jewish people”. (Mr Benn’s father was the Labour minister Viscount Stansgate.)

    More recently, however, Mr Benn, a Palestine Solidarity Campaign patron, was one of Britain’s most vocal Israel critics.

    He appeared to equate Israel’s approach in the West Bank with the Holocaust, accused the country of ethnic cleansing and war crimes, backed calls for a boycott, and said the Israeli ambassador should be expelled from the UK following the Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2009.

    He attacked the BBC when it refused to broadcast an appeal for aid in the wake of that conflict.

    He said at a PSC event in January 2011 that he did not believe in a two-state solution.

    “The answer is a single state where Jews and Palestinians live together. To do that we have to dissolve Zionism,” he said.

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