My attitude towards Jews and Israel has been consistent for 70 years. (Before that, I can’t remember.) First of all, I had no attitude towards Jews at all; certainly not ‘the’ Jews – with the definite article. In my little childhood world they didn’t feature as something separate from the rest of us. Apparently I knew one or two – one was a wartime refugee taken in by my family – but not that they were Jewish, which in any case would have meant nothing to me. At my secondary school they distinguished themselves by not attending school chapel, but that was true of my Roman Catholic friends also. Otherwise Jews appeared to be fully integrated into our society, so that normally one wouldn’t notice them. It’s the reason why I can never be sure, when asked, how many Jewish ‘friends’ I have had. Even if I had been more aware, my own religion (Methodism) preached tolerance toward all systems of belief; as did the democratic socialism I first discovered in my late teens. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in any of this.
For us ‘the Jews’ (with the definite article) mainly featured somewhat distantly, as victims of Hitler and the Holocaust, which of course engendered enormous sympathy towards them. In British history they occasionally appeared as scapegoats for racist right-wing movements, mainly in the East End of London, where they had been settled in some numbers since the 1890s; and as prominent men and women in British politics: Disraeli first of all, then a whole raft of leading socialists, including the Millibands’ father. Their depiction in literature – Shylock, Fagin – never influenced my own view of Jews as a people, any more than Lady Macbeth soured my attitude to women. Later I grew to admire Jewish contributions to many forms of ‘culture’; and to like most – probably all – of the self-proclaimed Jews I met as an adult. Some of them were in the Labour Party, which seemed to me to be an ideal home for those brought up in what I understood then to be the basic Jewish ethic.
On the subject of Israel, however, my view is rather more nuanced. When I was younger I knew little about the country, apart from the impression I had that it was run on idealistic socialist lines: the kibbutzim, open-necked shirts, and so on. That, I think, was its special appeal to many in the Labour Party in the 1940s and ’50s. We also of course strongly sympathised with the Jews’ wish to escape from the European anti-semitism that had tyrannised so many of them from mediaeval times onwards, culminating in the Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, to which the formation of a new nation in what was then the territory of Palestine seemed a likely answer, if not the perfect one.
Its initial imperfection derived from the fact that Israel was created on land stolen from others – either the Ottomans, or the Palestinian Arabs – with help from an imperial power – Britain – in pursuit of its own ambitions in the Middle East. That fitted Israel into another narrative: that of ‘European colonialism’, which Labourites like me weren’t quite so keen on – what after all was the essential difference between the Jewish colonisation of Palestine and the white settlement of much of southern Africa? The Zionists had an answer to that, of course, which was that Palestine had been promised to them by God, no less, back in Old Testament times; but that was unlikely to impress anyone who didn’t believe in the literal truth of the Bible. That of course included me.
Nonetheless, I felt that the state of Israel should be accepted now as a fait accompli, just as the modern white-dominated United States is; so long as its origin in colonial robbery and conquest is acknowledged by its present-day citizens, with due contrition. (There’s some of that – though not enough, perhaps – in present-day America and Australasia.) One of the implications of this necessary sense of national guilt would be the fair treatment of the Palestinians, both within and outside the established borders of Israel; which over the last few decades has not been much in evidence. Hence the criticism that has been voiced of many of Israel’s policies – not of Israel’s existence as a state, and even less of ‘the Jews’ – by many people, including the anti-imperialist Labour Left, but also by very many Jews themselves, who see the expansion of Jewish settlements, for example, and the treatment of the Gaza enclave, as affronts to what they regard as their religious principles. It’s widely believed that it’s this that lies at the root of the charges of ‘anti-semitism’ that have been laid against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party; a confusion – deliberate or otherwise – between that vile opinion, and criticism of the policies of the present right-wing Israeli government, which should of course be legitimate – and would be of almost any other nation.
I share much of that criticism, as a strong anti-anti-semite; which is why it was so personally distressing for me to be told – by some Jews, no less – that I had in fact been associating for many years with an ‘anti-semitic’ political party. It was this that provoked my first blog post on this subject, strongly disputing this. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/04/28/anti-semitism-and-labour/.) Basically what that post argued was that the Labour Party, while undoubtedly containing some anti-semites within it (as any large organisation of people is likely to), was broadly innocent of anti-semitism as a party, and that the propaganda against it on the grounds of its alleged Judaeophobia was therefore, at the very least, overblown and unnecessary. At about the same time as this post was published, a very fine MP, Chris Williamson, was expelled from the Labour Party, under pressure from the British (Jewish) Board of Deputies (which has performed a disreputable role in this whole saga) for saying much the same thing.
It was in the light of this that, in common with a number of similarly unhappy Labour members, I submitted my own name to the ‘Governance and Legal Unit’ of the Labour Party for potential expulsion on ‘anti-semitic’ grounds. I was not expecting an answer – I merely thought I was being provocative – but to my surprise one came through the other week. They had thoroughly read through my blog posts, and objected to a number of my statements. The main ones were (a) my placing of the term ‘anti-semitism’ – in reference to the Party – in inverted commas, which they regarded as ‘dismissive’ (which in this context it was intended to be); (b) my defence, as a historian, of Ken Livingstone’s claim that Hitler at one time had looked favourably on Zionism as a means of getting rid of Germany’s Jews: any mention of Hitler I was told is implicitly anti-semitic; (c) my statement that I wouldn’t let my view of this whole affair affect my attitude towards Jews generally, which was criticised on the grounds that it left open the possibility that I could have let it affect my view of Jews generally; and (d) that a quote I used from a novel by Christopher Isherwood – ‘A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it’ – could feed into a common anti-semitic trope, that the Jews were responsible for their own oppression.’ Well, perhaps; although of course it wasn’t intended to suggest that.
Still, the Unit decided not to expel me, but instead advised me to read ‘A Reminder of Values’, which they enclosed. I’m still not happy, and may later resign from a Party that seems so cowed by the criticism coming from the ‘Israeli Lobby’; which may have played a crucial part in preventing it from coming to power in 2019, and so turning my country away from the doleful future that seems to await it now. I still maintain that I am not in any way anti-semitic; but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Labour Party became less innocent in this regard than it has been, in view of the way the charge of anti-semitism has been falsely weaponised against it.