Why Does the British Labour Party Struggle with Antisemitism?

Balfour declaration postcard
Labour’s connections to a modern state of Israel date back to even before World War I and the Balfour Declaration.

The relationship between the British Labour Party and sections of the UK Jewish community goes back a very long way. This is why Labour’s evolving policy on Israel has been so emotive for so many people.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a large number of Jewish people fled violent antisemitic persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. Some of them settled in the UK. They brought a variety of political and religious traditions. One was a form of radical socialism represented by an association called Poale Zion. Its members became active in the development of trade unions and the Labour Party before World War I. Poale Zion was one of the socialist societies given a privileged status and allowed to the Party as a group.

Parties of the left have, though, also had an uneasy relationship with the worlds of banking and finance. Jewish families have traditionally been prominent in these. Radical Jewish traditions have co-existed with critiques of capitalist institutions that can easily slide into antisemitism. Indeed most developed countries saw such critiques exploited by populist fascist movements in the 1920s and 1930s. Working class anger at inequality, insecurity, and poverty was directed at Jews who were thought to be benefitting from these, rather than at the institutions within which they operated.

The influence of Labour’s Jewish activists was reflected in the party’s statement of aims for WWI and its support for a ‘right of return’ for Jews to their ‘homeland’ in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration in 1917 made this the official UK government position. Palestine, though, was not an empty land. It was part of the Ottoman Empire, which was broken up at the end of the war. The territory was already inhabited by a large number of people of Arab descent and a relatively small number of people of Jewish descent. The UK government did not really have the status or right to give it away, except as spoils of war.

However, the issue did not become critical for the Labour party until much later. Poale Zion activists and their allies had a vision of Israel as a secular, socialist state, where Jews fleeing persecution could find a ‘safe space.’ This would not be at the expense of the existing Arab inhabitants who would retain their civil and political rights. Israel would look like a modern European state. Religious groups would be free to express their beliefs and values but not to impose them on others. Everyone would have an equal expectation of justice. It was a vision that the Labour Party could easily support.

After World War II and the Holocaust, a wave of more fundamentalist migrants brought a Biblical vision of Israel as the delivery of God’s promise to the Jewish people. The country would be ethnically pure and committed to creating a society dominated by the teachings of the Jewish faith. The socialist and Biblical visions had long been in competition but, since the 1940s, the theocratic version has become increasingly influential. This is partly the result of the way proportional representation works in the Israeli constitution, giving disproportionate influence to small parties representing ultra-orthodox groups. Their interpretations of Judaism have little space for anyone who does not share their faith.

There has, consequently, been increasing conflict with the Arab inhabitants of the former territory of Palestine. While each side has been violent, their forces are unequal. Palestinian Arabs, wherever they live, have seen their farms seized, their schools and hospitals bombed, and productive lives reduced to dependency on international aid. This presents an acute challenge to the values of many Labour Party members. While they recognize the Party’s historic ties to Zionism, the state they are asked to defend no longer shares their vision of a good society. If they feel compelled to speak out against injustice and state cruelty, then, objectively, Palestinian Arabs (and Christians) are now more obviously victims.

However, the identification of the modern state of Israel with the land promised in the Bible leads many conscientious Jews, and some types of Evangelical Christian, to see no difference between criticism of the state’s actions and criticism of their faith. If this distinction vanishes, then all criticism of Israeli government actions can be described as antisemitism, a label that has had the most powerful emotional force since we saw its consequences in the Holocaust.

At the same time, the financial crisis of 2008 has given a renewed impetus to the traditional concern of activists on the left for the potentially exploitative behaviour of banks and other institutions within a capitalist economy. This has opened a space for the revival of some of the antisemitic tropes of the past.

Within this context, some Labour Party members have clearly not thought carefully enough about the words they have used to criticise the financial system and/or the actions of the state of Israel. The intensity of the feelings aroused by the age of austerity and the deliberate impoverishment of many social groups has led to a revival of some of the historic tropes of Jewish financiers as exploiters of the poor and socially marginal for their own gain. This is classic antisemitism but in a very different context from the similar rhetoric of some contemporary white nationalists. When such language is used, though, it is deeply distressing to many Jewish members of the party, whose family may have a history of membership and activism that goes back several generations. They have seen Labour as a vehicle for their aspirations to build a fairer society within which all religions will be respected. Emotions run high on all sides – and create opportunities for others to provoke and enhance divisions for their own mischievous or malicious purposes.

No one in this situation has a monopoly of virtue but all are capable of choosing their words to claim that.

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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