Israel and the Left: Why progressive opinion turned on the Jewish state

epa10915421 A banned Pro-Palestine demonstration on Republic Square in Paris on October 12 2023. Several hundred people took part in the vigil that had been banned by the police prefecture on 11 October. Thousands of Israelis were murdered when Hamas terrorists launched an unprecedented assault on Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023, prompting Israeli retaliatory strikes against the Palestinian enclave. EPA-EFE/TERESA SUAREZ


In the history of modern Israel, after the 1896 publication of Der Judenstaat by Theodor Herzl, the Balfour declaration of November 2 1917 is traditionally seen as the key foundation document. The British government stated for the first time its ambition to establish, in Palestine, “a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”. Zionism had a powerful backer.

What is not so well known is that the British Labour movement had made a very similar declaration before that, in August of that year. This was the ‘War Aims Memorandum’ put together by the British Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress. It stated, “that Palestine should be set free from the harsh and oppressive government of the Turk, in order that the country may form a Free State, under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish People as desired to do so may return, and may work out their salvation free from interference by those of alien race or religion”.

From the very outset, the ancient Jewish dream, the Zionist dream of a homeland, was supported by the international, and in particular, the British Left.

So what has happened? Why has the Labour movement and its ‘progressive’ fellow travellers become the home for anti-Semitism of both the soft and hard variety?

There is the old left wing of Cable street, when young working class socialists allied with Jews and  fought a running battle to protect London’s East End Jewry, most of whom were exiles from the pogroms of Tsarist Russia and its satellites. This outpouring of over 100,000 Londoners came together and blocked 6,000 of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

Across Europe fascism and National Socialism was on the rise. The results of that, the Shoah, added momentum to the idea of a permanent and safe home for the global Jewish diaspora.

Again, though there was some initial reticence from the the post-War Labour government, Clement Attlee accepted the fact of Israel (though it abstained from the UN vote that created the state).

At that point in history the Left’s traditional support for the underdog, and its history of supporting the zionist cause combined. Israel was a bulwark against repression and the growing power of Russia.

But this is where things began to get confused. While the majority of Left-wing thought in the UK remained pro-Israel and most British Jews saw their natural political home in the Labour Party, for others this support conflicted with a far more important enemy, liberal capitalist democracy.

Despite being watered by those extraordinary experiments of communal work and living, the European non-Jewish kibbutzniks, almost exclusively Left-wing idealists, the Left began to depart from that script.

Israel’s existence as a viable state required (just as Western Europe required) the huge financial and military support of the US. As the ideologues of the Left turned increasingly to support Soviet communism during the Cold War and thus opposed US interests – think of the activities of organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – so they also turned on the US’s allies. In particular they turned on Israel.

The rolling conflict in the Middle East became one of the many global proxy wars of the Cold War.

The plight of the Palestinians became an iron on badge for the frayed denim jackets of their souls. From there it was just a short step from Israel hate for Jew hate. And quickly the anti-Semitic, not anti-Zionist, tics appeared nearly unchallenged.

Senior Labour politicians would happily invite representatives of Tehran-backed terror organisations into Westminster. Just as they would invite Hamas supporting Sinn Fein and IRA sympathisers. The phrase, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” could have been written for them.

Suggestions of Jewish political, media and financial power (code word cosmopolitan)  being exercised by global Jewry as one subterranean plot, once the province of far-Right wingbat conspiracy theorists became common parlance in Left-wing circles. Left-wing cartoonists began again with the age-old visual tropes of hook-nosed Shylock figures, rapacious “Bankers” and references to blood libels.

Allied to this are cynical political calculations. It is a brute demographic fact that while the Jewish population of the UK has remained almost static since 1900 at about 300,000 and thus diminishing as a percentage, the Muslim population of the UK has gone from about 50,000 in 1961, to nearly 4 million in 2021 – over 6.5 per cent of the population and growing fast.

Today in dozens of constituencies Muslims make up over 25 per cent of the electorate. The simple fact is that there are no votes in supporting Israel, whereas keeping the Muslim population as a Labour block vote is key to their electoral success. Equivocating over Israel cannot but help.

That is the domestic and ideological situation. The problem has been that the reality and permanence of the Jewish state has not really been recognised by the hard Left.

The only liberal democracy in the Middle East has been forgotten by the original Leftist Cold Warriors and their semi intellectual offspring in organisations like the Socialist Workers Party and the Stop the War Coalition. To them every wrong of Israel is a responsibility carried by Jews, all Jews, wherever they live in the world.

When the world cries foul at Hamas for bringing back pogroms, but this time on Israeli soil, those that defend the rights of the Palestinians as different from the behaviour of Hamas, the cry is different. They do, however, see a difference between the suffering of Palestinians and the actions of Hamas.

But what they cannot see in their constant hatred of the USA, and the liberal democratic order defended by the USA and its allies around the world, is their own rank hypocrisy and how that hatred has allowed them to morph from the stalwart defenders of Judaism, Zionism and Jews of the 1920’s through 50’s into their most dangerous ideological enemies.