In the beginning, the Guardian was a friend of the Jews. Or rather, those Jews who believed that after millennia of persecution in exile, they deserved the right to live freely in their ancestral homeland. The overwhelming majority, in other words. The Zionists. The Labour party liked them, too. Three months before the Balfour Declaration, Britain’s key declaration of support for Jewish national aspirations – the centenary of which will be marked next month – Labour compiled a memorandum of policy priorities. ‘Palestine should be set free from the harsh and repressive government of the Turk,’ it said, ‘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.’
It’s rather tricky to imagine Jeremy Corbyn making such a statement today (and not just because of its eloquence). Indeed, the Labour leader has recently declined an invitation to attend a dinner commemorating the Balfour Declaration. ‘The Jewish community (would) have taken great heart and great comfort for seeing [Corbyn] attend such an event because it recognises the right of Israel to exist,’ said a dismayed Jonathan Goldstein, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council.
Quite. Taking his lead, earlier this month Young Labour rejected a motion in support of the two-state solution – a position accepted by all shades of the mainstream as a blueprint for eventual peace. Members also advocated a British withdrawal from Nato. On current trends, Labour will soon be in the hands of people who make the current leader look like Donald Rumsfeld.
As the Labour Party has changed, so has the Guardian. The paper is now edited by Katharine Viner, who edited the text on which the controversial play ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie’ is based. It has just completed another UK run, despite protestors gathering outside the theatre doors. The unapologetically pro-Palestinian drama tells the story of an American activist who was killed when she placed herself in front of an Israeli military bulldozer in 2003. An Israeli investigation established that she lost her life when she was struck by falling debris, not by the bulldozer itself; it also concluded that the driver had not been able to see her. These findings have been investigated and reaffirmed over the years in response to a number of appeals. Corrie’s fellow activists and a number of human rights organisations have long disputed the official conclusions, however, alleging that her death was an act of murder and the inquest a cover-up. ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie’ unabashedly assumes their view, making little attempt to provide any balance.
This is something of a contrast with CP Scott, legendary editor of the Guardian (then the Manchester Guardian) between 1872 and 1929. In the years leading up to the Balfour Declaration, Scott formed a close friendship with Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist Organisation, and lobbied on behalf of the Jewish cause. Scott wrote: ‘From the first day that I discussed the Zionist project with my old friend Dr Weizmann, I was convinced of its value, not only for the Jewish people but for other nations.’
Letters in the Manchester University archive, unearthed by the historian Azriel Bermant in Fathom magazine, show a Zionist leader thanking Scott for his assistance: ‘We could expect nothing different from an organ which has consistently stood for the most enlightened liberalism.’ One can only imagine the letter Weizmann would write to the Guardian, and the Labour Party, of today.
So what happened to the Left? Needless to say, it’s complicated. But two historical events above all catalysed its evolution away from its pro-Zionist stance: the Cold War and the collapse of the British empire. The Cold War in particular marked the turning point at which the Left began to fall out of love with Israel’s kibbutznik idealism and pesky insistence on self-defence.
In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Egyptian and Syrian forces were backed by the Soviets and armed with sophisticated Russian weaponry. Israel eventually won, but only after receiving large amounts of military aid from the United States. It was the most serious confrontation between the two powers since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and marked the Cold War battle lines clearly through the Middle East. Fast forward to 2017, and the Labour Party is led by a man who appears on Russia Today and disparages Nato. Naturally, he and his fellow travellers have come to deplore Israel.
The second factor was the collapse of the British empire. A hysterical attitude towards colonialism has become the essential stance of the Left, whether on university campuses, on the opposition front bench, or in the pages of the Guardian (where a commentator recently called for Nelson’s column to be torn down). American cultural hegemony? Boo! Cecil Rhodes? Hiss! Death to the sombrero and to Mexican cuisine! Imperialism is hallucinated everywhere.
Thus was the self-liberation movement of the Jews reimagined as an exercise in colonialism. Never mind that the description did not quite fit (how can you colonise your own ancestral home?). Never mind that the young Jews in pre-Israel Palestine were committed Socialist internationalists who walked around with copies of For Whom The Bell Tolls in their jacket pockets. As Israel grew in strength, the Pavlovian sympathies of the Left moved to a different proletariat: the Palestinians.
From the Second World War until the establishment of Israel in 1947, Zionism was seen as a movement of national self-realisation, allied with Socialism in the great global struggle against Fascism. Seventy years on, not a single democracy can be found among the ranks of Israel’s enemies, while the Jewish state is run by proportional representation, a darling policy of many on the Left. Yet the die has been cast.
In the modern worldview of the increasingly radical Left, there is no anti-Western pseudo-revolutionary, from the jihadi to the IRA man, who is foul enough to be put beyond the pale. It’s a crudeness of thinking, a hopelessly black-and-white mentality that prefers the self-righteousness of the placard to genuine moral enquiry. Thus we arrived at the unedifying spectacle of Mr Corbyn inviting a hate preacher to tea at Parliament – but refusing to attend a Balfour Declaration dinner.
At this point, you’ll notice that I have omitted the third factor, the one that dare not speak its name. It was all very well when the Jews were so obviously powerless. But now that they have made an economic and military success of their country, the oldest prejudice is creeping back. Depressingly enough, it has been allowed to gain a stranglehold on the Left.
Jake Wallis Simons is Associate Global Editor at the Daily Mail Online