Last week, Israel’s Labor party made an official decision to sever ties with its British counterpart in response to the latter’s becoming a bastion of anti-Semitism and hostility toward Israel. But it was not ever so. Robert Philpot recounts Labor’s early support for Zionism, and the gradual and uneven descent into today’s attitudes:
Three months prior to the publication of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, the party issued the first draft of the War Aims Memorandum, its vision for the postwar world. Written by Arthur Henderson, the Labor leader, and Sidney Webb, the party’s intellectual driving force, it declared: “The British Labor movement expresses the opinion 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.” . . .
It was also the moment which cemented the alliance between Poalei Zion—a Jewish workers’ movement founded in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century which preached a blend of socialism and Zionism [and was a precursor to Israel’s Labor party]—and the [UK’s] Labor party. A year later, on the eve of the 1918 general election, Poalei Zion, which had established its first branches in Britain in 1903, urged Jewish voters to back Labor. . . .
Labor proved itself a steadfast supporter of the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Its own annual conferences, and those of its allies in the trade-union movement, repeatedly endorsed this principle during the 1930s. In May 1939, Labor opposed the Conservative government’s White Paper, which sought to halt Jewish immigration to Palestine and effectively reneged on the undertakings made by Arthur Balfour nearly twenty years before. . . . In 1945, shortly after Germany’s surrender and as Britain prepared for its first general election in a decade, Labor nailed its colors firmly to the Zionist mast. Addressing its annual conference in May 1945, Hugh Dalton, who two months later would become chancellor of the exchequer following the party’s landslide win, declared it “morally wrong and politically indefensible to restrict the entry into Palestine of Jews desiring to go there.” . . .
[Yet] Clement Attlee, who led Labor to victory in July 1945 and is often regarded as one of the party’s greatest ever prime ministers, . . . betrayed the Zionist cause which Labor had consistently advocated for nearly three decades. The party, he announced, would honor the terms of the 1939 White Paper it had voted against six years previously.