Lansman on Labour and the Jews: from ethnic cleansing to truth and reconciliation

May 31, 2016 at 6:17 am (history, Human rights, immigration, israel, labour party, Middle East, palestine, posted by JD, reblogged, war, zionism)

Jon Lansman, writing at Left Futures, shows how Labour’s commitment in 1944 to a Jewish national state in Palestine wasn’t due to Zionist agitation or imperialist self interest but the effects of the holocaust; an important and well-researched piece: 

97i/16/huty/6851/17Who is responsible for the Middle East conflict? And how do we help resolve it? We can do worse than to begin by looking at Labour’s own history.

On this day [ie 30 May] in 1944, Labour’s annual conference was taking place in London. A week before D-Day and two weeks before V1s started hitting London, the Allies were making progress through Italy and were bombing targets in France in preparation for the invasion. And amidst all that, Labour delegates were focussed on “The International Post-War Settlement“, on how to build a post-war world.

They knew about the Holocaust though they had not yet really understood its magnitude. And in building a new world, they were prepared to contemplate some drastic measures. I recently purchased a copy of the NEC statement which was agreed at the conference. It included, in a section headed “Palestine”, the words I found profoundly shocking when I first read them:

There is surely neither hope nor meaning in a “Jewish National Home”, unless, we are prepared to let Jews, if they wish, enter this tiny land [Palestine] in such numbers as to become a majority. There was a strong case for this before the War. There is an irresistible case now, after the unspeakable atrocities of the cold and calculated German Nazi plan to kill all Jews in Europe. Here, too, in Palestine surely is a case, on human grounds and to promote a stable settlement, for transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in. Let them be compensated handsomely for their land and let their settlement elsewhere be carefully organised and generously financed. The Arabs have many wide territories of their own; they must not claim to exclude the Jews from this small area of Palestine, , less than the size of Wales. Indeed we should re-examine the possibility of extending the present Palestinian boundaries, by agreement with Egypt, Syria or Transjordan.”

And so, without opposition, Labour’s conference committed itself to not only ethnic cleansing, but to a Greater Israel extending even beyond the boundaries that it currently occupies in 2016. It did so not because it was persuaded by the “Zionist lobby”, not in order to serve British imperial interests (which had been the only objective of the Balfour declaration in 1917), but because of the Holocaust, and the refugee problem that they expected.

This nevertheless shocking commitment to ethnic cleansing should be seen in the context of an earlier section of the report in a section headed “Frontiers“:

All Germans left outside the the post-War German frontiers, unless they are willing to become loyal subjects of the state in which they find themselves, claiming no special privileges, should go back to Germany. Indeed they will be well advised to do so in their own interests, for, in the early post-War years at any rate, there will be a depth of hatred against Germans in the occupied countries, which it is impossible for us or for Americans to realise.

Germans in many of those areas may have to face the choice between migration and massacre.

The organised transfer of population, in the immediate post-War period, may, indeed, be one of the foundations of better international relations in a later phase. Nor would this be a new departure. Between the Wars the transfer of population between Greece and Turkey was an undoubted success.

In any case, there will be a vast problem of repatriation and resettlement in Europe, when tens of millions of refugees, slave labourers and prisoners of war return to freedom and their own homes. Compared with this, the transfer even of substantial national minorites, German and other, to the right side of the post-War frontiers will be a small affair. “

Shocking as it may be to those of us who observe from a safe distance the fall-out from the ethnic cleansing that did in fact take place in 1947 in Palestine and the conflict that followed, it was seen as a relatively “small affair” in the context of the end of World War II. Ethnic cleansing had allegedly been an “undoubted success” in Greece and Turkey in spite of the deaths from epidemics in transit and the resulting poverty and hardship on arrival.

Churchill who had promisedthat we British will never seek to take vengeance by wholesale mass reprisals against the general body of the German people” – with the backing of Labour’s leaders and conference – agreed with Allied leaders to back the ethnic cleansing of 12-14million Germans across central and eastern Europe after the war.

The largest forced migration in history” was “accomplished largely by state-sponsored violence and terror” including being herded into camps including former Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz or Theresienstadt, victims being subjected to beatings, rapes of female inmates, gruelling forced labour and starvation diets.

Estimates of those who died in transit vary upwards from 500,000 though the German government clings to earlier estimates of 2million. This included those who died of disease or malnutrition which included a high proportion of children and the elderly. What’s more, other minorities were expelled on the back of this forced migration: Hungarians from Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, Romanians by the USSR. And that is on top of the forced repatriation of Soviet POWs.

Labour was right to expect massacres from populations that had suffered German brutality under occupation. And the League of Nations and post-World War I treaties had utterly failed to protect ethnic minorities subjected to the racism of right-wing nationalist governments right across central Europe in the new ethno-centered nation states Western leaders had created in the dismemberment of the old empires. On the altar of “self-determination”, Allied leaders had handed multicultural cities and towns across Europe to be ruled by strident ethnic nationalists.

By 1944, they didn’t want to make the same mistake again. Not in Europe, and not with the Jews. And so it was they that created Israel. Of the Allied leaders, it is true that both Bevin and Attlee were persuaded by the complexities of managing inter-communal conflict in the Mandate of British Palestine (rather than by Ernie Bevin’s antisemitic prejudices though he had them) to abstain on Israel’s creation. In addition to the pressure of US diplomats on countries like Haiti, Philipines and Liberia, it was the three votes controlled by Stalin (cast on behalf of the USSR, Ukraine and Belarus) which ensured that the two-thirds majority for resolution 181 was achieved.

And so what of the role of Zionism? For all the diplomacy and organisation of the World Zionist Organisation for half a century, it was not that which led to the creation of Israel. It was the Holocaust, the plight of the survivors seeking safe refuge, and the guilt of the American, British and other Allied leaders who did not wish to take them in (though many would have been satisfied with that).

So they did for the Jews what they were not prepared to do for the Kurds, nor for the Roma. And the Jews, a majority of whom in almost all countries had not supported Zionism prior to the War, rejoiced at the prospect of a safe place to live. And who with the knowledge of their circumstances cannot understand that?

And the Palestinians understandably saw and still see the loss of their land as a catastrophe. The Nakba. And who that reflects on their circumstances and what they have experienced since cannot understand that?

If there is to be peace, justice, democracy and equality in Israel/Palestine, both of those realities need to be acknowledged. Only truth can bring reconciliation.


  1. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    And yet this NEC statement had exactly zero influence on Palestine policy of Attlee govt…

  2. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    ‘By 1944, they didn’t want to make the same mistake again. Not in Europe, and not with the Jews. And so it was they that created Israel. Of the Allied leaders, it is true that both Bevin and Attlee were persuaded by the complexities of managing inter-communal conflict in the Mandate of British Palestine (rather than by Ernie Bevin’s antisemitic prejudices though he had them) to abstain on Israel’s creation’.

    Oh I see – policy of Labour govt in 1945-48 was to open up the ports and enthusiastically encourage mass Jewish immigration to Palestine…

    Attlee and Bevin in 1945-8 took exactly the position modern anti-zionists would have wanted them too take and expended considerable blood and treasure doing everything in their power to prevent the creation of Israel.

    As for their motivations it clearly had far more to do with the imperial delusion that the patchwork of monarchical client-states established after WW1 could be maintained and rising tide of Arab nationalism suppressed than ‘the complexities of managing inter-communal conflict’.

    This is all Post WW2 British History 101 stuff which surely Jon must know but is obfuscating to establish a false equivalence between the ethnic cleansing of Palestine (which only occurred after the last British soldier had left) and that of Silesia, Sudetenland etc (which moreover Britain had zero power to prevent and zero responsibility for as not one of these places were under our occupation).

  3. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    One more point.

    This is a Labour conference in May 1944.

    Attlee, Bevin, Morrison etc all had rather important jobs in Churchill’s cabinet and while final outcome of war was no longer in any doubt at all the really decisive allied breakthroughs of summer 1944 had not yet happened and AFAIK nobody was predicting that the war in Europe would be over in just under a year.

    I therefore rather doubt that Labour’s actual leaders were really paying that much attention to the deliberations of Conference that year – and one might assume that the major influence on these NEC statements was Harold Laski who had far more leisure to contemplate the post-war reordering of Europe and was moreover by this stage moving towards an explicitly Zionist position.

    And of course we all know what later happened to Laski and his belief that the NEC had any right whatsoever to express an opinion on the foreign policy of the British Empire…

    • Jim Denham said,

      You may very well be right, Roger, that the Labour leadership’s ambivalent attitude towards the creation of a Jewish state was more important than what the Conference (or indeed the NEC) said – but it’s still important to understand why the party membership (expressed through conference) took the pro-Zionist position it did, in sharp contrast to the crude, one-sided “anti-Zionism” predominant within the parry and, indeed, the trade unions, today.

      Gene at That Place makes much the same point, citing Bruce Hoffmans book ‘Anonymous Soldiers – The Struggle For Israel 1917-47’:

      • Mike said,

        Active “party membership” in 1944 was virtually non-existent and certainly not expressed through the Conference.

        Large numbers of members were fighting overseas and the Labour Party had virtually closed down its branches and constituencies at home. The wartime coalition pact meant that Labour did not contest by-elections where the Tories were the sitting party. Such was the revulsion of previous rank and file party members to the official policy of the electoral truce that thousands deserted and supported candidates from Common Wealth and the ILP in parliamentary by-elections, some of whom were highly successful. Only His Majesty’s Loyal Communist Party membership, kept in check by a Stalinist structure of obedience to Moscow no matter how reactionary, went out on the knocker for the officially Labour Party-backed Tory candidates. In those areas where there were Labour candidates in Labour-held seats, they were unopposed and hence had no need to keep the Party structures going.

        Labour was also opposed to any strikes by trade unions and actively supported jailing trade union leaders who called them.

        The Labour Party in 1944 was a shell, not an active party.

      • Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch) said,

        The UK was a dictatorship during WW2.

        The General Election (due by 1942) was abandoned (the USA had a General Election whilst at war, as did Australia).

        And, as Mike said, you generally did not have a choice of who to vote for in any by-elections e.g. Tories with official Labour backing.

        So what that part of the collective dictatorship – the rulers of the Labour Party – had to say on anything, is of no worth.

      • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Mike probably overstates it somewhat.

        But yes the idea that 1944 or any other wartime conference was an ordinary one with the usual flurry of CLP and union meetings and motions leading to the usual grand ritual of composites and statementing is ridiculous.

        Not just hundreds of thousands of party and union members being in uniform but everyday wartime obstacles to travel, accommodation, subsistence (in 1944 you couldn’t just turn up in a strange town for a week and expect to be fed without all sorts of issues with ration cards and whatnot) etc must have made these wartime political conferences largely token events.

        Sadly I don’t have a library of musty old conference reports to hand – but would be interested to know what attendance etc were and how many Labour ministers turned up when they had an actual war to run?

    • Mike said,

      “an important and well-researched piece”

      “On this day [ie 30 May] in 1944, Labour’s annual conference was taking place in London. A week before D-Day and two weeks before V1s started hitting London”

      “This is a Labour conference in May 1944.”

      Call me a pedant if you like, but on looking into this I’ve noticed the apparently minor fact that the Labour Party Conference in 1944 was actually from 11-15 December 1944.

      The Conference also endorsed a statement supporting the British actions in Greece a couple of weeks earlier, where civilians and partisans of the communist-led resistance to the Nazis were shot down in cold blood by the British Army with dozens dying in Athens on 3 December 1944.

      Not exactly the British Labour Party’s finest hour!

      • Steven Johnston said,

        What is their finest hour exactly? Taking £3 billion from the Americans and squeezing every penny from the Empire to create the NHS?

    • Mike said,

      I’ve read in several places that Hugh Dalton was the author of the policy statement.

      He was President of the Board of Trade at the time, a ministerial position but not in the cabinet. He was a longstanding member of the NEC and was chair of the NEC International sub-committee that prepared the statement, the membership of which included Laski.

      There’s a lengthy academic paper on the net setting out the story of the statement though the Palestine section is only mentioned in passing. The first draft’s sections on Palestine was said to be warmly received by Laski. When it was first discussed by the NEC there were only 18 out of 27 members present and a reference back was defeated by 7 votes to 9. However it was redrafted and backed and published for the public. Due to the imminent landings in Europe (later known as D-Day), the conference was then postponed from May to December (as already pointed out above), hence the confusion about the dates by Lansman who has taken the publication date rather than the actual conference. There were some minor redrafting before the conference itself so if Lansman is quoting from the May version, it wasn’t what conference actually agreed, though the section on Palestine did not change.

      The controversies about the NEC statement at the Conference itself was in relation to Germany but the document was agreed as a whole and Dalton was happy with the outcome.

  4. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Which is what I imagine Jon is trying to do.

    But that is no excuse for his deliberate obfuscation of the violently anti-zionist position taken by Labour when it actually formed a government 13 months after this conference.

    So this NEC statement led to neither the creation of the state of Israel nor to the ethnic cleansing of the Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia etc and was literally not worth the paper it was printed on (that paper being strictly rationed and all).

    To pick out another historical aside which is interesting: ‘the refugee problem that they expected’.

    In May 1944 it was indeed widely understand that Jews were being systematically slaughtered all over the Nazi empire – but it would take the Nuremberg Trial process to reveal the true radicalism of the Final Solution and just how many of the 11 million European Jews had perished

    Consequently the ‘refugee problem’ that would be faced by the British in Palestine after the war was actually one of hundreds of thousands of potential immigrants – rather than the one involving the millions that Laski and the NEC must surely have had in mind that May.

    So in that context and that of a world war where even as they discussed composite motions whole peoples, cities and villages were being physically erased from existence, the idea of a population transfer involving potentially millions of Jews and hundreds of thousands of Arabs would hardly have been ‘profoundly shocking’ to Labour members.

    Of course now it is very easy to say they should have been shocked.

    But I just don’t think any of us are capable of the imaginative leap to truly put ourselves in their shoes.

  5. Steven Johnston said,

    It is a shame that the Labour party of 1944 did not set aside the reaction of nationalism, religious bigotry, ethnic hatred, racism and join together with socialists. to root out the real problem itself—capitalism.

  6. Steven Johnston said,

    The Arab-Israeli conflict is a sickening one, full of religious bigorty and irrational hatreds. Dressed up by the ruling class on either side as a war for the interests of their people. But, as socialists know this is nonsense, they are not doing it for the people but for profits. When they say they people, they mean a small group who own the land, the factories, mines, etc.
    You can bet that group are miles away from any violence!
    It saddens me that anyone, who labels themselves a socialist, would take either side in this conflict.

  7. Joe in Australia said,

    By 1944, they didn’t want to make the same mistake again. Not in Europe, and not with the Jews. And so it was they that created Israel.

    This is ahistorical nonsense. By 1944, the UK had been blocking Jewish immigration to then-Israel for nearly two decades. It was literally sending Jews back to Nazi Europe. Even after the war, it sent Jews to concentration camps rather than let them enter the territory of the British Mandate. Israel exists because the Jews revolted against their colonial masters and the UK eventually washed its hands of the problem in the most begrudging and unhelpful way. Worse than unhelpful – the UK supplied and trained the Arab forces fighting the Jews.

    And the Palestinians understandably saw and still see the loss of their land as a catastrophe. The Nakba.

    Their land? That sounds very Blut und Boden for a Socialist blog.

    • Steven Johnston said,

      I agree Joe! Glad I’m not the only one here to point that out. As socialists we should never take sides as we surely believe the land belongs to the workers!

      I never understood certain section of the left, where British/American/insert name of country is bad, but Israeli/Palestinian/Indian/insert name of country is good.

      As for the creation of Israel, far be it that this was a revolt against colonialism you could argue it strengthened it, as America has pumped a lot of money into Israel, so this new state gave the capitalist west a stronghold in this area.

      Though if you thought socialists were against war…well think again! As it seems plenty of us are willing to line up on both sides in this conflict. A plague on both their houses should be the socialist response.

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