Every so often Labour Friends of Israel pays tribute to Richard Crossman, an early activist with the British pressure group and one of the best known British politicians of the mid-20th century. The tributes to the late cabinet minister are not entirely informative.
One detail that tends to be omitted is that, when it came to Palestine, Crossman advocated genocide.
Crossman was probably the Zionist movement’s biggest supporter in the Labour Party from the 1940s onwards. He was later a minister in Harold Wilson’s 1960s government, becoming editor of the New Statesman magazine after his retirement from frontline politics.
In a 1959 lecture in Israel, Crossman discussed Zionism in the context of other settler-colonial episodes in history.
Referring to European settlers – which he collectively called “the white man” – in Africa and the Americas, he argued: “No one, until the 20th century, seriously challenged their right, or indeed their duty, to civilize these continents by physically occupying them, even at the cost of wiping out the aboriginal population.”
He lamented that “Jewish settlers” in Palestine had not “achieved their majority before 1914,” and that the Palestinians “regarded them as ‘white settlers,’ come to occupy the Middle East.”
The Zionist movement ultimately succeeded in violently gerrymandering a Jewish majority in Palestine, by physically removing the largest part of the “aboriginal population” in 1948.
Palestinians still mourn that mass expulsion every year as the Nakba – Arabic for catastrophe. More than 750,000 Palestinians were driven out by Zionist militias, and the refugees have still not been allowed to return.
Fans of genocide advocate
Crossman preserved his comments for posterity in his 1960 book A Nation Reborn: The Israel of Weizmann, Bevin and Ben-Gurion. The book collected his 1959 lectures, conducted at the Weizmann Institute – named after Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann.Despite Crossman’s history, the Labour Party’s modern day internal Israel lobby is still very much his fan.
As grassroots Labour members have increasingly come to question and challenge the party’s historical support for Israel, its defenders have sought to draw on the legacy of Zionist figures in Labour such as Crossman.
Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, made a groveling speech to Labour Friends of Israel at their 2016 annual lunch. As well as condemning Palestine solidarity efforts such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, he sang “Am Yisrael Chai,” a sectarian song associated with Israel’s extreme right and popular with anti-Palestinian mobs in Jerusalem and on the streets of Europe.
Watson noted that he was speaking on the anniversary of a 1947 United Nations vote to “create a Jewish state.” Israel was founded the following year and, according to Watson, its “greatest friends” were found on the “Labour benches” in Westminster. He named Harold Wilson and Richard Crossman among a few of those “greatest friends.”
Crossman was also name-checked by Labour Friends of Israel’s current director Jennifer Gerber as recently as 2015.
Writing on the website of Progress – a right-wing Labour faction – Gerber lauded Crossman as one of the “many people on the British left” who staunchly supported the “young, embattled state of Israel.”
Crossman was one of the “early supporters of Labour Friends of Israel,” she wrote.
Gerber did not reply to an email from The Electronic Intifada asking if she wanted to distance herself from Crossman’s genocidal comments.
According to a biography by fellow Labour lawmaker Tam Dalyell, Crossman once called Weizmann “my spiritual father.” When the first Israeli president died “it was one of the few occasions in his [Crossman’s] adult life when he dissolved in tears,” Dalyell added.
Crossman’s dedication to the Zionist movement was so complete that it even involved outright treason against the British state – while he was an elected lawmaker.
During the postwar Labour government of Clement Attlee, Crossman worked hard to advance the Zionist movement’s takeover of Palestine.
Britain still occupied Palestine under a League of Nations mandate when Attlee became prime minister in 1945. Yet the once-warm relations between Britain and the Zionist movement had soured, and the latter’s militias were engaged in armed attacks against British personnel in Palestine, as well as against Palestinian civilians.
In a biography of John Strachey, then a member of the cabinet’s defense committee, it is recounted that Crossman aided Zionist militias in armed attacks on the British army.
This extraordinary passage, cited in former Labour minister Christopher Mayhew’s book Publish it Not, is worth quoting at length:
One day, Crossman, now in the House of Commons, came to see Strachey … [Crossman] had heard from his friends in the Jewish Agency that they were contemplating an act of sabotage … Should this be done, or should it not? Few would be killed … Crossman asked Strachey for his advice … The next day in the smoking room at the House of Commons, Strachey gave his approval to Crossman. The Haganah [Zionist militia] went ahead and blew up all the bridges over the [River] Jordan. No one was killed, but the British Army in Palestine were cut off from their lines of supply with Jordan.
Pro-Israel activists, therefore, have an old tradition of Labour Party support to draw on.
But Labour’s backing for the Zionist project is part of its insidious history of supporting, and at times directly administering, British colonialism and empire.
In 1944, the party’s national executive committee issued a report called “The International Post-War Settlement,” which outlined the leadership’s views on global issues, ahead of the 1945 election which resulted in a landslide Labour victory.
The document’s principal author was Hugh Dalton, who the following year would be finance minister in Attlee’s government.
It argued that there was a necessity in Palestine “for transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out, as the Jews move in.”
It even advocated “the possibility” of expanding the borders of the future Jewish state by annexing parts of Transjordan, Egypt or Syria – “by agreement,” the document claimed. In reality, Egypt and the future state of Jordan were then British puppet regimes.
According to Dalton’s biographer Ben Pimlott, this “Zionism plus plus” vision was short of an earlier Dalton draft, toned down in subcommittee, which had advocated “throwing open Libya or Eritrea to Jewish settlement, as satellites or colonies to Palestine.”
Zionism is very much part of the colonial strain in the Labour Party.
But history does not stand still. The British empire is largely a thing of the past, even if former Labour leader Tony Blair once acted on the global stage as though it were not.
Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is transforming itself into a popular movement, with a membership now of more than half a million people. The colonialism of Labour’s past is rejected by most party members, who tend to be overwhelmingly antiwar. Polling of Labour voters shows that Blair is deeply unpopular, suggesting that a party led by him would cause a “voter exodus.”
It is now time for him to make a deeper and more decisive break with the party’s colonial past, by apologizing for its role in the crimes of the British empire.
As part of that, it is time for Corbyn to break Labour’s link with Zionism.
Asa Winstanley is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.