When UK's much-hated Foreign Sec. Ernest Bevin supported Zionism

A little known story about the UK Foreign Secretary who opposed the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948. Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Dr. Ronnie Fraser, anti-academic boycott activist.

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Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld ,

Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

“In Zionist history, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was the most hated person in the immediate post-war years. This senior Labour politician had opposed removing the limiting of Jewish immigration to Palestine. It is however little known that Bevin was an important supporter of Zionism in the 1930’s on the occasion of a hard fought parliamentary by-election in the Whitechapel area of London where 40% of the population were Jews.”

Dr. Ronnie Fraser is the Director of the Academic Friends of Israel -- a voluntary position -- which campaigns against the academic boycott of Israel and antisemitism on campus. His doctoral thesis focuses on the attitude of the British Trade Union Movement (TUC) toward Israel over the years 1945-1982.

“In 1930 a minority Labour government headed by Ramsay MacDonald was in power.  Lord Passfield (Sidney Webb), the Colonial Secretary, issued what became known as the Passfield White Paper on British Policy in Palestine on October 20, 1930.  Its tone was anti-Jewish and it criticized Jewish institutions.

“One proposal of the White Paper required Jews to get permission from the British authorities before acquiring additional land in Palestine. Four days after the White Paper was issued Harry Gosling, the Labour MP of Whitechapel, died. In the 1929 elections he obtained a 9,180 majority. It was then considered a safe Labour seat. Yet many Jewish constituents vehemently opposed the White Paper. Losing the seat would bring the Government down.

“The problems for Labour increased further when the Liberals put up a Jewish candidate for the seat, Barnett Janner, a leading member of the English Zionist Federation. The Labour Zionists of Poale Zion wondered whom to support. They considered however that the byelection enabled them to draw the attention of the Labour Party to the unfairness of the White Paper and largely undo its proposals.

“In 1928 Ben Gurion had sent Dov Hoz from Palestine to London as emissary of the trade union, Histadrut. Hoz encouraged the local branches of Poale Zion to campaign for the Labour party in the 1929 general election. Initially the Labour Party intended to put up a junior minister as their candidate for the Whitechapel by-election but withdrew him when Hoz informed Labour that Poale Zion could not support a member of the government which had issued the White Paper.

“Labour then asked Bevin, the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) to stand. He refused. The union thereafter proposed James Hall, another of its executives as candidate. Bevin knew that to retain the seat, the Jewish vote and the support of Poale Zion was needed. Hoz told Bevin that Poale Zion would not support the Labour candidate unless key conditions of the Passfield White Paper were undone.

“Bevin wrote to the government that he agreed with Poale Zion. After assurances he released a statement that the government had explicitly declared that they had no intention of altering the interpretation of the British Mandate in Palestine. Bevin furthermore told Hoz that all 26 MP’s sponsored by the TGWU would vote against the government on the White Paper in the House of Commons. He was however unwilling to force the issue because the government would be defeated.

“Hall told Poale Zion that there were inferences in the White Paper which he could not reconcile with the Labour Party’s past declarations and that he would vote in the House of Commons against changes in the party’s policy in Palestine. The Labour Party also received many protest letters and telegrams against the White Paper from national and international trade union organizations.  

“Due to Bevin’s intervention and his undertaking to fight the White Paper, Poale Zion decided to actively campaign on behalf of Hall. This decision to back the Labour candidate caused much criticism from fellow Zionists both in the UK and abroad. The Jewish Chronicle described Poale Zion’s policy as a ‘traitorous cause.’  

“In Palestine there was also much criticism from Histadrut members. The revisionists called Hoz a traitor for supporting a non-Jewish Labour candidate over a liberal Zionist Jew. They claimed that Hoz demonstrated that his loyalty to the working class was stronger than his commitment to Zionism. After Poale Zion’s decision to support the Labour candidate their election meeting in Whitechapel required police protection. Hall however retained the seat for Labour with a majority of only 1,099 votes.

“Barnett Janner would go on to become a Liberal MP and thereafter a Labour parliamentarian. He became a prominent British Jewish leader. Upon Janner’s retirement in 1970 he was made a member of the House of Lords known as Baron Janner of the City Leicester.”

“Two months later MacDonald sent a letter to Chaim Weitzmann which effectively rescinded the White paper. That meant that Jewish immigration to Palestine could continue. Bevin went on to support the Jewish labour movement in Palestine throughout the 1930s and he remained friends with Hoz until the latter’s death in a car crash in 1940.  His relationship with the Zionists had prospered so much that by 1941, they regarded him as one of their friends in the British War Cabinet.

Yet as Foreign Secretary he became a prime target of universal Zionist hate for abandoning the sympathetic stance of the Labour Party toward Zionism.”

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