Jews and the Labour Movement: A love-hate relationship

Jews, antisemitism, Labour

The affiliation between Jews and socialism has a long history. Most Jews who live in the UK today are the descendants of Eastern European immigrants who left Russia after the death of Tsar Alexander II and the outbreak of pogroms against the Jewish population. The Jewish refugees from Russia, who settled in the West between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, had experienced socialism in Eastern Europe already and brought it with them to the countries they migrated to.

Most of these Jewish immigrants worked in the garment industry of London’s East End and New York’s Lower East Side. They became strong supporters of trade unions and labour rights and participated in the struggle for safe working conditions and equal pay for women. They joined the protest against the exploitation of sweatshop and factory workers. Jews founded socialist newspapers and congregated in workers clubs. Especially in London, an extensive Jewish working-class movement developed.

While socialism and the labour movement should have provided a common ideological ground for Jews and non-Jews to work together towards shared goals, Jews often encountered deeply held prejudices against them that flared up repeatedly. In Soviet Russia, antisemitism enabled Stalin to win the leadership of the communist party by drawing attention to Trotzky’s Jewish origins. Jews were branded as “disloyal” and “cunning”, deceiving the “native” population. They tried to counter such stereotypes by emphasising that socialism, not nationality, ethnicity, or religion should be the common aim to strive for.

Ambiguous attitudes toward Jews were evident in British socialist politics from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. On the one hand, Jewish workers in London’s East End were considered victims of an exploitative capitalist system. On the other hand, members of the SDF and SDP saw Jews as immoral and self-centred “aliens”, who increased competition and lowered wages. Socially mobile Jews were associated with greediness. One might argue that the victim and perpetrator images were part of the same tendency to apply a simplified label to an entire minority group. This tendency ran counter to the allegedly equal and universalist nature of the socialist movement.

antisemitism, labour, jews
Hasidic Jews in Hackney, London (Credit: kafka4prez, flickr)

The specific form that the negative stereotyping of Jews took was always time-specific. No wonder, then, that the success of Jewish state-building in Israel and the victories in the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War led to a general shift toward seeing Jews as perpetrators, whose alleged “greediness” and desire to dominate others led to the “occupation” of Palestinian territories. The facts that six million European Jews were murdered on racists grounds during the Second World War, that survivors in DP camps had no other place to go, that the State of Israel was founded on the basis of a democratic UN vote, and that many of the so-called victims of Israel’s defence policies wish for the total eradication or appropriation of the tiny piece of land that the descendants of Holocaust survivors consider their home, do not prevent members of the Labour party to express radical anti-Zionist views themselves or to side with groups and individuals who do so.

Anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism when it negates Israel’s right to exist, when it singles Israel out as an oppressor state, and when it identifies all Jews with the policies of the Israeli political authorities.

The Labour party has a great educational role to play to prevent stereotyping both Jews and Israelis and to integrate a traditionally labour-oriented Jewish constituency into its struggle for a more equal society.

Dr Catherine Hezser is professor of Jewish Studies at SOAS University of London.

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