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Anti-Semitism in the early Labour Party

Memo from Michael Meadowcroft to Shami Chakrabarti

by Michael Meadowcroft

  1. It may provide some context for the present enquiry to realise that Anti-Semitism was common in the early Labour party. Much of it came from the socialist antipathy to capitalism causing the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and, more so, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) to make the illogical leap of equating capitalism with rich Jews. Certainly Britain harboured a great deal of inherent anti-semitism even though Liberal governments passed a series of Jewish emancipation acts from the 1840s onwards. It is particularly perverse for Labour to have continued this attitude after 1881 when the first of around three million poor Jews began to come to Britain from the Russian Empire following the pogroms that resulted from the false allegations that Jews had been responsible for the assassination of the Tsar.
  2. The SDF paper, Justice, carried such comments as "Jew moneylenders now control every Foreign Office in Europe," (05-04-1884). "It seems to be an open secret that the government of France is too much in the grip of Jews to take active measures against them as a body." (25-06-1898), and "Modern imperialism is really run by half a dozen financial houses, many of them Jewish, to whom politics is a counter in the game of buying and selling securities and the people are convenient pawns," (24-02-1900). The ILP was also implicated with Keir Hardie's paper, Labour Leader, stating, "Wherever there is trouble in Europe, wherever rumours of war circulate and men's minds are distraught with fear of change and calamity, you may be sure that a hooked-nosed Rothschild is at his games somewhere near the region of the disturbances, (19-12-1891).
  3. Even within the TUC delegates expressed anti-semitic views. At the 1900 conference, the leader of the navvies union said that, "Practically £100,000 of the taxpayers' money has been spent in trying to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country."
  4. Individual socialists and Labour MPs expressed anti-semitic views. Beatrice and Sidney Webb described Jews as a "constant influence for degradation" in their Fabian book Industrial Democracy. George Bernard Shaw characterised Jews as "the real invader from the East, the Druze, the ruffian, the oriental parasite," in the Morning Post as late as 13 December 1925. In May and June 1891, Ben Tillett MP and Tom Mann sent letters to the London Evening News demanding the imposition of immigration controls against Jews. Tillett went further and not only called for the removal of Jewish workers from British soil but also blamed the then plight of the British worker on the failure of Britain's ruling class to stand up the power of the Jewish bankers. Tillett personalised his attack by denouncing Liberal MP, Alfred Mond, as "a German Jew". James O'Grady, Labour MP for East Leeds was another early Labour leader who expressed anti-semitic views. Even the saintly Keir Hardie stated, "What is the need of it? Simply that men living in Park Lane, some of whom are unable to speak the English tongue, may grow rich."
  5. This attitude died out fairly soon, partly through being opposed by the more idealistic socialists and partly through the formation of Jewish trade unions and the increasing adherence of immigrant Jewish socialists to the ILP and SDF. Within the Jewish community, branches of a Jewish workers' organisation Poale Zion began to be established from 1903 and was affiliated to the Labour party in 1920.
  6. The legacy today of this early anti-semitism in the Labour movement is to be seen in the opposition to the immigration of needy people and the blaming of immigrants for many of the besetting problems of British society.
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1 June 2016

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