Introduction, by Abdel Razzaq Takriti
As part of his current visit to Palestine and Israel, President Obama has stated that there “must be a strong and secure Jewish state”. Viewed through a longue durée prism, this statement represents the continued structural success of the Zionist movement in securing support from the preeminent western powers. It also reflects a major shift in US discourse that meets the demands of the Israeli Likud party. Whereas Washington had long supported Israel (not just diplomatically, but also financially and militarily), it did not officially insist on the ‘Jewishness’ of the state, a notion that excludes the non-Jewish indigenous Palestinian population and that is strongly opposed by them. Interestingly, this insistence is coming from a President that is more associated with the American mainstream “left” rather than the neo-conservative right.
We should not be surprised by the fact that this stance comes from a Democratic President. For his position has a long historical lineage that goes all the way back to early twentieth-century Britain, the birthplace of the 1917 Balfour declaration. Indeed, although the British left is now overwhelmingly associated with its support for Palestinian rights, it was once strongly committed to Zionism. In a recent talk [full video below] organised by the Modern History Group to a packed hall in the Grade II listed Firth Court building, Dr. Paul Kelemen (University of Manchester) provided a nuanced scholarly account of this phenomenon, which is the subject of his latest book The British Left and Zionism: A History of a Divorce. [A summary of the talk is available below the video.]
[Dr Paul Kelemen, ‘The British Left and Zionism: History of a Divorce’, University of Sheffield, 28 February 2013]
Talk synopsis, by Matthew Kerry and Abdel Razzaq Takriti
In his recent talk, Dr. Paul Kelemen (University of Manchester) provided a scholarly account of the British role in the creation of one of the ongoing tragedies of our time: the Question of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Kelemen analysed the relationship between the British Left and Zionism from the beginning of the twentieth century to the late 1960s, which is the subject of his latest book The British Left and Zionism: A History of a Divorce. The importance of British imperial facilitation for the settlement of Palestine by European Zionists has long been acknowledged. However, Kelemen makes a significant contribution to the historiographical debate by discussing the crucial role that was played by the British left in that process, and highlighting the need to trace leftist support for Zionism to the period preceding the Balfour declaration of 1917. He paints a nuanced portrait, offering an in-depth analysis of the divergent stances of the Communist and Labour party.
Kelemen moves beyond the Eurocentric confines that limit much of the literature by taking the native Palestinian population and their opposition to the colonisation process into account. He traces the ways in which the British left conceptualised its response to the existence of the Palestinian natives, emphasising the influence of racialist ideas and the prevalence of ambivalent or supportive attitude to colonisation schemes within mainstream sections of the left during this period.
Finally, Kelemen examines the causes and effects of major changes that have taken place within the left over the course of the twentieth century. Ironically, the British left, which had played an essential role in supporting early Zionist colonisation and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel is currently the leading force in British politics supporting the Palestinian cause. Kelemen’s talk offers an in-depth explanation for this fascinating transformation.
Matthew Kerry is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield and one of the co-ordinators of the Modern History Group. Abdel Razzaq Takriti is Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield. He currently working on a co-authored monograph, with Dr Karma Nabulsi, on the Palestinian revolution (1958-1992).
[Image: Barack Obama meets then Chairman of the Jewish Agency Ze’ev Bielski in Jerusalem in 2006]