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In the battle of Archbishop vs. Prime Minister, who has history on their side?

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Over the Easter weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke out against the Government’s newly announced plan to send some people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom to Rwanda. Welby called the plan ‘against the judgment of God’; his predecessor, the distinguished theologian and scholar Prof Rowan Williams concurred. Neither the Prime Minster, nor the Home Secretary, were thrilled when Welby called the UK plan to send away those arriving via small boats across the English Channel ‘subcontracting out our responsibilities’. Rumours suggest Boris Johnson criticised Welby harshly for the comments.

Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby. Credit: World Council of Churches

There is important historical context for Welby’s claim against the Prime Minister, but it might go unnoticed because of the current public verbal jabs. If one goes all the way back to when the biblical statements on the treatment of people seeking asylum on which Welby builds his argument were written, one can see clearly that Johnson’s government closely resembles the imperial, colonial programme of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires that oppressed the authors of the relevant texts in the Bible. This parallel matters, whatever one makes of Welby’s Christian faith.

The Hebrew Bible—as scholars call the anthology of texts central to Judaism and Christianity, known most widely as the Old Testament—was written over a period of 500 years or more, but the critical historical period that motivated them lies between about 800 BCE and 500 BCE. In that period, two imperial powers from Mesopotamia (the area we now know as Iraq and Iran) ruled over the whole ancient Near East. Both powers pursued policies of forced displacement that treated those outside of an elitist, learned, narrowly privileged class as human resources who could be moved about like chess pieces on a gameboard. The Assyrian kings of the 9th to 7th centuries BCE routinely ‘resettled’ people, as did their Babylonian successors in the 6th century BCE. Some skilled craftsmen (in the ancient world, they were all men) were brought to Assyria’s burgeoning heartland to assist with its economic development and immense urban building programmes. Many, many others were systematically relocated according to plans crafted by a small group of government officials. Those who were forcibly moved were ‘distributed’ in ways that were economically profitable to the Assyrians, often with populations being swapped in order to achieve this economic goal. All of this had the aim of ‘Assyrianising’ the population and minimising the chance of rebellion against the Empire.

One can be forgiven for thinking this all sounds familiar. Announcing the recent British scheme, Home Secretary Priti Patel explained that it would ‘provide human capital opportunities for migrants and the host community’. Just days after the scheme was announced, it emerged that the UK would ‘resettle a portion of Rwanda’s most vulnerable refugees in the United Kingdom,’ a contemporary form of population swapping expressed in politically correct bureaucratic language.

Consider, for contrast, the Hebrew Bible: this anthology is the product of the society most know as ancient Israel. Despite being far more familiar to most than Assyria or Babylonia, ancient Israel was a small, marginal, and colonised society. Its attitude towards migration was shaped by the ever-present threat of being forcibly displaced by the Assyrians or Babylonians—a reality that came to fruition in waves of conquests and displacements in 722, 592, and finally 586 BCE, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, who exiled many of its residents.

The Hebrew Bible speaks about migration from the perspective of those who have experienced it. It may be no surprise then that a frequent refrain in the Hebrew Bible is that one should establish justice for widows, orphans, and the stranger—the final term meaning something very close to what we mean by migrant or think of with regard to a person seeking asylum. In fact, the logic for this behaviour is that the ancestors of Israel were themselves ‘strangers’.

Just a few sentences after the famous command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) that became the touchstone of what Jesus of Nazareth taught (Matthew 22:34-40), one finds the command on how to treat the alien—an archaic translation of a Hebrew term better read as migrant since it connotes a foreigner who wants to settle into their new host society. ‘When an alien resides with you in your land,’ the command goes, one ‘shall not oppress the alien’, but treat them ‘as the citizen’ because one’s ancestors were themselves such migrants. Since the society that produced the Hebrew Bible experienced the world as colonised, and disempowered on the international stage, under threat from larger powers, and as involuntary migrants snatched from their homeland, it spoke with openness, compassion, and an attitude of acceptance about those who wanted to settle in its midst, whatever their background.

One might legitimately differ on the theological point made by Archbishop Welby that Johnson and Patel are acting in an ungodly fashion, but it is impossible to deny that their policy resembles that of the imperial, colonising Assyrians. Indeed, that might be the most important insight ancient history provides for us: whatever one makes of the UK-Rwanda pact, it reveals an imperial mindset that is at ease with treating people on the move as a disembodied ‘human resource’ that can be distributed and redistributed according to the plans of a narrow elite. The present case, like its Assyrian forebearer, seeks to protect national identity (read ‘British values’ for ‘Assyrianisation’) and minimise the chance—however small it be—of any unrest. The entire ‘hostile environment’ policy that the Home Office has pursued for years now has the hallmarks of a modern incarnation of the Assyrian programme for establishing and maintaining power. An imperial mindset is hard to shake it seems.

If one reframes the dispute between the Archbishop and the Prime Minster in historical instead of theological terms, it is clear what perspective the two represent. Johnson and his ministers are thinking and acting like the ancient imperial and colonising elite; the Archbishop has articulated the view of the colonised, those being forced to migrate, whether he knows it or not.

Rev Dr Casey Strine is Senior Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Sheffield. He studies the history, literature, and cultures of the ancient Middle East, with a specialization in ancient Israel and Judah, the two societies that produced the texts known widely as the Old Testament. Strine is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Palestine Exploration Fund, the world’s oldest organisation for the scientific exploration of the so-called ‘Holy Land’.

Cover image: Home Secretary Priti Patel and Minister Biruta sign the migration and economic development partnership between the UK and Rwanda. Credit: UK Home Office

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‘The issue is almost exclusively Palestine’: Palestine and British By-Elections

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Keir Starmer’s tenure as Labour leader looks increasingly insecure. After losing last month’s by-election in Hartlepool, defeat in the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election would be a significant blow and might well trigger a leadership challenge.

Rather unexpectedly, Palestine has become the most prominent issue in an election campaign in the heart of the so-called ‘Red Wall’. Former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway has placed Palestine at the centre of his campaign as Workers’ Party candidate, and his criticisms of the Labour leadership’s response to the recently proposed forced evictions in East Jerusalem and the subsequent Israeli airstrikes on Gaza appear to be resonating with some voters. The Times journalist Patrick Maguire quoted a local Labour source as saying ‘The issue is almost exclusively Palestine… On Friday evening, Galloway had been around 45 minutes before us in one of our stomping grounds. Nobody wanted to speak to us.’ 

This development has prompted a response from Labour locally and nationally. The party’s candidate Kim Leadbeater has distributed a leaflet which appears to criticise her own party leadership, stating that ‘[t]he British government must do more. I will ensure Labour is more vocal on this. I will be your strong national voice on Palestine in parliament, to government and within the Labour Party.’ Some have even argued that Starmer’s recent question in the House of Commons on Palestinian statehood was intended to bolster Labour’s support in the by-election where one in five voters in the town of Batley are British Muslims.

This is not the first time that Palestine has become a topic for Labour at a recent by-election: Galloway himself has highlighted his pro-Palestinian record in his shock victory in Bradford West in 2012, but anger at Labour’s support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were then arguably more salient factors. While it is unlikely that Galloway can repeat such a feat, he may well secure the votes of a sufficient number of traditionally Labour-supporting electors to ensure a Conservative victory.

Delving further into the past, we can see that British policy in Palestine has been a central issue in various electoral contests, albeit for very different reasons. In November–December 1930, a by-election campaign was waged in Whitechapel and St George’s, an area where one in three voters were Jews.[1] Just four days before the by-election was called due to the death of the sitting Labour MP, the Labour government had issued its White Paper on Palestine–then a British Mandate–which proposed restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine. The policy was met with ferocious opposition from the Zionist movement, from British opposition parties, and from some elements within the Labour movement itself. The White Paper, authored by Colonial Secretary Sidney Webb, was issued after official inquiries by the Shaw Commission and the Hope-Simpson Enquiry into the causes of prolonged inter-communal violence between Jews and Arabs that had broken out in August 1929.

A group photograph of the members of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August 1929, commonly known as the Shaw Commission, that was established to investigate the 1929 Palestine Riots which caused the deaths of 243 Jews and Arabs. Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

The main threat to Labour in the by-election came from the Liberal Party. Barnett Janner, a leading activist in the English Zionist Federation, was chosen as the Liberal candidate. His election address emphasized his longstanding commitment to Zionism and claimed that his party was ‘at the forefront of the fight’ against the White Paper, which he regarded as reneging on the British pledge made in the 1917 Balfour Declaration to create a Jewish National Home in Palestine.[2] When Liberal leader Lloyd-George strongly criticised  the government’s proposals in the House of Commons, one Labour MP accused him of having ‘one eye on the Mount of Olives and the other on a [Jewish] part of the East End of London where a by-election is about to take place.’[3]

In response to Janner, the Labour candidate James Hall issued a special leaflet which insisted that the Labour government was still committed to creating a Jewish National Home.[4] He also informed the party’s Labour-Zionist affiliate Poale Zion that if elected he would vote against his own government if it sought to implement the White Paper.[5] Satisfied by these reassurances, Poale Zion backed Hall’s campaign, a decision that was so controversial that when Poale Zion leaders addressed a meeting in support of Labour, police protection was required to ensure the rally could go ahead.[6]

Labour also faced a challenge from the far left. The Communist Party of Great Britain was resolutely anti-Zionist and viewed the events of August 1929 as a legitimate anti-colonial revolt. Harry Pollitt stood as the Communist candidate and his election address strongly criticised the Balfour Declaration, and when asked whether he believed in Palestine for the Jews, Pollitt replied that he believed in ‘the world for the workers’.[7]

In the end, Labour held the seat but had its majority significantly reduced, with Janner finishing a strong second. Pollitt’s respectable performance indicated some Jewish voters were prepared to support an explicitly anti-Zionist party; a reminder that minority communities are not monolithic. In February 1931, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald essentially annulled the White Paper, although as Paul Kelemen points out, the Whitechapel and St Georges by-election was not the main factor in this decision.[8]

Nevertheless, this case does demonstrate how for almost a century, Palestine has at times had significant implications in a British electoral context. The way the issue has featured, however, has dramatically changed, in conjunction with the make-up of the British electorate. For the duration of the Mandate years (1920-1948), British voters were by and large not sympathetic to the Arab Palestinian nationalist cause. But with the large-scale migration of South Asians, particularly Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Kashmiris, (along with broader shifts in public opinion) the Palestinians now have a supportive voting bloc in some parts of the UK. Indeed, the parliamentary constituency which now represents the area of Whitechapel has shifted from having a sizable Jewish population to becoming one of the largest British Muslim electorates.

Still, in these differing examples from different moments in history, we do see common threads: intra-party disputes; political leaders intervening in foreign policy driven primarily by domestic concerns; candidates challenging their own party leadership in order to secure elections; and the sudden electoral significance of otherwise disregarded minority communities—Jews in 1930 and Muslims today. More importantly, these instances serve as case studies that demonstrate how Britain’s past as a colonial power and its present status as an active player in the Middle East means that our understanding of the interplay between British political history and contemporary politics in Britain can never solely be confined to the local or national arena.

Dr Paul T. Simpson is an Academic Tutor in Modern History at the University of Sunderland. His PhD examined the Independent Labour Party and Palestine, c. 1917-1939.

Cover image: Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1929 Palestine Riots. Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons


[1] Geoffrey Alderman, Modern British Jewry (Oxford, 1988), p. 268. 

[2] Jewish Chronicle, 28 November 1930.

[3] Hansard, House of Commons debates, 17 November 1930, vol. 245, col. 164.

[4] Jewish Chronicle, 28 November 1930.

[5] Elaine R. Smith, ‘East End Jews in Politics 1918-1939: A Study in Class and Ethnicity’, PhD Thesis, (University of Leicester, 1999), p. 192. 

[6] Joseph Green, A Social History of the Jewish East End in London, 1914-1939 (London, 1991), p. 435. 

[7] Elaine R. Smith, ‘East End Jews in Politics 1918-1939’, pp. 195-196.

[8] Paul Kelemen, The British Left and Zionism (Manchester, 2012), p. 23.

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