Earlier this month it emerged that the Labour Party had abandoned an investigation into the political – or, if you prefer, philosophical – beliefs of an 82-year-old Jewish woman and party member, Diana Neslen.
According to the Guardian, which broke this story, Neslen has been investigated no less than three times in less than three years for tweets she had authored concerning Israel and Zionism. Neslen is an anti-Zionist Jew who makes no secret of her distaste for the Jewish state, which she regards as “a racist endeavour.”
In 2018, after a great deal of debate, Labour adopted the definition of antisemitism espoused by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. One of the examples appended to this contentious definition alleges that antisemitism is “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour.” Diana Neslen’s tweet had clearly challenged the argument underlying this example. Thus began Labour’s ill-conceived investigation of her conduct.
Under threat of legal action, this investigation has now been abandoned. But it should never have been started.
I say this as a proud Zionist who does not believe that Israel is or ever was “a racist endeavour.” But as an historian of British Jewry I call to mind a time when anti-Zionism was fashionable – even widespread – among the Anglo-Jewish ruling elites.
In 1897 no less a Jewish cleric than Hermann Adler, chief rabbi of the United Synagogue, condemned the forthcoming First Zionist Congress as “an egregious blunder” and denounced the very idea of a Jewish state as “contrary to Jewish principles.” Adler was, indeed, the only western European rabbi to contribute to a collection of anti-Zionist articles, by many leading Jewish ecclesiastics, published in Warsaw in 1900 under the title Or Layesharim [`Light unto the Righteous’].
No less a Jewish cleric than Hermann Adler, chief rabbi of the United Synagogue, denounced the very idea of a Jewish state as “contrary to Jewish principles.”
Among the elites that ran British Jewry during the first half of the 20th century Zionism was feared not least because – so their argument went – it played into the hands of home-grown antisemites, who might argue – indeed who did argue – that if the Jews were a ‘nation,’ with a right to national self-determination, let them leave Great Britain and migrate to wherever this nation-state might be established.
Prominent among those who so argued was Edwin Montagu (a son of the ultra-orthodox founder of the Federation of Synagogues, Samuel Montagu), who became Secretary of State for India in July 1917. In that position he was the strongest opponent, in Lloyd George’s wartime Cabinet, of what became known as the Balfour Declaration.
A week after the Balfour Declaration had been published there was formed the League of British Jews, which boasted all the leading Anglo-Jewish anti-Zionists among its founders. Its president was the Conservative MP Lionel de Rothschild; Sir Philip Magnus was a vice-president; other members included David Lindo Alexander (a former president of the Board of Deputies), Edwin Montagu’s elder brother, Louis, who had succeeded his father as President of the Federation, and Claude Goldsmid Montefiore, a founder of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, who was in due course to accuse the Zionist movement of having aided and abetted the rise of Nazism in inter-war Germany.
Talking of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue should remind us that its first rabbi, Israel Mattuck (died 1954) was an enthusiastic outspoken anti-Zionist all his life. And need I add that many charedim today, if not strictly speaking anti-Zionist (many are, of course), are certainly non-Zionist in outlook?
According to Jewish Voice for Labour, to which Diana Neslen belongs, there are currently over 40 Jewish members of the Labour party facing disciplinary proceedings relating to allegation of antisemitism.
I do not know and have never met Diana Neslen. If I were to meet her, I might be tempted to challenge her anti-Zionist views. What I would never be tempted to do is to accuse her of being in any way antisemitic.