Early this month, Geoffrey Alderman, for the JC, wrote :
The campaign to persuade the Ramsay MacDonald government to abandon the anti-Zionist policy of its colonial secretary, Sidney Webb, was materially assisted by the deliberate intervention of Zionist groups in the fortuitous Whitechapel by-election of November-December, 1930. (my emphasis).
Sidney Webb (Fabian, founder of the LSE etc), ennobled as Lord Passfield in 1929, issued the Passfield White Paper in 1930, a policy statement for British Palestine. The statement originally set to look at the Arab riots of 1929, and the right for Jews to pray at the Western Wall (Kotel, or wailing wall) in Jerusalem, but ended up concerning a great many Zionists including Chaim Weizmann, the once President of the Zionist organisation, and the first President of the State of Israel – who felt that it represented a U-turn on the commitments set out in the Balfour Declaration.
Ramsay MacDonald was later encouraged to clarify the British Government’s commitments, in a letter addressed to Dr Weizmann explaining that Britain was unquestionably in favour of establishing a national home for Jewish people inside Palestine. In the letter MacDonald notes that the White Paper of October, 1930, had been “the subject of a debate in the House of Commons on Nov. 17, [which also addressed] certain criticisms put forward by the Jewish Agency”.
The criticisms of the Jewish Agency, as well as the Histadrut (General Federation of Labour), concerned policy on Jewish labour in Palestine, which Lord Passfield’s White Paper seemed to level criticism towards. It was the contention of some that in order to bring about peace between Arabs and Jews, who had until 1928 co-existed in relative peace – Jewish immigration be halted. The tone of the White Paper, some have said, demonstrates Lord Passfield buying into this assumption, and that he and his policy statement, were coloured by an anti-Zionism.
However the White Paper did not explicitly state any intention to the contrary of a homeland (Lord Passfield’s main worry was that immigration would exceed whatever may be the economic capacity of the country), in fact quite the opposite – it was in keeping with the consensus at the time that “the development of a Jewish National Home in Palestine is a consideration, which would enjoy continued support”.
That Lord Passfield signed such a statement off should confirm that at the time he and his department were not necessarily anti-Zionist. On September 15, 1929, he also made efforts to reassure a Jewish delegation that the National Home Policy would not be renounced. In a statement from the British Colonial Office, Lord Passfield said “there could be no question of the British government giving up the Palestine Mandate or departing from the policy embodied in the Balfour Declaration of facilitating the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Speaking to the Mayor of Tel Aviv, he noted the great achievements made between Arabs and Jews, but “felt bound to point out that the development must depend upon the power of absorption of the country”. The outbreak of Arab violence in August 1929 started “when Haj Amin al-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem, fomented Arab hatred by accusing the Jews of endangering the mosques and other sites holy to Islam. Observers heard Husseini issue the call: Itback al-Yahud “Slaughter the Jews!””
There was to be no halting of Jewish immigration to Palestine, but had there been, it might have been to avert violence towards Jews by aggressors, and not through any notion of anti-Zionist temperament.
Was Webb anti-Semitic?
That hasn’t stopped Sidney Webb being referred to as having “racialist leanings” elsewhere. One journalist has written: “In a treatise entitled Industrial Democracy written by Beatrice and her husband, they refer to the Jews in England as “a constant influence for degradation.”” This claim has been copied by a great many bloggers as proof that English socialism is tainted by anti-Semitism, but on perusal of my copy of Industrial Democracy (900 pages in size, I’m ready to admit that the contentious claim may have passed me by), what I can see is not a berating of Jewish workers, but sympathy for them.
The Webb’s talk at length about the disparity in fortunes made by wholesale clothiers, and the workers of what they call “no notion of a definite “Standard of life”” (workers ranging from Polish Jews to unskilled Englishwomen, who will work simply to keep their heads above water, so to speak) (p.687). Of the Jew worker specifically, they say he will work for low wages so as not to be out of work, and that their indefatigability makes them prime targets for capitalist exploiters (p.698).
Though the racial characterising may be slightly crass for the modern reader, their analysis is not one that immediately signals anti-Jewish prejudice. The real controversy of the book is how they describe black workers: “the African Negro … will work … for indefinitely low wages, but cannot be induced to work at all once their primitive wants are satisfied” (p.698, fn. 1).
Another point to note is found in Jeffrey Kaplan’s book Encyclopedia of white power: a sourcebook on the radical racist right. As he notes, Jews made up the early Fabians, and they were sympathetic towards the Bolsheviks. During Sidney Webb’s 1888 lecture tour in the USA, many far right commentators could not help but repeat the conclusion that Socialism was a Jewish project (of course Webb himself was Jewish, and noticeably so – on meeting him for the first time Beatrice Potter noted in her diary, 14 February, 1890, a “little man with a huge head on a very tiny body [and ] a Jewish nose”). Sidney Webb, if anything, was the subject of anti-Semitic abuse, not the perpetrator of it.
Aside from the fact that Poale Zion, a Marxist Zionist Jewish workers circle – were key allies for Webb and Arthur Henderson when they drafted the War Aims Memorandum, “recognising the ‘right of return’ of Jews to Palestine”, preceding the Balfour Declaration, I don’t think there is much evidence to show Webb was against a homeland for Jews in Palestine, at least while he was working for the British Colonial Office. What his position was later on, when he bestowed uncritical lust upon the Stalinists – whose notion of the “amalgam” sought to blame Zionism for everything from capitalism and imperialism, to Nazism and anti-Semitism, saddling close to what Bebel called the “socialism of fools” – is for another blog post.