As Israel’s Operation Protective Edge began to draw more vocal international criticism, the supposedly staunchly pro-Israel Conservative party saw the beginnings of a revolt: a number of David Cameron’s backbench MPs and former Tory ministers came out demanding a stronger response to Israel’s actions in Gaza.
This has come to a head with the surprise resignation of Lady Sayeeda Warsi from the government, which she announced in a tweet using the #Gaza hashtag:
She then tweeted her resignation letter, in which she called the government’s response to the Gaza crisis “morally indefensible”.
This mini-uprising has shattered the myth that the Tory party is a pro-Israel monolith. David Cameron’s speech to the Knesset in March 2014 and his support for Israel during the current conflict have reinforced that common perception – but when we take a longer view, it’s clear that the Conservative party’s attitudes towards Zionism and Israel are deeply complicated.
Indeed, it’s all too easy to forget that scepticism towards the Zionist project is a deep-rooted Tory tradition.
Writing in the mid-1960s, Leon Epstein concluded that “Despite Churchill’s known sympathy, and Balfour’s much earlier, the Conservative Party generally stood aloof, at the very least, from Zionism.”
During the interwar years, various right-wing members of the party – including William Joynson-Hicks, Colonel Charles Howard-Bury, Lord Islington, and Lord Sydenham – emerged as vocal parliamentary proponents of the Arab cause. Indeed, Sydenham in particular had been identified by the Colonial Office as a leading proponent of anti-Zionism in the House of Lords as early as 1923.
A regular contributor to The Patriot, a magazine that has been described as a “mouthpiece for the proto-fascist right”, Sydenham pushed the notion that Zionists were agents of “German Jewish finance” operating in the service of Bolshevism – and aimed not just to enslave Palestine economically, but also to use it as a springboard for taking over the world.
These ideas were not confined to Westminster; they also infiltrated the mainstream conservative press. In his memoirs, Chaim Weizmann recalled how Daily Mail owner Lord Northcliffe had returned from a visit to Palestine convinced that Jewish settlers there were “mostly Communists and/or Bolshevists”, while the Beaverbrook newspapers propagated the line that British taxpayers were “being heavily mulcted” on behalf of “a few East European Jews” in Palestine.
Such views could and did bring Conservative anti-Zionists into sinister company. Joynson-Hicks cooperated with an organisation called the National Political League, which, though established as part of the women’s suffrage movement, had by the 1930s evolved into an anti-Bolshevik and anti-Zionist pressure group. He chaired pro-Arab meetings in Parliament on the League’s behalf.
The League’s President, Margaret Milne Farquharson, had connections to Robert Gordon-Canning, a leading British Fascist and supporter of Arab nationalism. A Metropolitan Police informant reported in April 1930 that Farquharson and Gordon-Canning had been present at a reception for a visiting Palestinian Arab delegation to London. This led senior Colonial Office figures to question whether “the activities of these people are not prompted at least as much by anti-Semite sentiments as by the desire for a solution of the Palestine problem.”
The tendency of Palestinian Arabs’ representatives to embrace the far-right was a source of great frustration to British officials in Palestine – not least because Sir John Chancellor, High Commissioner for Palestine, had specifically warned the Arab delegation “not to get into the hands of people like Gordon-Canning.”
Not going soft
If, as David Cesarani has argued, these more extreme forms of right wing anti-Zionism declined into “a species of pro-Arab sentimentalism” in the post-war era, many mainstream Conservatives continued to demonstrate pro-Arab sympathies, even as new forms of pro-Palestinian activism emerged in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), a cross-party organisation established in 1967, included among its founder members and executive officers former and future ministers in the form of Anthony Nutting and Ian Gilmour as well as Dennis Walters, then chairman of the Conservative Research Department’s Middle East Sub-Committee.
Edward Heath’s government of 1970-74 was noticeably more sensitive to Arab and Palestinian viewpoints than any of Harold Wilson’s Labour administrations, a position exemplified by Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s 1970 “Harrogate speech”, which argued that no peace settlement could “ignore the political aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs”.
Even during the Thatcher era, a period generally viewed from the perspective of the pro-Israeli instincts of the prime minister herself, the prominence of figures such as Peter Carrington and CAABU’s Ian Gilmour often lent a distinctly pro-Arab flavour to the foreign policy of the 1979-83 administration.
In 1980, Dennis Walters established the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) as a home for members of the party whose sympathies lay in pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian directions.
Though not as influential as the larger Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) group, CMEC remains active within the party. It is currently led by Nicholas Soames, Leo Docherty, and Baroness Morris of Bolton.
On August 1 this year, the group released a statement condemning the “collective punishment of the Gazan people” and arguing, “the time has come for Great Britain to tell Israel that the bombardment of Gaza and the subjugation of the Palestinian people must stop”.
The current prime minister and his chancellor of the exchequer remain firmly in the pro-Israel camp, despite the emergence of new political forces pushing others within the party to disagree with them. But they also face opposition from an alternative Conservative tradition, one that dates back to the Balfour Declaration and the earliest years of the Palestine mandate.
With the crisis in Gaza leading so many to question the current government’s approach to the Israel-Palestine question – and pushing prominent figures like Warsi into resigning – that tradition might just find a new lease of life.